July 7, 2016

The American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) focuses on dealing with ethical conflicts in journalism

By Katja Ridderbusch

The Jewish-American media remains a strong niche voice in the United States, but it has not escaped the same problems that plague global media.

“The common challenge we share with mainstream media is looking for survival strategies in times of declining print revenue,” says Rick Kestenbaum, current president of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA).

It's a challenge that often comes with ethical conflicts, which arise as the media organizations seek new revenue streams, like donations from non-media donors.

There are also unique challenges for Jewish media, primarily “the declining level of engagement of Jews in their communities over time,” says Kestenbaum, who is also general manager of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Speaking with members of AJPA one hears many different opinions, perspectives, warnings, interpretations, anecdotes – and stories of new beginnings.

Jewish-American media makers can agree on one goal though: “Whether you’re a one person show or you have a staff of 50 -- the commitment has to be to the highest quality of journalism that’s independent and that resonates with the community,” says Marshall Weiss, founder and editor of the Dayton Jewish Observer in Ohio.

There are more than 100 Jewish newspapers and magazines in the United States, a few news agencies, as well a several Jewish TV and radio stations. The Jewish American flagship publication is The Forward, a weekly that was originally published in Yiddish and had a solid social-democratic base.

Most Jewish American media, however, are local newspapers with a small editorial staff like the Dayton Jewish Observer; publications “for the community and from within the community,” says Weiss.

AJPA, founded 1944 in Indianapolis, currently has about 230 members – media organizations, individual editors, reporters and freelance writers, as well as PR agencies and non-profits. The membership numbers have been stable for years.

The same cannot be said for the traditional Jewish community that most of the Jewish media serve.

In 2013, a Pew survey found that more and more younger Jewish Americans --currently about 22 percent -- consider themselves non-religious. Two thirds of them hardly participate in Jewish community life.

“Less engagement means smaller budgets for Jewish organizations and Jewish retailers, who used to be solid advertisers in the Jewish media,” says Kestenbaum. “It’s a ripple effect.”

That’s one reason why most Jewish media can’t afford to rely on print subscription and advertisement alone. Many of the smaller publications receive financial support from their regional or local Jewish Federations chapter.

Other Jewish media have converted into non-profits, “which makes them legally eligible to ask for contributions and donations,” says Weiss – whether the potential donors are foundations, philanthropists, or corporations.

Other models include creating synergies among several outlets, or outsourcing parts of the editorial process and advertising to an agency. A Washington, D.C. - based media company, for instance, provides editorial content for the Baltimore Jewish News as well as the Washington Jewish Week.  

“With new financing models come potential conflicts of interest,” says Alan Abbey who co-founded an ethics committee within AJPA.

For decades, Abbey worked as a journalist for several large dailies and news wires in the U.S., then moved to Israel where he became the executive vice president of The Jerusalem Post and later managing editor of Wnet News, the English language news website of Israel’s largest media company. Today, Abbey is the media director at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research and education center in Jerusalem, which cooperates with AJPA.

Ethical conflicts in journalism – in particular the separation between editorial content and the interest of the publisher – is by no means a problem in Jewish media alone. “This conflict really has universal applications,” says Abbey.

Just recently, NPR came under pressure after a report that last year, the public broadcaster received donations to the amount of $ 100,000 from The Ploughshares Fund for its coverage of the nuclear deal with Iran. The problem was that the Ploughshares Fund had been actively lobbying in Washington for the deal to pass, and NPR had not properly disclosed the connection.

Conflicts of interest like those happen all the time, says Abbey, but “often, they’re more visible in smaller, ethnically defined media,” simply because those media “are embedded in the communities they report about”.

Therefore, Abbey says, it’s particularly important to explain to supporters, Jewish community leaders, as well as local Federations that obsequious journalism, in the long run, hurts more than it helps; “that independent journalism makes a community strong.”

AJPA has focused on yet another, very unique conflict of interest, and that’s the potential conflict between Jewish and journalistic values. Alan Abbey gives an example: Leviticus 19:16, warns against spreading gossip.

“A traditional interpretation of the Jewish value of the holiness of speech suggests that even though a statement is true, you shouldn’t talk about it if it brings disfavor or dishonest to someone,” says Abbey. 

In this case, a classic Jewish value comes into conflict with a classic journalistic value, the right to information.

However, according to Abbey there is a way out of this dilemma. “Another Jewish value is, you shouldn’t let a person come to harm by virtue of inaction.”

If, for example you know that high-ranking community members are abusing their position of power or misappropriating funds, “the greater value of helping the community outweighs the value of not speaking ill of a person, when the circumstances are significant enough,” says Abbey.

And the journalist can in good faith report about this incident.

For Jewish media, this is more than just theory, says AJPA president Kestenbaum. “A lot of our content, especially our global content is related to Israel, and to Jewish life around the world.”

Those are sensitive topics, and topics that make it difficult to avoid bias. “A single word, a simple factual error can get you into severe problems.” That’s why it’s particularly important for journalists in Jewish media to follow “clear ethical guidelines and standards”.

Robert “Bob” Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light, who continues to contribute editorials, reviews and features to the newspaper, has extensive experience with these types of conflict. He recalls Operation Moses, when in 1984 and 1985 about 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown on Belgian airline charter planes from Sudan via Brussels to Israel.

“The Israeli government practically begged the media not to report anything about the ongoing operation,” says Cohn who at the time was president of AJPA. He decided that the well being of fellow Jews was more important than the news value of the story, and coined the slogan “Jews before News”. 

He adds that, “some members supported us, but others said: As a news organization, it’s our duty to report this.”

Going forward, the priority for Jewish media is to continue looking for profitable business models, appealing to younger and more secular Jews, as well as non-Jews interested in Jewish life, says AJPA president Kestenbaum.

At the same time, Kestenbaum and his colleagues want to broaden the horizon and look beyond U.S. borders. Two years ago, the state of Israel invited Jewish publishers, editors, and reporters from all over the world to a Jewish media summit in Jerusalem. At the conference, participants came up with the idea to create an international network for Jewish journalists. So far, there is only a closed Facebook page with about 500 active members.

“But the project has a huge potential for the future,” says Marshall Weiss. And a lot of room for new beginnings, too.




The Forward

“We are fiercely independent. We’ve always had very strong values towards social justice. And we do not underestimate the sophistication of our readers.”

Those are, according to editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, the core values of The Forward, America’s most influential Jewish news publication.

“The Forward” has often, and deservedly, been referred to as an icon of Jewish journalism. It was founded in 1897 under the name “Forverts” as a Yiddish language daily in New York for immigrants from Eastern Europe. The name was borrowed from the German Social Democrat’s party’s organ, “Vorwärts”, and the publication was loosely affiliated with the Jewish trade union movement.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle were prominently featured as relief portraits on the façade of the famous, and meanwhile sold Forward building on New York’s Lower East Side. 

By the 1930s, “The Forward” had become the one of the leading newspapers in the United States, with a circulation of 275.000, its own radio station and close ties to the White House. Among the contributors were later Nobel Prize winners Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel.

After World War II, the Forward’s circulation and influence began to wane. By 1983 the newspaper was published only once a week, with an English supplement. In 1990 the English supplement became an independent weekly, which currently has a circulation of about 28,000.

The Yiddish “Forverts” has a modest yet stable circulation of 5,500, in part due to the recent revival of Yiddish in colleges and universities.

The modern “Forward” covers a wide spectrum of issues, from traditional political reporting and analysis to more edgy topics like a feature about a pig farm in Israel. Besides revenue coming from print subscription and advertising, the publication also relies on donations from a wide array of supporters, from foundations and charitable organizations to individual donors.  “We do not rely on a single source of income,” says Eisner.

Both The Forward’s English and Yiddish edition have experienced solid growth in their online readership. Most online readers come from the United States, Israel, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. They tend to be younger and no longer exclusively Jewish.

“They may be interested in the political story,” says Eisner, “or perhaps they have Jewish partners, Jewish friends, Jewish neighbors.”

About 25 people work on the “Forward’s” editorial team -- including journalists, photographers, graphic designers, and programmers. Among them are Jews and non-Jews, Americans and foreigners, young and experiences reporters and editors.

In 2015, the paper changed its name, from “The Jewish Forward” to simply, “The Forward”. The name change reflects “the broad lens through which we tell the Jewish story today,” says Eisner.

The result is a view that’s often surprising, never conventional and, in accordance with the paper’s core value, fiercely independent. rid


This is the translation of an article published in the German Jewish weekly “Jüdische Allgemeine”


© Katja Ridderbusch