This month I attended my first meeting as a board member of the J., the Jewish weekly newspaper for the Bay Area.
Here’s what I won’t be doing as a board member: Writing, editing, or getting involved in the content of the paper.
Anyone who’s been involved with a daily paper over the past few years — heck, anyone who’s even read a newspaper — knows that the industry is in crisis. Newspapers have been hit with a triple whammy – losing virtually all their classified ads to the Internet, gradually hemorrhaging readership, and then losing still more advertising due to the recession. And while it may be possible for papers to replace print readers with online ones, no one has figured out (yet) how to make enough money from an online news site to support a real news-gathering operation
Challenging enough, eh? Well, look at what the J. is facing, on top of those universal newspaper woes:
- A Jewish community that historically has been more assimilated and unaffiliated than most other major U.S. cities. (There are an estimated 175,000 Jewish households in the Bay Area! But 57 percent don’t belong to a synagogue or other Jewish organization. Many don’t have a clue that the J. exists.)
- A Jewish community that is also geographically diffuse. Unlike other major U.S. cities, there are no “Jewish neighborhoods” here. This makes it hard to attract advertisers – an Oakland deli, for instance, is unlikely to get business from J. readers who live in Marin, San Francisco, or Palo Alto.
- Most of the J.’s circulation has come through the San Francisco and East Bay Jewish Federations, which give a free subscription to their donors. But those donor bases have been steadily shrinking as younger Jews tend to give directly to specific non-profits rather than through a Federation.
Big structural challenges. Going against a historical and cultural tide. Doing all this in a time of budget cuts and economic uncertainty.
Yeah! My type of organization!
Here’s what the paper has going for it: An experienced editor who knows journalism, knows the community, and is willing to try new things. Some dynamic, very sharp board leaders who are looking at new approaches to financing the paper. (More on that in a future post.)
And an important mission.
It’s weird to hear myself saying that, since until this year I was among those tens of thousands of Bay Area Jews who did not read the J. regularly. But one of my personal resolutions, since my early 20s, has been to help perpetuate a thriving Jewish community here in the U.S. And a thriving community requires some kind of communication structure connecting all the different parts. A community is more than a thousand individuals going about their own individual paths – it is connections between those individuals. It is people being aware of and influencing each other.
And the J. is really the only thing connecting all the disparate parts of Bay Area Jewry – from synagogue preschool families to secular Jewish peace activists to devotees of Yiddish theatre to Chabad proselytizers.
Like any newspaper or magazine, there are stories and opinions in the J. that make me mad. (Maybe more than in other newspapers, since so many of those opinions are about Israel!) There are also lots of stories that hold no interest for me. But in every issue, there’s at least one “huh!” item that intrigues me. For instance, without the J. I would not have known:
- About the Berkeley synagogue that just hired the country’s second transgender rabbi.
- About the pair of Israeli performance artists who are living in a San Francisco art gallery for two months and turning their daily lives into a spectator sport.
- About a Jewish pitcher for the Oakland A’s who has a degree in molecular biophysics and a portrait of Albert Einstein in his clubhouse locker.
Want to check it out yourself? The J. is offering a free four-week trial subscription to readers of this blog.
(Well, to anyone, really, as long as you live in California. But doesn’t it feel nice to think you’re getting a special inside deal?)
Let me know what you think!