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A Tangle of Publishing Rivalries : New Newspaper Challenges Old for Jewish Hearts, Minds

January 19, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

In his cluttered, fortress-like Vermont Avenue office building half a block from the Santa Monica Freeway, Herb Brin--his wild, white fringe of hair a hirsute barometer of his emotions--fulminates against dark conspiracies. Outside forces are circling that he believes could annihilate his business--the publishing of Heritage, an independent Jewish newspaper.

In temporary, 10th-floor offices in the mid-Wilshire district, Gene Lichtenstein, the editor of a new newspaper, ponders Herb Brin and his fears and dismisses both as "not that interesting."

Groundless Charges

Brin, he says, is an irritant, not a serious force--a man whose fantasies fuel groundless charges. When the Jewish Journal begins publishing late next month, Brin will be ignored in the paper's pages, Lichtenstein says, with a touch of relish.

While they have never met, Brin and Lichtenstein are two of the most visible soldiers in an escalating battle of hyperbole and vitriol that has stretched all the way from Los Angeles to Jerusalem. At stake, some say, is the ultimate character of the Jewish press in America--who will publish it, how free it will be and whether it will be capable of serving as a rallying point for the community during a time of crisis.

The choice in Los Angeles is between the as yet undefined Journal, which Lichtenstein promises will be a sophisticated blend of local, national and international articles, and Heritage, a feisty concoction of editorials and reports on local and national issues such as the split between blacks and Jews, news from Israel, remembrances of the Holocaust and community items--all bearing the stamp of Brin's often mercurial personality.

Power Play Seen

Those on Brin's side of the trenches see the publication of the weekly Journal as a power play by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, an umbrella fund-raising organization representing Jewish charitable groups and the major single social structure within the Jewish community, to be the dominant voice in Jewish affairs here.

The tactic has been used in other cities by other federations, they say, and threatens the often struggling, independent Jewish press nationwide.

The Journal--an ambitious replacement for the federation's weekly paper, the Jewish Community Bulletin, that will cease publication at month's end--will siphon advertising revenue from the weekly Heritage, which almost certainly will perish in the financial drought, Brin and his supporters say. The federation is bent on snuffing out free enterprise and free speech in favor of a subsidized periodical that will be bland at best, they charge.

Brin and his supporters point particularly to a $660,000, 10% interest loan from the federation that will cover the Journal's start-up costs. The loan itself raises ethical issues such as using charity money for a non-charitable cause, they say, as do the facts that the board overseeing the Journal will have a majority of federation-appointed members and the federation will pay subscription fees to the Journal. (Every contributor to the United Jewish Fund/Israel Emergency Fund will receive a subscription, with the Journal getting about $3 per subscriber from the federation.)

Nonsense, backers of the Journal reply. The new publication is independent and, in fact, the federation has taken elaborate steps--including setting up a new, non-affiliated board to direct the Journal--to assure editorial freedom.

Not a 'House Organ'

The Journal is being launched after careful study, the paper's backers say, noting that their analysis showed that the local Jewish community would be best served by a publication that was not a "house organ" of the federation.

As for the loan, they point out that it is to be repaid in five years and Lichtenstein says he doubts that the federation will throw more money into the Journal if it runs into financial trouble.

Moreover, the Journal will better serve the community's interests because it will reach more people, its backers say. Brin's paper, with a circulation of about 13,500, is seen by few in the Jewish community, while the Journal will go to about 75,000 households that formerly received the Bulletin, they note. And, they add, Brin has had 30 years in which to build his newspaper. If he goes under, it will be the payoff for years of ineptitude in the marketplace, they charge.

These are the major strands of the controversy.

But there are other elements, including the federation's annual $40-million fund-raising drive for Israel and domestic charity programs, which apparently is being somewhat affected by this brouhaha. Some longtime donors are refusing to contribute because they side with Brin or are upset about the loan. The federation, through its fund-raising arm, the United Jewish Fund, is sending out letters asking holdouts to reconsider.

Low Penetration

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