When editor Si Nathenson and advertising manager Odette Engleberg are out, the recorded telephone at the Garden Grove offices of the Heritage reminds callers that they have reached "Orange County's only Jewish weekly newspaper."
If Heritage publisher Herb Brin has his way, the paper--which serves a burgeoning, countywide Jewish population of 75,000 to 100,000--will retain that distinction and not be drawn into what one magazine is calling "the civil war in Jewish journalism" now under way in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey and Chicago.
In marked contrast to Los Angeles, where another independent weekly owned by Brin is locked in a struggle with the local Federation of Jewish Charities, the Orange County tabloid and the Orange County Jewish Federation have been linked closely and amicably for more than two decades.
According to a forthcoming article in the spring issue of Present Tense, a quarterly publication of the American Jewish Committee, the struggle is between local federations around the country and independent publishers like Brin, who is quoted extensively in the story. The article says that in recent years, many local federations have either established or expanded their own weekly publications. Although these operate at a loss, the story says, their tax-exempt status enables them to blanket the Jewish community with free subscriptions, and thus to cut into the advertising revenues of struggling independent papers like Heritage that have smaller, paid circulations.
"They would never do in Orange County what they're trying to do in L.A.," Brin said. The publisher, in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office, recalled that he was invited to begin publishing the Heritage in Orange County in 1962 by the late Harry Gartler, a Newport Beach boat builder, when there were only 700 Jewish families here. By the time the Jewish population of the county had reached 4,000 families, Brin recalled, he and the Heritage were instrumental in organizing the Orange County federation by turning over their subscription list.
The paper, which today maintains offices in the same Garden Grove complex as the federation, has a cooperative arrangement with the philanthropic organization. New Orange County residents who contribute to affiliated Jewish organizations or join congregations receive free, three-month Heritage trial subscriptions. Much of the news and many of the photographs which appear in the Heritage are provided by the federation through Chelle Friedman, its director of public relations.
As the Jewish population of Orange County has grown large enough to support nearly 20 congregations, several Hebrew day schools, a kosher meat market and even a kosher restaurant, the circulation of Heritage has increased to about 13,500.
Nathenson, 66, is a retired state information officer who lives in Huntington Beach, and has been on the job for only about a year. Before he was hired to edit the Orange County paper, he said, Herb Brin's son Dan, editor of all the Heritage-Southwest Jewish Press papers, "came down once a week to sweep up the mail" at the office and did most of the other reporting by telephone.
These days, Nathenson said, he does most of the reporting and rewriting of organizational press releases himself, as well as choosing photographs and laying out copy--all of which is sent from the paper's two-room suite to Los Angeles each week for typesetting and printing. National and international news--much of which deals with Israel--as well as editorials and opinion columns are inserted at the Heritage's downtown offices.
"I love it," said Nathenson of his three-days-a-week duties. "I'm having more fun there than I've had in years. It's just plain wonderful." Nathenson said that his job is made much easier because "about the second thing any Jewish organization does after it gets started is elect a publicity vice president."
Between 80% and 90% of the copy deals with local events, said Nathenson, whose official title is Orange County editor, and "we're very proud of our journalistic standards." The articles represent a mix of social notices for weddings and bar mitzvahs, news of the activities of synagogues and various organizations, as well as extensive coverage of fund-raising efforts by the federation. Among those businesses whose advertising targets Jewish consumers are several Chinese restaurants.
Heritage is supported by federation staff members and rabbis, but there are criticisms. There is also some concern that, despite Brin's hope, the situation in Los Angeles, where his Heritage-Southwest Jewish Press last year filed a $1.4-million law suit against the federation, charging unfair competition, may eventually be duplicated in Orange County.
"If they get away with it in L.A., said Brin, "who knows what happens tomorrow?"