The London Jewish Chronicle used to bill itself as “The Most Widely Read Jewish Newspaper in the World.” That was true. The Chronicle was founded in 1841, and was the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper anywhere. After the advent of the internet, it struggled like other publications, but it persevered. And then came COVID-19.
On April 8, the Chronicle’s publishing group — which also owned England’s Jewish News — announced the liquidation of both papers. The sting of that announcement was particularly sharp, since just days before, the Canadian Jewish News — that nation’s Diaspora newspaper of record — announced that it would cease publication due to a similar drop in revenue resulting from losses associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
In the United States — and particularly in the world of Jewish news publications — the announced closures hit very close to home, as American Jewish newspapers find themselves in similar peril, with some going so far as to launch emergency fundraising campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, the issue has also attracted the attention of those concerned about the future of the American Jewish community as we know it. Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna addressed the issue in The Forward last week: “Since their establishment in the first half of the 19th century, Jewish newspapers in the United States have helped to shape community, tied far-flung Jews together, and kept them informed. Newspapers have also preserved the ‘first draft’ of our communal history. Want to know, for example, how America’s Jews handled past epidemics? There is only one source: the American Jewish press.”
And in a dire prediction of what the demise of the Jewish press would bring, Sarna continued: “Without a reliable press, our community’s past — the records of its achievements and mistakes, its milestones and its missteps — will inevitably disappear. So too will our broad sense of what a Jewish community is.”
Jewish newspapers have helped to unify our communities. That’s not to say that there aren’t other, less costly means for such a role, but the print newspapers are what we know and understand. That was the theme sounded by Jonathan Tobin in a recent Haaretz piece in which he said: “Jewish weeklies were the glue that held Diaspora communities together. Their demise will be felt in every aspect of Jewish life.”
So what’s the solution?
Increasingly, those doing the analysis believe the answer lies in philanthropy. Indeed, many Jewish newspapers are already owned by Jewish federations or similar nonprofit communal organizations, who understand and want to promote the value of the community-sustaining importance of a Jewish newspaper. But what about the independently owned papers? Do they have a future? Can they sustain their operations in the face of declining print subscriptions and steadily decreasing advertising revenues?
Frankly, we’re not sure. But we recognize the importance of our publications as a part of the complex fabric of vibrant Jewish life in our community. We will do our best to continue that work, and to keep our papers going and our community strong.