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Jewish Federation May Sell Its Money-Losing Weekly Paper

May 16, 1987|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Jewish organizational leaders in Los Angeles are considering whether to sell a money-losing weekly newspaper that once stirred strong objections in the community, says an official of the Jewish Federation Council.

Wayne Feinstein, executive director of the federation, an umbrella organization of more than 500 social, welfare and educational agencies, said that a "very attractive offer" to buy the Jewish Journal has been made by the publisher of Jewish community-oriented newspapers in Baltimore and Detroit.

Not long after the Journal began publishing in February, 1986, some Orthodox Jewish leaders complained about its allegedly biased and irreligious content. But the furor has died down since the newspaper added conservative religious columnists and has progressed "a long way in becoming accommodating," in the words of Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beverly Hills, who once threatened to lead a boycott against the paper.

Financial Concerns

Feinstein said that the concern of the federation's executive committee is strictly financial. The federation provided a loan of $663,000 for a two-year period ending this Aug. 31, and advertising revenue has not risen enough to cover operating costs, he said in an interview.

"We anticipated that for the first two years it was not likely to break even in that time," Feinstein said. "It's on the right course, but there is still concern by our leadership about continuing our support."

Selling the newspaper is one option to be presented to the 192-member board of the federation at its regular meeting Tuesday, Feinstein said. "We are not considering closing it down," Feinstein said. "We've had discussions with local publishers to see if they would want to meet this offer," he said, though he declined to say what the bid was.

The board could also decide to continue financial support or change its relationship to the federation, possibly by having it tied more closely to federation direction, Feinstein said.

Publisher's Support

He said an independent board of the Jewish Journal headed by Richard S. Volpert, an attorney who is the newspaper's publisher, has voted to support whatever decision the federation board makes on the paper's fate.

The newspaper now enjoys editorial independence from the federation, although it is expected to include newsworthy articles about the work of the federation agencies. The newspaper is free to 54,000 donors to the federation and has a total circulation of 58,000, according to Editor-in-Chief Gene Lichtenstein.

Feinstein said he would not comment, pending discussion by the board on Tuesday, on whether a new owner would also have that built-in circulation advantage over financially independent publications aimed at a Jewish readership. The competing English-language Jewish newspapers are the B'nai B'rith Messenger, the Heritage and Israel Today.

Lawsuit Pending

Still pending is a $1.4-million lawsuit filed against the federation in 1984 by Heritage Publisher Herb Brin. He charged that a predecessor publication to the Jewish Journal, the Bulletin, had an unfair business advantage by being subsidized by the federation and circulated free to donors.

Feinstein declined to comment on whether the issue of unfair competition remains an issue with any board members, inasmuch as the suit is still pending.

Chuck Buerger, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times and the Detroit Jewish News, said in a telephone interview that he did not know what his prospects were of buying the Jewish Journal. "We have been talking with them for six months or so off and on. We went out a month ago and they said they weren't interested, but we still have a bid before them," Buerger said.

Feinstein, who started duties as executive vice president of the Los Angeles federation last July after working in a comparable post in Detroit, said that Buerger's paper in Detroit has "done a good job in communicating the work of the federation and news of the Jewish community there."

Market Not Saturated

Buerger said he did not think the newspaper market was saturated, with an estimated 550,000-member Jewish community in the Los Angeles area.

Though it has been credited with lively writing and an attractive format, the Jewish Journal has been handicapped by a small staff and low budget.

Its choice of subjects and certain provocative columns drew the ire of the Orthodox religious community in the first few months of publication.

Weiss last summer complained that the paper was "undermining Jewish values" by featuring articles about a homosexual synagogue, about Jews marrying non-Jews and other subjects not considered positive trends in Jewish life.

Also, Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, local leader of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement, talked of suing the Journal over critical characterizations and allegations about the movement by columnist Yehuda Lev.

However, Cunin did not sue, Lichtenstein said. "I think that the Orthodox community has changed some of its views because, in part, we have a number of columnists who reflect the Orthodox view and who can write well," Lichtenstein said. Among the added columnists were Dennis Prager, a political conservative who hosts KABC's "Religion on the Line," and Michael Medved, an Orthodox leader, author and movie critic.

Accusations about the paper have ranged from claims that it was too far to the left and too far to the right, or that it was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, Lichtenstein said. "We don't hear much of that anymore," he said.

The issue before the federation board "is solely an economic one, not a political one," he said. "We certainly have enough money to last through the summer and beyond, but we are in the red."

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