December 30, 2004
Last October, a man called with a complaint. Before I could ask what was the matter, he launched into a tirade about a biased and
inaccurate article. He said he couldn't believe a serious newspaper would print such lies. He was so angry, he was this close to canceling his subscription.
I wasn't sure which article he was referring to, so I gently asked him to be more specific. He went on to describe a piece I had absolutely no memory of.
"Are you sure you read this in The Jewish Journal?"
"The Journal?" he said. "No! This was in The Los Angeles Times."
"The Times?" I said. "So why are you calling me?"
"Because they won't pick up the phone!"
I tell the story often, because among other things, it says a lot about the role of community journalism. We are the paper that responds. We are the paper that can't help but listen attentively to its readers. We are the paper that picks up the phone. My hope is that readers will keep this in mind as The Journal embarks on a new business model that is, as far as we know, unprecedented for a Jewish newspaper.
Starting Jan. 1, Journal readers who received their weekly newspaper by donating to The Jewish Federation will still be able to get it, but not as part of their Federation donation. For 18 years, The Federation purchased annual Journal subscriptions for its donors. Last year, it purchased about 20,000 of the 60,000 papers The Journal distributed each week. Beginning next week, it will no longer do so.
Readers will be able to subscribe directly to The Journal for home delivery or pick it up for free at distribution sites around Los Angeles (subscriptions and a list of sites are available at www.jewishjournal.com).
When we announced this new arrangement earlier this year, many people approached me with their condolences, as if we had been consigned to our doom. But the impetus for this change came from us -- yes, from us -- and I believe it is a big step forward for the paper and the community.
Granted, of the 135 Jewish community papers in North America, none has a distribution plan like ours. But Los Angeles is a Jewish community like no other, and our new model will serve it well. Most importantly, it will enable us to reach the greatest number of readers across a vast and diverse landscape. Under the previous arrangement, postal regulations limited the number of papers we could distribute for free. But free distribution has been a boon to us -- bringing the paper to readers who might otherwise have no connection to Jewish life, increasing our visibility to advertisers and giving us an audience far more diverse in terms of age and background than that of almost any Jewish institution I know of.
Our goal is to reach every possible reader we can (thereby becoming, not incidentally, the largest circulation mainstream Jewish weekly in the country), and this step takes us leaps and bounds closer to achieving it.
The move also establishes The Journal as one of a handful of truly independent community Jewish newspapers. About 85 percent of Jewish papers are either owned by or sell thousands of subscriptions to federations or other major Jewish philanthropies. These arrangements provide a cushion of guaranteed income.
But even when there is little question of outside editorial influence, as at the superb New York Jewish Week or at this paper, the arrangement is less than ideal. It diverts Federation dollars from urgent philanthropy, it involves a charitable organization in a business where it has little expertise and it creates a temptation for either censorship or self-censorship, which isn't healthy for the Jewish community.
If a Jewish paper can survive economically free of one organization or the other, it should make every attempt to do so.
Jewish newspapers have played an important role in Jewish life since the very first one was published just 70 years after the printing press was invented. As Jews dispersed, they no sooner established mikvahs and cemeteries as they did newspapers. There is no community without communication, and these papers have functioned over the centuries to deliver important news, to serve as a kind of communal bulletin board, to broadcast the teachings and values of Judaism itself.
Is the form antiquated? If anything, I believe a Jewish paper, whether delivered on newsprint or by Internet, is more important than ever.
We are a far-flung community, spread out from the South Bay to the East Valley to Thousand Oaks. We contain multitudes of different backgrounds, practices and beliefs. And The Journal is one place where we can meet each week, if only virtually, to engage in a common discussion on the things that matter so much to us. That conversation needn't be parochial -- it mustn't be.
The crisis in Sudan and the disaster in Southeast Asia may not have a "Jewish angle," but they do implore a Jewish response, which can be called forth and described in the pages of the Jewish press.
Since we announced our change in the business model several months ago, the response from current subscribers has been heartening. Far more Federation subscribers than we expected to took out new subscriptions. Of course, if you haven't already done so, I hope you will, too.
But in any case, I hope you keep reading. We are heading into uncharted waters here, but we are doing so with a terrific group of journalists, sales personnel, office staff and board of directors. We also do so with a community we are so proud to be a part of, and so excited to continue serving.