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On the Media: Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles adapts to changing media market

Niche journalism and an $800,000 donation make its future seem secure.

May 12, 2010|James Rainey

Few newspapers or magazines escaped 2009 without losses and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles suffered like many others.

Operators of the weekly news outlet trimmed staff. They cut salaries 20%. Still, they worried whether the Journal — chronicler of a variety of topics including Torah portions, sexual mores, Mideast politics and entertainment industry chatter — would make it to its 25th anniversary next year.

But by banking hard on two of the most robust growth trends in 21st century media — niche journalism and philanthropy — the Jewish Journal appears to have extended its life expectancy and expanded its coverage of Jewish life in Southern California.

If the experience holds lessons for other ethnic and religious-oriented publishers, it's that you can do good by being good. But it's just as important to have a business plan, friends in the right places and a target audience with a lot of disposable income.

The Journal, its related website and a nascent monthly magazine recently nailed down a critical $800,000 donation that should rejuvenate the organization and guarantee its viability for the foreseeable future.

The money came from four philanthropists — Westfield mall Chief Executive Peter Lowy, Internet executive and venture capitalist Art Bilger, cooking oil maker and long-time Journal board member Irwin Field and a fourth, anonymous, donor.

On a $4-million annual operating budget, the contributions will "give it a very stable foundation and allow us to grow all these parts of the operation," said Lowy, who said he expects advertising to cover more than 90% of the expenses in future years with ongoing fundraising to cover the rest.

"The future for print media isn't the rosiest, but this is a way we can add philanthropy to a business enterprise," Lowy said. "This is an experiment in what I would call a community media group. The Journal is very important to the Jewish community. But we think this might work for any communal group."

The magazine-style Jewish Journal, with its glossy cover and newsprint innards, has been evolving in the decade since Rob Eshman became editor in chief and, in particular, since it broke away from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 2005.

Eshman has overseen a bolder editorial course, with more lifestyle stories (Sample blog item: "Why is Hollywood hot for circumcision?") and competing political voices than when the Journal relied on the Jewish Federation, with its paying members as subscribers.

"The Federation is an overpowering old institution. It's very traditional and very reluctant to take a stand," said Bill Boyarsky, a Journal columnist and previously city editor of the Los Angeles Times. "Rob brought a fresh and independent voice."

Among the array of columnists Eshman has brought to print: conservative radio host Dennis Prager, who recently hit the left for its readiness to invoke images of the Holocaust, and liberal academic David Myers, a UCLA history professor who wrote last year that Jewish citizens were being favored over Arabs in Jerusalem's ceaseless land disputes.

The Journal also has first-rate commentators in other fields, with Martin Kaplan writing about media, Raphael Sonenshein about politics and Jonathan Kirsch about books.

Generally thorough and professional in tone, the Journal covers stories unlikely to pop up in other L.A. media — such as alleged financial fraud committed by a group of Iranian Jewish investment managers and the struggles of a couple who lost two grown children to violent deaths. (The latter story inspired donations from Journal readers, including one who ponied up two years of mortgage payments for the couple.)

But the Journal also, on occasion, does little to rock its audience from its comfort zone.

In a story last month on tensions between Muslim and Jewish students at UC Irvine, for example, the Muslim point of view was so muted as to be nearly inaudible. The first quote from anyone associated with Islam came about midway through the story.

Although the story explained that representatives of the Muslim Student Union had declined to comment, the tone suggested there wasn't much determination for finding and representing that point of view.

"They are informing folks out there what is going on in the community and extolling positive developments in the community on the one hand," said Myers, who specializes in Jewish history at UCLA, "and then on the other hand, aspiring to a level of journalistic excellence and truth telling. That is the core tension for a Jewish newspaper."

Although it unyoked itself from the Federation and its shrinking membership, the Journal did not immediately thrive. Its circulation had declined from 50,000 to roughly 30,000 and it relied almost solely on advertising from Jewish organizations.

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