I call Baltimore Jewish Times (17,000 subscribers, Gary Rosenblatt was the editor for 19 years until he moved to The Jewish Week of New York in 1993) Senior Editor Neil Rubin Thursday, August 5, 2004.
"I grew up in Baltimore. I remember in sixth grade I read a lot of history books. I noticed they were often written by journalists. It seemed that the best way to learn was to write about something. The word 'writer' was always more important to me than 'journalist.'
"I went to the University of Maryland for my BA in journalism (graduating in 1985). I have a masters degree from Baltimore Hebrew University in Modern Hebrew Studies. I am currently a Ph.D. student there for the next 500 years. I'm taking a course a semester.
"I spent a year in Israel after my undergraduate degree. Then I came home and got a job writing PR for Bnai Brith International. I remember sitting down one day and trying to figure things out. The books I like to read are on Jewish things. The movies I like are about Jewish things. The articles I like to write are about Jewish things. I really need to be writing Jewish things.
"I was a freelance writer for a while for the Baltimore Sun but I was writing on Jewish things.
"The first time I wrote on a paper full-time was in 1990 when I had a freelance contract for the Washington Jewish Week. I moved to the Atlanta Jewish Times in June 1991 [until October 1998]. The same company that owns the Baltimore Jewish Times used to own the Atlanta Jewish Times (until 2000) as well as the Detroit Jewish News, the Western Jewish Bulletin of Greater Vancouver, and a paper in Florida that we started, the Palm Beach Jewish Times. We sold it. A year later, it folded. South Florida is the black hole of Jewish journalism. Papers come and go there all the time."
"I think the Baltimore Jewish Times under Gary was a better paper than The Jewish Week today. They certainly did more investigative journalism."
"They are different. The Baltimore paper, because it wasn't under a media spotlight and had a real community to work with and had people who were involved with national organizations but weren't beholden to them, it was able to do things that I don't know if you can do in New York now. The New York papers, the Forward and The Jewish Week, primarily report on Jewish agencies. It's inside baseball. The Baltimore paper had a lot more space. Even now, we run 100-130 pages each issue. The Baltimore Jewish Times then was 160 pages in a regular week. You could run a 10,000 word article. We can't do that today."
"How many Jews do you have in Baltimore?"
"We have 500,000 Jews in Southern California but the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles only runs 40 pages, half of it advertising."
"There's geographic concentration in Baltimore. The people reading Baltimore Jewish Times aren't just reading it for Jewish news. It's community news. Back then, there were more mom-and-pop operations. There were corner pharmacies and hardware stores. Now with Home Depot, Wallmart, those small businesses are either going out of business or do not have an advertising budget anymore. The national chains do not advertise in Jewish newspapers or any weekly newspaper."
"What have you loved and hated about your time in Jewish newspapers?"
"The pettiness is insane. We deal with the real world. It's maddening, deadening, inspiring, boring.
"The pettiness, aggressiveness, and protectiveness of some of the people we have to deal with is insane. There are rabbis in town who, when they call me, I want to pick up the phone and say, 'Hi rabbi so-and-so, what's the problem today? What's wrong now?' People have no idea how to have a relationship. I liken it to editing a newspaper on your family that's honest, and then showing it to your neighbors and not telling your family members about it, and then them finding out and freaking out about it.
"I've been approached in a men's room about why we didn't write a certain story. Sometimes people have lined up at kiddish on Shabbat just to say [their piece about the paper]. Nice people will say, do you mind if I talk to you about work? And I will say, 'Yes, I do. Can't it wait until Shabbat's over?' Then they will say, 'Ok, but such-and-such.' It goes with the territory but sometimes it drives me nuts. You're a quasi-public personality, particularly if you write a column with your picture in the paper.
"What I do like is that I can get any book I want. I can interview almost anybody I want. I can ask any question I want. On a good day, I'm sitting with Adin Steinsaltz and he's explaining to me his new commentary on the Tanya and we're going off on a million tangents. I was able to go to Camp David and cover the peace talks in 2000."
"Have you been amazed that leaders in Jewish life tend to get most upset at you over trivial things such as picture placement?"
"No, because some of those people are trivial people. Real leaders don't care about that stuff. We have a good photographer so we don't do the grip-and-grin stuff. We spend money on freelance too, photographers and reporters.
"We have one full-time reporter on staff, one three-day-a-week reporter and one regular freelancer who does our Arts and Life section. We have four editors and all write."
"Why are you getting a Ph.D?"
"Because it's stimulating. I always wanted to get a Ph.D. I've always wanted to sink into a topic. One of the things that is frustrating about journalism is that you know a little about a lot. I'm fascinated by the concept of religion in the peace process. Every time we get serious about the peace process we talk about land and water and refugees and borders and Jerusalem. Everybody says religion is a problem but nobody deals with it. I'm researching Jewish text to find out if there's spiritual possession of the land vs physical possession. What does it mean to give up land? Religion is a concept that political science bypassed until the Iranian revolution ."
"Do you guys do same-sex marriage announcements?"
"We have considered that and debated that. We have only been asked to do one. We decided not to do it but we wrote a cover story about it. In the last year, we've published eight-to-ten stories about it. We felt the need to sensitize the community first. It ain't a big issue here. Baltimore is a conservative town. In Atlanta, I did run same-sex announcements."
"Isn't Ner Israel a big Orthodox yeshiva in town?"
"Oh yeah. We do some good stuff on Ner Israel. It's a large interesting place. Unlike many places, the Orthodox community is here part and parcel of the general community leadership. Whether it is sitting on the Federation board or the Baltimore Jewish Council board... Those guys are out there, making public statements, and it's all fair game."
"Are you going wild while your editor, Phil Jacobs, is on vacation?"
"Just going crazy. Twenty lawsuits in the waiting."
"Do you go to many AJPA conferences?"
"Yes. I go every year. I'm on the board. I chair the awards banquet."
"At the awards banquet, do you see people doing lines or smoking dope?"
"Oh sure. All the time. It's part of the party favors. Particularly in Atlanta this year there was a lot of Coke. Diet too. It's a lively crowd. Some of us stayed up until 1 a.m. drinking beer and hanging out on the patio of the hotel."
"How stimulating do you find AJPA conferences?"
"Surprisingly, this year's was very stimulating. Some of the past year's have been extremely boring. For some reason, I find the sessions that I chair very interesting.
"I like seeing certain people there. Andy Carroll was my first editor. I liked seeing Andy there. I do feel a sense of responsibility to be there to talk to younger editors at the smaller papers."
"Was it the happiest day of your life when you won a Rockower award?"
"It better not be. My wife would not be happy about that. It's nice to be recognized. By the time that thing is over, I'm exhausted, because I've been up there for an hour-and-a-half, just trying to maintain my composure."
"Is that difficult for you?"
"Depends on how much wine I've had."
"Is the Forward better or worse under J.J.?"
"It's different. Clearly, it has gone back to a neo-socialist perspective. I don't know if the columnists are as good as they were under Seth. I don't know if the culture stuff is as good as it was. You have to look at it and The Jewish Week every once in a while to know what is going on. I think it is fantastic they have competition in New York. I wish we had competition here. I think we would be a much better paper.
"We had a horrible situation a few months ago. A non-Jewish family living in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood had three of their kids murdered by having their heads decapitated. Some family issues. We wrote a story about a memorial ceremony for these kids that the neighborhood leaders put together and how no Jews showed up. The Orthodox community was outraged at us.
"I'm giving this as an example of people caring what happens in their neighborhood. This is a void in most Jewish newspapers. We're lucky. We have Jewish neighborhoods. It ain't so easy in Atlanta.
"I live in the Jewish neighborhood of Pikesville. My neighbors are all Jewish. I walk to shul. I struggle to be an observant Conservative Jew."
"How often are you pleased with your decision to devote yourself to Jewish journalism and how often do you kick yourself for it?"
"It depends on what my options would be. If I could figure them out, I might have done something else. I've got to do what I'm interested in. Let's say I go on into academia. It's still Jewish. I do want more money. No matter what journalism job I had, I would want more money."
"Do you find much support for what you do in Jewish text?"
"It depends on how you look at it. I look at what we do as a humble low earthly continuation of the Talmud. The Talmud records the debates of the Jewish people. There's a reason it has minority opinion. Every so often, it says teyku, meaning, this will be decided when the Messiah shows up. I believe in discussion with integrity. Last night I was at a right-wing event. Today I had lunch with two left-wing Israeli professors at John Hopkins University."
"How many comp trips have you taken?"
"A few. I had a trip a couple of years ago from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to do a piece on Birthright Israel. In addition to coming back and sending them a four-page bulleted memo on how I think they didn't do a good job in putting together the trip, I wrote an investigative piece about Birthright that dealt with funding issues. Birthright Israel called and said they loved it. They'd love to put it on their Web site. I said sure. But they excised all those portions about funding.
"When I was editor in Atlanta, I had a trip to the Soviet Union from a non-Jewish group called Friendship Force. A people to people exchange. They hooked me up with a journalist there. It was December 1991. I was watching on TV the night Gorbachev went on and said tomorrow the flag will come down from Red Square. It shocked the hell out of everybody."
"Did you get out in the streets or did you just watch your TV?"
"In December in Moscow, you stay inside at 9 p.m.
"You get offered trips all the time. I've been to Israel a dozen times. I speak Hebrew. I don't want anybody saying to me, 'This is the Western Wall. It's very important in Jewish history.' Most of my trips to Israel are paid for by my newspaper.
"James Besser is our Washington correspondent. The Jewish Week and Baltimore Jewish Times split Jim."
"He's with the Jewish Journal."
"He takes his directions from us. He writes an analysis column each week just for us. He sends it out to other people, but Jim and I confer every Monday morning. We talk several times a week."
"So what's the benefit in running Jim's column?"
"Because he's damn good."
"Damn good at what?"
"He's an excellent reporter. He's respected by everyone across the spectrum."
"Yes. I know you are going to tell me now that some people think he's a left-wing commie pinko. I disagree. I edit Jim's analysis column. Jim is definitely center/center-left in his personal views. I don't see it coming across in his reporting."
"You must be smoking crack," I think.
"With the relentless bashing of the Christian right."
"He's definitely obsessed with the Christian right. Is that Jim doing that or is he following the Jewish community's interests?
"I'm studying this stuff for my dissertation. I happen to believe that evangelical Christians are the most underreported issue in the Jewish community. I just wrote a cover story on the relationship between evangelical Christians in Baltimore and the Jewish community. Under my instructions, Jim writes about that topic a great deal."
The Baltimore Jewish community is 20% Orthodox, which is twice the national average. About half are born in Baltimore.
"You're not going to ask what music I like? You've asked everything else."
"Top five records of all time?"
"Springsteen, Springsteen, Springsteen, a little Rolling Stones, more Springsteen."
"Did you like his editorial blasting Bush in The New York Times today?"
"I'm disappointed he's getting into politics."
"Top five movies."
"Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I have a daughter named Leah. Field of Dreams. The Star Trek movie with the whales. The Wedding Singer. Uncle Buck with John Candy."
"What five books would you take to a desert island aside from Jewish sacred text?"
"I wouldn't necessarily take any Jewish sacred text. I would take Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf. The Power of One. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. Operation Shylock by Philip Roth. Portnoy's Complaint is dated and didn't do as much in character development. This book was so existential and so bizarre. I might toss in Catch 22 by Joseph Heller."
"Which Hollywood actress would you take?"
"Nicole Kidman. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld's wife [Jessica Sklar]. Is she an actress? I'll take her anyway."
"He took her from his best friend [when they were newly married]."
"It's only fair that I take her from him then.
"How long would I be on this island?"
"Ahh, my wife might find out. I better just take some more books.
"I think it's great you're putting the unedited interviews up there. I've forwarded the link to my staff and suggested they read one a day.
"You should get married. Why should we suffer alone?
"Did you go to the AJPA in Los Angeles?"
"I did for an hour but I found my brain slowing down, so I had to get out of there."
"That was probably the most boring convention ever."
"You ask in your column: When a popular rabbi gets fired for allegedly having an affair with a congregant, is it news?"
Of course it's news. A) People are talking about it B) S/he's a public figure C) Isn't it news when it happens in other religions?
You can always argue over context and timing and that's very fair for our readers to do (and what they should do more of).
Whether or not you're going to accurately get the story in way that's printable and that you won't get sued is the issue. Rabbis are public figures. We write stories about them when they show up saying they're the greatest thing since sliced challah, and then we let them sneak out of town at midnight? To the best of my knowledge this has not happened while I was an editor in Atlanta or Baltimore. The closest I came was in Atlanta when I had to write a few articles about a rabbi [Juda Mintz] who had founded a congregation 17 years earlier and did not have his contract renewed. There were rumors of poor fiscal accountability, basically not that he stole, but that he could not account for things he bought for the shul via receipts. He said he bought them from dealers in Jerusalem that didn't give receipts. I happen to think he was just not that bright at all in this area. The hitch: He had performed my wedding a few years earlier. After it all happened, we went out to lunch. He look at me and said, "Kakha hayah." (This is how it was.) In other words, I didn't lie and wrote a fair story. I'm proud of that, but still sad I had to write that story.
"When a Jewish federation macher is sued for illegal business practices -- on the eve of being reelected federation president -- how should a Jewish newspaper respond? That's a tougher one.
"In the abstract, I'd say yes but I have to honestly say it would depend on particulars and I do wonder how I would respond. If he were accused of financial improprieties, then you have to write about it. The guy can't be asking for millions, have that cloud hanging and have nobody write about it. Talk about your kosher elephants in the corner of the room.
In Atlanta, after I had left, my successor wrote a story about the President of the Federation who was being sued by his business partners for business practices. The Atlanta Jewish Times wrote a gutsy story about it... and took tremendous heat. The relatively new editor found out very quickly the cost of writing such stories as some of the verbal responses were personal, digging into her own family situation (details of which I will not reveal).
"By the way, I do not buy the argument that writing about this will damage the community via fundraising in any way. The real question is would we consider the story fair? Is it important news for our community? (After all, anyone can sue anybody for anything in this country. There's also an issue as to whether you would break the story or not.)
"These are ethical debates that will go on and on. The key point: It's for the editors to decide, in consultation with a publisher and the paper's libel attorney. Another mark of a good paper: Do you have a libel attorney that you show stories to? If not, perhaps you're not writing gutsy stories. As our editor Phil Jacobs likes to say, 'Apologies to my wife, but nobody helps me sleep better at night than our libel attorney.'
"One issue to probe if you're looking a future trends is this very concerning one: We seem to have a much more difficult time recruiting people today than we did 10 years ago even in Baltimore. At one point, we were offering good salaries compared to other newspapers. However, newspapers have taken a general dive in that period in circulation and ad revenues. That means that salaries have not rise that much. At the same time, fewer people want print journalism -- which I believe actually weakens broadcast journalism as well because in print you truly learn to be an effective communicator and collator/cruncher of large volumes of information."