The Little Jewish Newspaper That Could
Print media around the U.S. is in deep decline, but a small, free biweekly north of Boston is thriving. What’s their secret?
Finding a niche: Jewish Journal editor and publisher Steven Rosenberg says his paper’s focus is local because “we have content that no one else is reporting.”
Remember the classic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could”? It’s about a long train unable to get up a mountain. All the big locomotives refuse to help pull it; only a little engine is willing to try. And while repeating the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” the little train succeeds.
It’s a story of optimism and hard work that no doubt resonates with editor and publisher Steve Rosenberg of The Jewish Journal, his tiny staff and the board members of the independent non-profit serving dozens of small communities in the North Shore area north of Boston.
Unlike so many Jewish and mainstream print newspapers around the country struggling to survive, the Journal is chugging along.
“We’re thriving,” says Johanna Matloff, a local attorney who is president of the Journal’s board of overseers. “Our paper has great content and solid financial footing.”
How could this be?
I started reading the Journal last year after Rosenberg asked me to write an Op Ed piece, which I did, and he added me to the paper’s mailing list. At first, I read the issues out of curiosity, but soon I was hooked, admiring the crisp writing, clean editing and clear sense of who the paper’s audience was.
Most intriguing is the fact that the Journal’s model for success is strikingly counter to prevalent media trends. While the prevailing emphasis is on digital content, paid subscribers and targeting younger audiences, the Journal’s primary readers are seniors over 60, and the focus is on its print edition, which is free and mailed out 30 times a year to about 10,000 households.
It’s a lean operation with a sales staff of two and a full-time editorial staff of two. And unlike dozens of local Jewish newspapers in the U.S, it offers little print coverage of Israel or world or national Jewish issues. (There is some wire-coverage of those topics in the online edition.)
For the Journal, the content is local, local, local.
Employing the kind of “old-fashioned journalism that reflects the community,” says Rosenberg, “we’re really a throwback to a previous era in that we place content above flashy design.” The goal is to make the product indispensable to anyone involved with or interested in Jewish community in the coverage area, which reaches more than two dozen towns -- from Swampscott in the south, up west to Ipswich and east to Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann.
“Our focus is local because we have content that no one else is reporting,” Rosenberg said.
The Journal’s stories cover synagogues, JCCs, schools, camps and charities, and profile clergy, artists, interesting neighbors, and more.
On the business side, the combination of local advertising, readers’ donations -- some as low as $1 -- and more substantial funding from area philanthropists and the local Jewish federation have resulted in the Journal’s solid sustainability.
The paper’s annual budget is in the range of $650,000, says Rosenberg.
Last year the annual fundraising campaign more than achieved its goals despite Covid’s negative impact on advertising. Through a matching grant, after raising $200,000 from its readers and other donors, the paper received $100,000 from local philanthropist Arthur Epstein. Such fund-raising allows the Journal to maintain its mission of offering the paper to readers free of charge.
“We’re successful because this is a special community on the North Shore,” Matloff told me. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between the newspaper and the community. Each sustains the other.”
Detailed Coverage Of Anti-Semitism
She and several other board members I spoke with attributed much of the Journal’s success to Rosenberg, who took the helm in 2017 after a long career in broadcast and print journalism, most recently as a reporter for The Boston Globe for 15 years.
He’s no stranger to the North Shore, having grown up in the area and contributed articles to the Journal as early as 1977, when the paper was launched, and “off and on” through the ‘80s, when he was in college, and the ‘90s.
In more recent years, the paper fell on hard times financially, and its editorial content was seen as lackluster. It was in a state of transition five years ago when a major change of staff and board members resulted in Matloff becoming president and the new board hiring Rosenberg.
“There was $10,000 in the bank when I started,” Rosenberg recalled.
He said he told the board that in addition to aggressive fund-raising, the first priority was to produce “fair, accurate journalism that reflects the community.”
He noted that the Journal eschews national politics and controversies for the most part, and sticks to reporting on local politics and communities.
The path to “rebuilding the credibility” of the Journal the last few years, Rosenberg added, has been largely through “nuts and bolts” informational stories and “softball” (as in, easy to digest) reports.
In recent months, though, the front pages of the Journal have been filled with reports on various anti-Semitic incidents, many of them of a verbal nature at schools, public forums, school board meetings and sports events.
Most notably, last March the Journal broke a story about a Duxbury high school football team that used Jewish-related words -- including “rabbi,” “dreidel” and “Auschwitz” -- in calling plays in practice and during games. The incident, which made national news, led to the firing two weeks later of the school’s head football coach. In addition, the school district responded by initiating a review of its athletic program, creating an athletic advisory committee and requiring the football team to participate in a mandatory program that included a meeting with a third-generation relative of a Holocaust survivor.
Last month, a Page 1 article in the Oct. 14 issue reported on a local school board member who compared the interview process for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to “friggin’ Nazi Germany.”
The next edition (Oct. 28) led with an article on several anti-Semitic incidents on Boston-area campues: a mezuzah torn from a door at Northeastern University’s Hilel, a swastika drawn on a dorm bathroom mirror at Holyoke College and a poster advertising a Hillel event defaced at Emerson College.
Some critics believe there is too much emphasis on such transgressions. Matloff said she has heard comments to that effect, including the charge of “fear-mongering.”
“But is it happening? Absolutely,” she responded.
Rosenberg said that “anti-Semitism is so widespread and extensive” in the area that he is “committed to reporting every incident.”
Expand Or Stick?
One decision up for discussion by Rosenberg and the board is whether to try to fill the void left by the closing last year of Boston’s longtime Jewish weekly, The Advocate, due to financial troubles. It’s tempting because there is a large Jewish community of means in the Boston metropolitan area and nearby suburbs like Newton. But the effort would require substantial funding for editorial coverage and sales staff, and some of the paper’s leaders are concerned about stretching too far, risking the cozy relationship the Journal has with its current, presumably satisfied readers.
As sustainable as the situation is today, Rosenberg and his board realize that the generational clock is ticking and that younger people are less interested in religious and communal institutions than their parents and grandparents.
“It’s a very challenging time for all media,” observed Alan Abbey, an Israel-based editor and media consultant with a special interest in the American Jewish press. “There’s a strong need to find new audiences and reach them where they are. In terms of the pace, it’s a time for revolution, not evolution,” he said.
The Journal is reaching out to interfaith families, writing more for and about young people and has started selling ads on its online edition. True, it’s an uphill climb to attract the young and unaffiliated. But this small New England paper plans to keep on chugging.