by Annette van de Kamp
Editor, Jewish Press
Last week, I attended the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference in Washington DC. Originally, we were supposed to meet in Cleveland, Ohio in June of this year. Unfortunately, that fell through: our dates conflicted with a conference in Israel that was scheduled last-minute; since all of us are on a shoestring budget, we didn’t think we could compete. To be honest, Israel offered to adopt our conference, but that just didn’t seem feasible. Especially for our West Coast colleagues, a plane ticket to Tel Aviv is a much different story than a ticket to Cleveland, and so we canceled our plans.
Luckily, the Jewish Federation of North America came to the rescue, and we were invited to make our conference part of the General Assembly in November.
Joining the GA was a risk. Would we be able to attract any sponsors, or would the GA draw them away? Would we feel like the ugly stepsister, shoved in a small room somewhere out of sight? Would we be taken seriously, considering there are fewer than 100 people attending our conference, while the GA draws thousands? Would we find any decent speakers?
We needn’t have worried.
The added value of being at the GA was enormous. The schedule accommodated us to the extent we were able to join certain events without sacrificing our own line-up. We saw Vice President Joe Biden, and a host of other speakers, and were able to attend our own conference segments without any problems. Those conference segments themselves benefited from better speakers, which we were able to draw because of where we were; someone like David Makovsky, Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, would never have made it on our original itinerary, no offense to Cleveland. Being able to attend the Partnership2Gether launch with Zoë Riekes and Iris and Marty Ricks was a great bonus. Plus, I met Natan Sharansky up close. How cool is that? I’ll tell you: very, extremely, fantastically cool. So cool, I’m going to be bragging about it for a long time.
The American Jewish Press Association
The AJPA currently has 141 members, up from the previous year’s number of 127. Approximately 84 people signed up for our conference; of those, 36 were people who actually have their hands in the Jewish newspaper business. As in: putting a real paper together, weekly or monthly, and serving a specific Jewish community. In other words, they are comparable to our own Jewish Press here in Omaha. Together, those 36 represent 21 Jewish newspapers. And while there are a few who were not there with us (Memphis comes to mind, and Kansas City), this represents the core of Jewish American papers who still exist, and who, in spite of the obvious challenges, continue to do their job.
What comes to the surface when we’re in a room together is an inexplicable optimism coupled with stubbornness. Yes, we’ve all despaired about advertising, with our overall budget, with finding the right story at the right time and navigating deadlines. We all at times struggle with maintaining the balance between being a newspaper editor and a community member; often that line gets extremely fuzzy. But at the end of the day, giving up is never an option, because we all love this business. We love our papers, and the communities we serve. We’re up for any challenges, because we are having fun. As long as that passion is there, in Jewish communities large and small across this nation, we keep going. And a pox on those naysayers who say the printed word is on its way out.
Jewish Ethics in Journalism
One of the most interesting segments at this conference: Bringing Jewish Values to Jewish Journalism. What we, as Jewish editors and publishers, deem ethically sound may differ, depending on our location. What I mean by that is, if a rabbi in New Jersey is accused of a criminal act, it’s not necessarily news here in Omaha. For his congregation, however, and any paper that writes specifically for that congregation, it is relevant information. The question to ask, often, is: is it relevant news, or is it gossip? And that question may very well be different depending on your outlet, i.e., there may be different rules associated with the website than with the print edition.
The tension between Loshon Hora and the commandment to speak the truth creates an interesting problem, and one that cannot be easily solved with a policy. In many cases it’s a gut-level decision, made by the few for the many. And sometimes we’ll get it wrong. Either we’ll publish something that some readers may feel we shouldn’t have, or we’ll ignore news we deem not appropriate, and people wonder why we didn’t share it. Having the chutzpah to make those decisions every day comes with the territory.
An important aspect of our paper is: our content is, with a few exceptions, hyper local. That means we try to print stories about our community you won’t find in other papers. That also means stories like the ones about Rabbi Freundel and the voyeurism scandal don’t fit the bill, so we don’t print them. Were one of our local rabbis to call me and say: “I am interested in this topic, and I’d like to write about it,” I would welcome that. Were one of Freundel’s former congregants currently living in Nebraska, and that person wanted to write a letter to the editor, I would welcome that too. But unless there is that local connection, we stay away from those types of stories.
Does that mean we would automatically print scandalous stories about community members? What if they are true, proven beyond any doubt? Not automatically, no. The ethical concept to tell the truth is more complicated than that. We’d still have a discussion, involving board members and colleagues, and they would be hard discussions, before printing one single word. Speech, in print or elsewhere, can cause great harm. And with so much of it on the web these days, the proverbial feathers fly a lot farther. One conference speaker put it best when he said: “The fact that it’s true does not make it right.”
As Jewish journalists, we’ll undoubtedly continue this discussion, and you can expect more editorials about it.
Does anyone remember the hullabaloo about Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense? It’s the only time our website ever went a little viral. The Forward picked up my editorial, and web traffic went berserk. Thank goodness I wrote a calm and balanced piece, because while such attention is flattering, it’s also extremely risky. Scary, even.
On our website, we publish some of the headline stories we run in our paper. We’re conservative in that sense, we are not aiming for the stars, and we’re not looking to make a big national splash. We are Jewish Omaha’s family album, where our readers find themselves, their family and friends, and where they check what’s going on. We don’t need to trend, we need to inform.
That doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement on our website. We can offer more national news in addition to the weekly local stories, we can post more often than once a week, and I think we should. We can take another look at our categories, and determine which get traffic and which don’t; add some new ones, and get rid of the ones nobody really cares about.
Changes and quick fixes
When I sit around with colleagues at the AJPA, there are always some comments that stick with me. Not in any earth shattering way (no one is reinventing the wheel here) but simply as an idea that I needed to hear. One that really hit home this year was: “Let’s get rid of very important and utterly boring editorials.”
For years, we’ve had two editorial pages at the Jewish Press. Page 8 and 9, in a regular 12-page edition. Why? That is an interesting question, especially since, whenever we run out of space, the first thing we do is lose an editorial page. But if we give that second page up so easily, why do we have it in the first place? Because, to be honest, I do think some of the editorials we publish are, indeed, “utterly boring.” It’s something worth thinking about, and I’m putting it on the next board agenda.
Our favorite topic. You could almost feel the collective and exasperated sigh around the room when we discussed advertising, and yet there was a difference this year. It seemed that, for the first time since I began attending these conferences in 2010, we didn’t spend an entire session on “how to increase ad revenue.” It seems the reality has caught up with us, and more and more newspaper editors and publishers (not to mention the Federations who stand behind them) are coming to the realization that it’s simply not going to get better. Ad revenue is great when you can get it, but in order to get it, you must compromise. And even then, those dollars are not what they used to be. The real money, the money that is going to keep us in business, has to come from elsewhere. It has to come from donors (more and more papers are using some form of Press campaign like our Jewish Press Club), a higher allocation from the Federation if it’s possible and if the support is there, and endowments and grants. And while it is not surprising that many of us are coming to that same conclusion, and while we are certainly not giving up on chasing ad revenue, it is nice to have an honest room, where we can all admit to the changed landscape of Press funding.
My attendance at the AJPA’s annual conference was made possible thanks to the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Supporting Foundation, and the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation. I sincerely appreciate the generosity!