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Jewish Journal

Jewish Journal reorganizes for media’s digital age

by Tom Tugend

September 8, 2010 | 11:11 am

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles is marking its upcoming 25th anniversary with a wide-ranging reorganization and diversification of its corporate structure, media services, community role and financial base.

To reflect the changes, The Journal has become part of the newly established Tribe Media Corp., “which will redefine community journalism for the digital age,” according to Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Journal.

“Our goal is to use every technology at our disposal to inform and convene our community and to bring our community’s ideas and values to society at large — while creating a thriving, sustainable business,” Eshman said. “This is the future of community journalism.”

A small group of community-minded business executives is backing the newly formed company with its expertise and investments.

Led by The Journal’s chairman of the board, Irwin Field, the group includes Internet executive and venture capitalist Art Bilger; Peter Lowy, group managing director of the Westfield Group, one of the largest retail property companies in the world; and an anonymous donor.

The group members have jointly committed $800,000 over the next two years and are joining in developing a new business model, which, the group believes, the Jewish media must adopt if it is to survive.

Currently, most Jewish community weeklies rely on advertising, subscriptions and substantial subvention from local federations, but many face a constant struggle for survival. The Jewish Journal is not affiliated with the Jewish Federation and receives no subvention from it.

In Los Angeles, in addition to a new membership-subscription model, offering benefits, The Journal is distributed free at bookstores, delicatessens, synagogues and so forth, with a 95 percent pickup rate, which is now attracting some large commercial advertisers targeting an affluent readership.

A second part of the new model is investment by private donors or foundations, and the third is diversification.

Following that rule, Tribe Media Corp. consists of five divisions: The weekly Jewish Journal; a new monthly magazine, TRIBE; jewishjournal.com; TRIBE Live! for the production of live events and videos; and everyjew.com., a fast-growing social network launched in August.

The new business model will be under constant review and, while “we may need five to 10 years to see whether the model will work,” Lowy said, he sees his investment as part of a long-range involvement.

Bilger, founding partner and managing member of Shelter Capital Partners, said that Tribe’s financial future will depend on the general economic environment, participation of additional investors and “how quickly we can ramp up the digital component of Tribe.”

Actually, jewishjournal.com has in a relatively short time become the largest Jewish news Web site outside Israel, with nearly 400,000 monthly unique viewers. Eshman expects this figure to rise to 500,000 viewers by the end of this year, and eventually to 1 million.

“We know we are by a factor of 10 the largest Jewish Web site in Los Angeles,” said Eshman, “but our goal is to use the Web’s reach to bring people everywhere into the conversation.”

Lowy, Bilger and the anonymous investor have joined Tribe’s board and executive committee, along with Leon C. Janks, managing partner of Green, Hasson & Janks LLP.

They are taking an active part in developing the business side of Tribe but will adhere to the policy set by Field and previous publishers of noninterference in the editorial independence of the paper and Web site.

“I hope we will continue to represent a variety of views, and we should never stifle dissenting opinions at any time,” Bilger said. “Our job is to make sure that we have the best people possible working for Tribe.”

Primary day-by-day responsibility for translating the new business model into a favorable bottom line will rest with Steven Karash, Tribe’s executive vice president for advertising and marketing. Karash served for 10 years as national advertising director for the Los Angeles office of the New York Times Media Group.

When The Jewish Journal was founded in 1986, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and some of its leaders played a major part in its establishment, but in 2005, both sides decided to sever the relationship.

“We live in a much different world than when I came to Los Angeles 20 years ago,” said Lowy, 51, who arrived here from his native Australia.

“My colleagues and I run our businesses with a global view, and the Jewish community will have to operate increasingly with a similar outlook,” Lowy said.

Bilger, who is in his 50s, said that what persuaded him to become involved with Tribe was the challenge of an interesting project and, like Lowy, confidence in Eshman’s vision and ability, and the dedication of the Tribe staff.

“I believe that Tribe and The Journal can play an increasingly important role, not only in Los Angeles but on the national and international Jewish scene,” Bilger observed.

Focusing on Los Angeles alone, where only 20 to 25 percent of all Jews have any kind of Jewish affiliation, Tribe can be the primary connecting point between community members, Field said.

Lowy lauded Field for his outstanding job as chairman of the board of The Journal, a nonprofit organization.

However, Lowy added, it became clear to him that “without major new investment, the paper’s survival was at risk.”

As for the future, Lowy said he envisions that Tribe will generate 90 to 95 percent of its operating budget through advertisements and other revenue sources, and 5 to 10 percent through philanthropic investments.

Aside from their intensive business careers and heavy civic involvements, Field, Lowy and Bilger all are longtime activists in Jewish and Israel causes.

Field is a former chairman of the Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation, a governor of the Jewish Agency for Israel, served as board member of the American Jewish University and National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and currently is heavily involved with the Technion.

Lowy served as chair of the board of the American Jewish University and he and his wife, Janine, are involved supporters of the Milken Commmunity High School, Etta Israel Center, Jewish Federation, Camp Ramah, Jaffa Institute, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Bilger is vice chairman of the Skirball Cultural Center, and, with his wife, Dahlia, active in Bet Tzedek legal services and StandWithUs, a pro-Israel educational organization.

In a recent article in The Los Angeles Times under the headline “New Life for Jewish Journal,” columnist James Rainey commented that The Journal was successfully meeting the tough challenges posed by the national economy and the general media market.

“By banking hard on two of the most robust growth trends in 21st century media — niche journalism and philanthropy — The Jewish Journal appears to have extended its life expectancy and expanded its coverage of Jewish life in Southern California,” Rainey wrote.

“If the experience holds lessons for other ethnic- and religious-oriented publishers, it’s that you can do good by being good,” he added.

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