I call Marc S. Klein (55 yo), editor and publisher of j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, Monday morning, July 12.
"What are the biggest obstacles to putting out a compelling paper?" I ask.
He thinks for about ten seconds. "I'm not sure the Jewish community wants a compelling paper."
Marc's voice is rich and vibrant. "I've heard from my colleagues over the years that we put out one of the best Jewish newspapers in the country. Does that mean we're compelling or does that mean we have a lot of compelling stories because we're in the San Francisco Bay Area? I can't answer that one.
"I'd say that Jewish newspapers would be more compelling if Jewish readers wanted a more compelling paper. I can't tell you how many times over the years [out of 23 years in Jewish journalism] that I've heard readers say, 'I read your paper on Shabbat. I don't want to be disturbed. I just want to read nice Jewish news. I don't want things to make me angry. I don't think you should say anything that's going to hurt the Jews.' That makes our role that much more difficult."
"I'm guess there's a generational issue here. I'm guessing that you don't hear that as much from younger Jews."
"We don't hear much from younger Jews period," chuckles Marc. "We redesigned our paper last September into a [weekly] magazine format. The idea was to get younger readers. We have gotten more subscriptions. Unfortunately, we're losing just as many on the other end, either dying or moving away. Mostly dying. Virtually all Jewish newspapers have readerships that are getting old. The young people, especially here in the Bay Area, didn't have bar or bat mitzvahs or their own, or came from intermarried families... On the East Coast, you will find a husband and wife who were bar and bat mitzvahed, sending their kids to Hebrew school like their parents sent them to Hebrew school, but you see that less out here. If they are not going to be sending their kids to Hebrew school, chances are they are not going to be getting a Jewish paper. Even if they do send their kids to Hebrew school, they may not get a Jewish newspaper.
"What we hear a lot is, 'There are so many things going on in the Bay Area. I've got too much to read. I just canceled my Time subscription. I just don't have time to read.' We're not only fighting the issue of people's Jewishness and interest, we're fighting the decline of reading. I use public transportation every day and I am almost the only one reading a newspaper. In years past, young families sending their kids to Hebrew school, often got a Jewish newspaper, at least on the East Coast. What we're experiencing here, the East Coast will experience some time later. California sets trends."
"Is San Francisco the most assimilated large Jewish community?"
"Certainly one of the top. We've had estimates of up to 80% intermarriage. You can talk to Conservative rabbis here who say that a large proportion of their congregation is intermarried. The last demographic study (about 13 years ago) found the Orthodox to be about two percent of the general Jewish population. While there are a number of Orthodox congregations, none of them have a large membership."
"How many papers do you print each week?"
"Twenty thousand. We have almost 19,000 subscribers."
"You're not giving away a lot of your papers."
"We could never do what LA is doing because we don't have Jewish neighborhoods, condos, delis. Our readers live far away from each other."
"I used to subscribe to your paper in 1992-93 when I lived 45 minutes drive north of Sacramento. I subscribed to the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles as well. I automatically assumed that the LA paper would be bigger and better as it has a much larger and more committed Jewish community, but I was wrong."
"Until lately, we've always been four to eight pages bigger than the LA paper."
"They print 55,000-80,000 copies a week," I say.
"They give away the bulk of those copies. I know that would never work for us."
"Are you a Federation paper?"
"No. We're kinda like LA. My boss is my board of directors, which is self-appointed. Four members of the 19-member board come from the Federation. The Federation has never even tried to control the paper. The Federation buys about 85% of the papers that we mail. The paper is deeded to the community."
"What does that mean?"
"Everyone has always asked us that question. We don't know. None of the lawyers know what that essentially means. It would only mean something if, God forbid, we went out of business."
"What would you guess is the median age of your readers?"
"I think Jewish newspapers are all the same -- low 60s. Anyone who starts giving you better figures is not being totally truthful."
"I had Rob Eshman tell me it had gone down by 12 years since he took over the paper because he's got great young writers."
"I hope Rob's right," says Marc. "It's good for all of us if he's right."
"Are you doing anything to attract younger readers?"
"We're putting out more of a magazine with stories to attract them more. But I have my doubts whether there's anything you can do. If you are a young person who's not involved in anything Jewishly, why would you read a Jewish paper? Every study shows that fewer young people are getting affiliated with the Jewish community. If you look at Federations across the country, and even if you are privately owned, your readership base is affected by the Federation, Federations aren't growing. So we don't grow."
"I can tell just by talking to you that you retain tremendous passion for what you do," I say.
"It's been a lot of years. I've been president of the American Jewish Press Association on two occasions. I worry about these issues. I have a feeling that I am of the last generation of editors that will see thriving weekly newspapers. I think the next generation will see fewer papers and biweekly or monthly editions and a smaller readership."
"I see a lack of New Journalism (scene-by-scene construction, close attention paid to status details, multiple points of view and liberal use of realistic dialogue) in Jewish journalism," I say.
"I have three writers here. I'm sure you know how large the Bay Area is. There is no way we could put out a paper if our writers were out in the field. Once in a while, it's imperative that they see the person they talk to, but for the most part, they do their stories sitting at their desk. You know the traffic jams in the Bay Area. You could lose a day going out for one interview."
"Malcolm Hoenlein says Jewish newspapers shouldn't report dissident voices because it weakens the community," I say.
"He doesn't want to hear from Michael Lerner anymore than a lot of our readers do. He doesn't want to give the left-wing Jewish voice much credibility in the community. Jewish leaders want to hear from them, but they want to keep their earplugs in while they're hearing. We try to report dissident voices as much as possible. We try to bring in the Berkeley voice. One of our reporters is very liberal and a lot of the people in those organizations are her friends. She comes to me with stories and I'd say she gets 60% yesses from me. We probably cover the Left voice more than most Jewish newspapers do in the country."
"Because you have more of a Left voice in San Francisco," I say.
"More of a Left voice that can make itself heard. Does the rest of our community like that? I don't think so. The letters that come in when we do the Left voice are numerous. The letters from the Left side hardly come in at all. Readers sometimes complain that our cover story is on the liberal end. Most of the letters then either attack what somebody [liberal] said or attack the paper for covering it. You get few letters that say, right on!"
"Rob Eshman recently published a cover story of two men under a chuppah getting married. He told me he didn't think any other Jewish newspaper would do such a thing. Would you put a same-sex marriage on the cover of your paper?"
"We have many times. Way before Rob was doing it. We were doing stuff like that 18 years ago. We've always covered the gay population. A gay synagogue gave me an award a few years ago. They've never felt slighted here. The rabbi from the gay synagogue is on my board of directors. She loves what we've done for the gay community.
"The complaint that I get constantly is that we have too many stories about gays. We feel we should cover them. Even the Federation is reaching out to the gay community. There are a lot of natives out here who didn't like the hippies years ago and don't like the gays today."
"What do you love and what do you hate about your job?"
Marc laughs. "The hardest part of the job is personnel -- retaining, hiring, firing. The daily job of running the staff. You deal with people's daily emotions. The second hardest part of the job is dealing with people on the phone yelling at you.
"What do I like about it? I like the grind of getting out each week's paper. I love the challenge of the deadline. I was in daily newspapers. I've been living with deadlines since college."
"How is the Internet and blogging affecting Jewish newspaper if at all?"
"In 1995, we started the Jewish area on America Online. Keyword Jewish. We went on the Web with Jewish.com. We eventually sold it. When the dotcom bust happened, we couldn't afford to keep it running. We decided it was too hard to do an international Web site from San Francisco and run a newspaper at the same time.
"It's harder to get ads for the Internet the smaller your audience gets. We weren't serving the Jewish community. We were serving the Jews who were interested in the Jewish community. We saw tremendous hits come on Passover and Chanukkah for recipes. The rest of the year, we got a decent amount of traffic, but nothing close to what our friends in the Christian community were getting. I don't think it is a sustainable business to run a Jewish Internet site.
"Do I think the Internet is going to take over? It's hard to say. I know people who rely on getting online every day and reading the Jewish news. But a lot of them also get our paper. In all the years I've run the paper, I think I've had three emails say, 'Save the trees. I'll read your paper online.' It's not like we're losing readers over the Internet. As long as most Jewish newspapers have a readership [of people over 60], the Internet is not going to cause a problem. But it will for the next generation. When I and my peers turn 60, 70, we're going to be Internet savvy. There may not be many Jewish weekly newspapers outside of New York and the big cities."
"Is there one Jewish newspaper that has influenced you the most?"
"The Baltimore Jewish Times when Gary Rosenblatt was running it. It was compelling. Gary did a lot of investigative stories and fantastic features that were interesting no matter where you lived. I don't think any paper has replaced what Gary did there."
"I don't think he's as interesting at The Jewish Week (NY)."
"No, he's not. We've talked about it. He's serving a different readership there. New York is the little Jerusalem of the United States. It's a readership used to getting four daily newspapers. It's more news oriented than Baltimore, where he was talking to an Orthodox community in individual neighborhoods. In New York, he's talking to a broader community."
"It feels to me that The Jewish Week is edited by a Modern Orthodox Jew from a Modern Orthodox perspective for a Modern Orthodox community."
"I can't disagree. If you look at the pictures, there are a lot of pictures of beards in the paper. Gary feels that a magazine works better in Baltimore than in New York. I'm not so sure that in the future they won't have to seriously consider changing to a magazine format."
"Do you find AJPA conferences compelling?"
"Umm. I think some people do. I don't think I do. I've been around so long. I stay up on the news. So if Malcolm Hoenlein comes to speak at AJPA, I like seeing him because I've known him for years, but what he has to say, I've read already. There's little at this stage that I find compelling."
"I've only been to one for about an hour but it was a giant snooze."
Marc laughs. "It's hard to program. You can't program for my level or Gary's level or Rob's level. Rob didn't come to this last one. He said that he mostly comes to see his friends and chat around the hallways. That's what I do. But we have to program for the small paper whose editor hasn't been in the business long, who hasn't been exposed to daily newspapers. For whom everything is new. Who doesn't get out of her small town. We have two different levels of people at these conferences but we have to serve the level that needs the most help."
"I was just there for 15 minutes when I felt my brain slowing down.
"You do a great job covering your community."
"Coming in from the daily newspaper business, this is what I know and this is what I wanted to do. I've always looked at my paper as a daily that only happens to publish once a week. We want our reporters working every day. This has got to be the most fascinating place to cover for any sort of news. It's so different from any other place in the country. I have people say, gee, your paper has some interesting stories. I say it's nothing we're doing. It's the community we're in."
"My favorite Jewish singles columnist, Teresa Strasser, worked at your paper," I say.
"Teresa Strasser was one of my three writers. She covered features and news. She wasn't writing a singles column. She's a helluva writer. She could be very difficult. She'd be in the hair of my copy editor, looking over every single word to make sure it wasn't touched."
We chuckle because we both wish that more writers cared that much about their work.
Marc gives me a parting thought. "There's plenty to criticize about the Jewish press, but when you look at other religious newspaper, we are way way ahead. That just shows you how difficult it is to serve a religious community."
"It's just another part of community journalism, whether it is for latinos, blacks," I say.
"Blacks are more of a rage and rant type community paper than a Jewish newspaper will ever be."