LONDON — In a surprise move, a consortium including a group of Jewish philanthropists has purchased the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle (JC), which had been heading into liquidation and an uncertain future. Its new owners promised it would now have a “secure, sustainable, and independent future.”
“We are delighted to announce that our effort to rescue the Jewish Chronicle from liquidation has prevailed. The oldest Jewish newspaper in the world will go to print next week, as it has done for the last 180 years. It is right and proper that its liabilities will be met, its creditors will be paid, and its staff made whole,” the Chronicle’s new owners said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “The Jewish Chronicle would have disappeared but for philanthropic support.”
The JC’s rival, the Jewish News (a Times of Israel partner), is to continue operations as before. The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News titles had previously contemplated a merger or a joint liquidation process from which a single title might have emerged.
Numerous members of the consortium are well-known figures, but some of its funding is coming from unnamed philanthropists, leading to questions about the paper’s ongoing independence and the buyers’ transparency. In their statement, the new owners said the unnamed donors were “entitled to their privacy,” but stressed they would have “no say in editorial policy, nor any beneficial ownership of the Jewish Chronicle. The current editorial direction of the Jewish Chronicle will be maintained under the leadership of Stephen Pollard and his editorial team.”
They said they were “not treating the Jewish Chronicle as a commercial venture but as a community asset” and would establish a UK charitable trust to control it. “Trustees who command the respect of the community, and have demonstrated commitment to editorial independence and impartiality, will be appointed to oversee this trust.”
Pollard said he had backed the bid “because it promised to maintain the paper’s independence, provide financial stability, retain many of our existing staff, pay fair and full redundancy to those that it couldn’t afford to keep and – crucially – to honor the debts the paper has built up.”
The consortium wrested control from the Kessler Foundation, which had effectively financed the paper since 1984. The decision to approve the consortium’s bid was announced by attorney David Wolfson, chair of the Jewish Chronicle Trust on Wednesday.
“This week, the trust has supported a liquidation process whereby the ownership of the JC would be transferred by the liquidators from the Kessler Foundation, a charity which has owned the paper for several decades, to a consortium led by Sir Robbie Gibb, former head of communications at 10 Downing Street,” Wolfson said.
The consortium includes former chairman of the Charity Commission William Shawcross, former Labour MP John Woodcock, broadcasters John Ware and Jonathan Sacerdoti, and Rabbi Jonathan Hughes of Radlett United Synagogue, said Wolfson. Other members with financial and legal backgrounds include Tom Boltman of the cyber risk modeling platform Kovrr, Mark Joseph of EMK Capital, Robert Swerling of Investec, and Jonathan Kandel of Kirkland and Ellis.
Sacerdoti, who has been fronting the consortium, told The Times of Israel this week that “we are all people of great commitment, and are determined to bring fresh energy and dynamism to this historical, vital paper for our community.” Sacerdoti is a broadcaster and a former head of the Zionist Federation. He said the consortium and its backers are committed in the “long run” with a five year funding plan.
A ‘needed change of direction’ for the JC?
A prominent Jewish journalist told The Times of Israel that the consortium and its funders were committed to putting in £2.5 million (roughly $3.1 million) over the next two years in order to fund the JC’s “running rate,” adding, “I do think that the JC needed a change of direction so this may do it some good.”
“The paper’s move into liquidation had been because the JC had huge debts, and the liquidation was a resetting of economics,” said the source.
The source said the paper had an extremely high overhead, much of it going to salaries, relative to the publication’s dwindling circulation figures. Circulation is now at under 20,000 weekly, the source said, and there is limited appetite for print advertising. He pointed out that larger media outlets also struggle with profitability.
All media organizations need to be transparent, and it’s essential to know where the money is coming from
“All media organizations need to be transparent, and it’s essential to know where the money is coming from,” added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In all likelihood it’s well intentioned, committed people, but we must know who they are.” He cited Sheldon Adleson’s ownership of the popular free Hebrew daily Israel Hayom as an example of how politically motivated media buyouts can be.
Alan Jacobs, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Chronicle, last week criticized the rival bid for not revealing all the sources of its funding, telling the Financial Times: “A bid for the Jewish Chronicle using money from an unidentified source and fronted by a group of individuals who refuse to tell the world anything of their plans looks like a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.” He added: “The consortium members need to come forward immediately to explain their motives and plans.”
On Thursday, Jacobs wrote on the JC website that his time as chairman had now ended and wished the paper “every success under the control of Sir Robbie Gibb and his Consortium members.”
He said the Consortium’s “very generous offer” should ensure “all identified creditors paid in full, including staff, and they have given assurances that they intend to invest millions of pounds to secure the future of the paper.”
Trading at a large operating loss
The Kessler Foundation, whose 2018 June bottom line showed expenditures of £3.8 (roughly $4.7 million) and income of £3.3 (roughly $4.07 million), has effectively been in control of the Jewish Chronicle since 1984, when it was awarded shares of Jewish Chronicle Ltd. The paper posted deficits of £1.5 million ($1.85 million) in its last published accounts. The foundation admitted in those accounts that “trading at an operating loss is an unacceptable position.”
Jewish Chronicle Ltd. had faced a huge deficit due to its pension fund, and the Kessler Foundation was forced to rely on “a consortium of community donors” to fill it.
The bidding process took a dramatic turn on April 21 when the Jewish News, which ahead of Passover had joined the Jewish Chronicle in entering a creditors’ voluntary liquidation — a process in which insolvent companies voluntarily shut down — reversed its decision ahead of the April 22 buyout announcement.
A Jewish News source confirmed to The Times of Israel that the media group took the title out of liquidation after the merger plan with the Jewish Chronicle had been ruled out due to the consortium bid.
The Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer said “a week is a very long time in Jewish media — we were poised to shut up shop and launch a merged paper with the JC. However, the bigger, anonymous bid forced a change of plan on the part of our owner Leo Noe, who took us out of liquidation to save jobs and save it falling into unknown hands.”
Earlier, Jewish Chronicle editor Pollard — after initially appearing to support the Kessler Foundation’s bid to buy out and merge the two publications — publicly switched his support to the consortium bid.
“It has been reported [the consortium] will make our creditors whole and that they will look to retain many of our current team,” Pollard said. “Many of those creditors are the writers to whom I owe whatever success I have had as editor. The Kessler Foundation has made no such commitment.”
One freelance writer told The Times of Israel on Thursday that he had not been paid by The Jewish Chronicle for his ongoing work for over 10 months.
Editorial changes on the horizon?
One change amid the consortium’s purchase is that under the new ownership, the JC is no longer guided by the Foundation’s charitable mandate to “serve the Jewish community… and serve as a forum to discuss issues.”
The matter of balance and debate independent of religious or political stances has been central to the position of the JC as a leading news organization both inside and outside the British Jewish community. The paper has existed since 1841.
There is also concern that the UK Jewish community is no longer in a position to publish two outlets. The decision to maintain two rival papers during an economic depression shocked Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been the JC’s “Ask the Rabbi” columnist for 20 years.
“The continuance of two separate Jewish papers is a surprise given both the small market and the fact that, having started as very different publications, they had become much more similar in recent years,” Romain said.
“If it results in further duplication, then it may jeopardize the survival of both,” he added. “But if either one becomes more right wing, then the other could have an important role as a centrist paper.”
According to Romain, “one of the great strengths of the JC until now is that it has been the voice of the Jewish community as a whole, and not just one group within it. So although it is good to know the paper will continue, the key question is whether it will remain independent of factional interests.”