Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The dwindling power of the press

News came out yesterday that the Jewish Reporter, the Las Vegas area's Jewish community newspaper for the past 33 years, is shuttering its doors. This is strictly a financial decision by the United Jewish Community/Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, which determined that the amount of money spent in publishing the 17,000 copies every edition (sometimes twice a month) would be better spent in other ways of communicating with its core group. Even here in New Orleans the Deep South Jewish Voice, of which I have been associated since my permanent return in April 2007, has morphed into Southern Jewish Life, a glossy magazine format that publishes monthly. This has led to outcries from several key figures at both the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana that the needs of the community are not being served by a publication that publishes half the amount its predecessor did. The financial decision to change the newspaper into a magazine was not undertaken by independent publisher Larry Brook lightly. He has published the Federation's official newspaper since the fall of 2006, but newspapers have had a very hard time over the course of the last two years. Indeed, the choice for the Deep South Jewish Voice was either change with the times or cease publishing entirely. The good news is that the new format is a marked improvement in terms of design and graphics and, because of the nature of a monthly magazine, it will no doubt have more feature stories of lasting interest to the community rather than the more timely, transitory stories a newspaper would offer. Considering the alternative, I don't see how anyone can be upset, but I do understand. The fact is the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle, whose editor Elana Kahn-Oren is the national president of the American Jewish Press Association, went from publishing weekly to monthly a few months ago. Kahn-Oren saw her entire staff sacked, not unlike others across the country – particularly those funded by financially hard-hit Federations – who have seen the need to downsize staffs and curtail the number of editions. It is a trend that shows no sign of reversal and as the older newspaper reading generations are replaced by younger, hip Internet-savvy and multimedia- minded generations, the gap between newspaper readership and alternative media users will undoubtedly widen. The same problems of declining ad revenue and diminishing circulations that have confounded daily newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have hit Jewish community newspapers too. But with smaller publications like Jewish newspapers, the loss of revenue has been nothing short of catastrophic. With Jews comprising a small percentage of most metropolitan areas (New York being the biggest exception), high advertising rates to reach those communities seem overpriced to potential clients and with fewer publications the number of impressions also appear to be less than adequate. Federations want newspapers out of necessity. They are not major proponents for Jewish journalism. When it comes down to it, if a case can be made to save money by sloughing off a proven drain to their revenues, it is my opinion that those decisions will be made more frequently as the financially-strapped institutions look to alternative means of communications that portend better penetration and produce more meaningful results. Such a trend augurs a dismal prospect for the future of Jewish newspapers and newspapers in general. As a newspaper writer and editor, I picked a heckuva time to give up ___________ (fill in the blanks: drinking, smoking, sniffing glue, juggling sharp knives, or playing Frogger on an Interstate).

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