by Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Once a year, editors of Jewish newspapers around the country get out of the office and attend the American Jewish press Association’s conference. This year, we met in Philadelphia; I was there thanks to a generous grant from the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Supporting Foundation. Just as in previous years, everyone I spoke to either asked whether I knew Warren Buffett, or Rabbi Gross. Sometimes, they asked about both.
Of course, we also focused on more serious stuff: for instance, how as editors we are responding to budgetary issues. Those issues continue to be very real for every Jewish newspaper, whether they are part of the Jewish Federation or independent and privately owned. The thing is, we’ve all had to cut certain aspects of our budget over the past years, and the question is: are we allowing budget concerns to get in the way of telling a great story? What, at the end of the day, is our main purpose, and how do we maintain our integrity? Yes, we are stewards of our finances, and that is an important responsibility; we are, however, also stewards of our communities’ stories. And that is a responsibility we all find as essential as having a healthy bottom line.
Stories about what we do and what we believe in make the difference between a loosely connected group of people and an actual community. And for that matter, are we merely recording events, or are we creating dialogue that goes beyond that? With almost every Jewish newspaper now having an online presence, while –in most cases- maintaining the printed edition, the question is extremely relevant.
One speaker at the conference suggested: “we are in competition with reality TV.” I am not so sure about that. But along those lines, a visiting journalist explained how we could continue to engage readers. We go on Twitter and on Facebook, and we link to exciting stories. Stories about celebrities, scandal, and tough issues, because that’s what people are in to these days. Then they will click the ‘share’ and ‘like’ buttons, and voila: you have traffic. What happens after you obtain that traffic, he didn’t say. Or maybe he did, but I stopped listening right after he referred to the shooting of Gabby Gifford and Anthony Weiner’s shenanigans as “pure gold.”
For an editor of a Jewish newspaper, engaging readers doesn’t mean engaging them at all cost. If that were the case, we’d all be working for TMZ. As a matter of fact, one of the concepts discussed during the editorial sessions was how to avoid Loshon Hora. How to choose our stories wisely, how to make ethical choices in what we print. It’s something we are all confronted with on a weekly basis: we might know something, but should we print it? Who are we printing it for? Are we building the community up, or are we tearing it down?
Of course we wouldn’t sit on a story merely because it is a tough story. Printing only warm and fuzzy articles doesn’t do anyone any good either; it’s merely the other side of the same coin. But printing the tough stories, the ones that cause controversy and potential backlash, comes with a price. And that price needs to be worth it. If we print tough stories only because it gets us attention for attention’s sake, we as editors deserve the resulting angry phone calls. Besides, the notion that our readers will pay more attention to content if it is scandalous and controversial is insulting. Our readers are better than that.
Nothing brings a room full of Jewish editors together faster than the idea that our readers can be manipulated and sold a bill of goods. We know better; after all, we answer the phones. “Why did/ didn’t you print this?” is probably the most often asked question. We get that question when we print something someone doesn’t like, or when we decide to hold a story for various reasons. Sometimes the answer is simple: we ran out of time or space. Sometimes it’s more complicated, and when that is the case we as editors better have an answer ready.
Here is an example: in last week’s paper, I chose not to run the story about the Phoenix murder-suicide. The story came in after deadline the week before, and would we have printed it, it would have been old news. Was it newsworthy? Yes, it was. Was it relevant to our community? I think Jewish stories usually are. However, in this case, I made the call that too much time had passed, and it would be purely sensationalist to include it. I made the opposite call when Leiby Kletzky was murdered last year. The timing was different, and the story hadn’t gone viral yet.
At the end of the day, every story has to be justified by someone. Meeting with all these other editors once a year reminds me that there is an army of people out there who are faced with similar choices. We read each other’s papers and visit each other’s websites, and we do our best to make ethical decisions about what we print. It all comes down to telling a good story, which is not the same as telling an exciting story.
Although, the next time Anthony Weiner does something harebrained, I’m totally writing about it. A girl can only have so much self-control.