WASHINGTON — When Andrew Silow-Carroll became the editor in chief of New York Jewish Week last October, it was apparent that he would need to make some tough decisions.
The 45-year-old publication’s finances were increasingly difficult to manage as advertising revenue was on the decline even as the cost of printing and postage increased.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic made things even worse by drying up much of the ad money the newspaper relied upon.
“When COVID-19 hit, everything was on steroids,” Silow-Carroll said. “All of our core advertisers were hit hard — Jewish travel, Jewish events, Jewish nonprofits, caterers, kosher restaurants. It was a wipe out.”
The paper, which has 32,000 subscribers, lost more than 20 percent of its advertising, he said. On July 8, Silow-Carroll announced that the Jewish Week would halt its print edition. Its last physical copy went out July 31.
The agonizing choice came after already cutting staff and asking senior management to accept pay decreases. (Silow-Carroll declined to share the newsroom’s budget figures.)
“When that didn’t prove enough, we made the difficult decision to suspend print while we take a pause and consider our options,” the veteran editor said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
At the same time, one of its sister publications, New Jersey Jewish News, was also suffering from the same fiscal crisis — but didn’t have the same latitude to transition to an entirely digital model.
The 74-year-old newspaper, which the Jewish Week Media Group bought in 2016, saw the same steep decline in advertising revenue that has devastated much of the industry. In its case, it was so steep that the outlet could no longer afford to pay its staff. On July 29, New Jersey Jewish News announced that it was shutting down completely.
The recent developments for the two publications reflect a tantalizing paradox of the COVID-19 era: Just as people are hungrier for news and information to help make sense of life during the pandemic, the economic fallout from the pandemic has crushed the media organizations that rely on the old-fashioned advertising model.
This new reality has had dire impacts for smaller, niche publications, such as local Jewish weeklies that depend on local advertisers to keep them afloat. (Since March, more than 50 newsrooms across the United States have closed, according to the Poynter Institute.)
New Jersey Jewish News editor Gabe Kahn remembers when the business side of the publication first noticed a dip in advertising purchases toward the end of February, when the pandemic was just starting to reach America’s shores.
“They lost a tremendous amount of advertising in just that week,” he said. “Nobody was open. Nobody was going anywhere — and everything was going away.”
He had to make many of the same decisions that other newsrooms have been forced to under the circumstances: laying off and furloughing staff, even as everyone started working from home. “Eventually,” he said, “it became more and more clear where things were going.”
The decision was especially hard for the staff. “I was shocked, I guess I shouldn’t have been,” said Lori Silberman Brauner, deputy managing editor who had worked for the paper on and off since 1997, recounting the call she got from Kahn relaying the news.
“I hadn’t cried throughout the whole COVID crisis,” she added. “Then I hung up and burst into tears. It was really jarring.”
Can a new business model save Jewish journalism?
While the New Jersey Jewish News is now defunct, there is still an effort underway to find a backer — be it an organization or a high-net-worth donor — who could finance its resuscitation.
“Theoretically, that could happen if someone was interested in taking us on,” Kahn said. “So far, no luck there.”
The New York Jewish Week, however, is preparing to transition into the next phase of its existence.
Silow-Carroll, who was previously the editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is now trying to devise a new digital content strategy that could not only allow the New York Jewish Week to survive, but to reach a bigger audience.
That will consist of emphasizing social media promotion and ramping up its use of e-newsletters — tactics he described as being “more proactive about getting into people’s homes.”
The newsroom will also still publish a PDF version of the newspaper each week online so that its loyal readers can maintain their tradition of reading their journalism on the Sabbath. They’ll just have to print it themselves.
As long as they have a printer, they can hold the Jewish Week in their hands
“We know that a lot of our readers look to us for a Friday Shabbat read,” Silow-Carroll said. “So we’re going to try to keep a version of that going. As long as they have a printer, they can hold the Jewish Week in their hands.”
That’s particularly significant for the paper’s large swath of Orthodox readers.
“The people who get Jewish publications in this day and age are very engaged Jews — and most engaged Jews in any city are Orthodox,” Silow-Carroll said. “But New York is a big market, and there certainly are a lot of Reform and Conservative and non-affiliated Jews.”
But there is still uncertainty over what business model will be most sustainable for the news organization.
Silow-Carroll said the publication was working on a partnership agreement with a private organization that would offset costs, but he declined to give any details of the arrangement. (The New York Jewish Week is a Times of Israel partner publication, as was the New Jersey Jewish News.)
Time to go non-profit?
Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said that Jewish weeklies should consider switching over to the non-profit model, relaying on grants and donations from foundations and readers, instead of advertising dollars.
“For virtually every news organization, not just the Jewish media, the old model of making most of your revenue from display ads and classified ads has been broken for a decade or more,” he told The Times of Israel. “We all know the obvious reasons why. Classified ads went to free online sites like Craigslist. Display ads went to aggregation sites and now to social media.”
“So unless your news organization has deep-pocketed, public-spirited owners — the Sulzberger family for the Times, Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post, Glenn Taylor for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — you absolutely have to shift to a nonprofit model based on a combination of grants from philanthropists and foundations and memberships purchased by individuals,” he added.
Freedman argued that it’s an approach that could prove successful for Jewish journalism, so long as the newspaper doesn’t become compromised by a funder who interferes editorially to advance an agenda.
“Certainly, the American Jewish community, which is extremely prosperous, has the wherewithal to support Jewish journalism,” he said.
“The one risk is that if you rely too much on an individual donor, then you’re going to be politically beholden to that donor. So a nonprofit model needs to have a broad base to the pyramid, a great many small or moderate donors.”
The digital era of New York Jewish Week
It’s not clear how Jewish publications will make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, if at all. But one thing is clear: the Jewish media landscape has changed dramatically as a consequence.
As the New York Jewish Week tries to figure out a sustainable model going forward, Silow-Carroll said that pausing the print version would still allow for a functioning newspaper — freeing up funds to go toward freelancers and some staff.
It will also be able to maintain other non-journalism projects that are funded through philanthropic support, such as Write On for Israel, a two-year program that trains high school students to be Israel advocates, and live events (which are now on Zoom) with public figures.
In the long run, though, he contends that shifting to a completely digital operation will help the newspaper survive.
“On the web, the barrier for entry is much lower” than in print, he stressed. “Someone sends you an article from a Facebook page, they share a piece on Twitter. At that point, you can start leaking beyond Jewish institutional life and start to reach Jews in many more places.”
That’s why, he added, New York Jewish Week will have to find its next generation of readers on the Internet.
“If you want to reach young and less engaged Jews, they are waiting on the web,” Silow-Carroll said. “They are not waiting to buy your newspaper.”