50th Anniversary: "Jewish–community–newspaper"

By Judith S. Huober

Jewish. Community. Newspaper: My recollections of my tenure at The Reporter involve progress and struggle in these areas, which together combine to describe our mission and our very identity. Indeed, I recall much progress, and much struggle, in what was in some ways a transition period between the paper as Marc Goldberg built it and the times, much changed, that have followed mine.

Let me start at the business end, literally and figuratively: in those years, we faced the challenges of maintaining a viable nonprofit business whose niche was seen to be rapidly vanishing. Print newspapers as a category, we began then to understand, were declining and perhaps facing extinction. In particular, younger readers (and the ad revenue they represented) were opting out of the old medium and flocking to the Internet (social media not yet being on the horizon). These same missing younger readers will play a significant role in the discussion of community, below.

So the newspaper business was not a great business to be in; nonetheless, business approaches paid off to stabilize the bottom line and help us keep the focus on our mission. We named and solidified The Reporter Group concept and, eventually, welcomed Utica into the fold and Scranton back, thanks to the economies of scale and professional efficiencies we offered. We entered the modern age in our relationship to our printer in Pennsylvania, taking on and mastering the massive challenge of shifting our production and communications from paste-up and courier to electronic. We began to explore higher standards in visual quality, along with the staff and newly emerging graphics and layout software to facilitate it. We accepted a significant shift in our relationship with our Reporter Group members, learning that we must treat them less as students to be taught and led, and more as clients to be indulged and satisfied – and retained.

Which brings me to the next concepts: Jewish and community. It was not new to debate what a Jewish newspaper is and should be, that is, what it means to be Jewish on paper (in print, that is). However, the consequences of the answers we found or were forced to accept during my years at The Reporter made a definitive impact on the virtual Jewish space we were able to create and the nature of the community it did and did not support.

The American Jewish community was, and remains, under great stress. We all agreed that the Jewish community newspaper, as threatened as it was and is, remains one of our few good tools to create and sustain this community. I believed then, and still do, that this capability resides in the newspaper’s potential to establish and protect an impartial and inclusive debate. At its best, this virtual “town square” gives individuals a way to safely engage, and gives the community a structure to safely subsume potentially divisive individual views into overarching identity and solidarity. 

And yet what I observed while at the helm of The Reporter and The Reporter Group was a desperate refusal on the part of both individuals and community to allow this debate, even in print – and the business, Jewish and community consequences of this refusal. The Federations who were our clients felt unable to pay good money to promulgate, as they saw it, views antithetical to their official positions. It is to be noted that this not only hastened the further decline of their newspapers into newsletters in content and form, but also undercut (probably permanently) the newspapers’ ability to draw in more and younger readers and to generate the ad revenue that would liberate the Federations from this expenditure. The ultimate losers, in my view, are the Jewish individuals and communities we serve, which become smaller, weaker and more homogenous as the discourse becomes less inclusive.
My main contribution to this trend was to identify and articulate it, if not to retard it somewhat. I inhabited a peculiar position at all levels of The Reporter structure as a nonresident community leader: in the local Reporter community, as well as from my seat as executive editor to the client communities, I was an outsider at the head of the ultimate insider organ. The perspective this gave enabled me to observe, but not to alter the process. 

I am proud that I was able to hire and work with Rabbi Rachel Esserman, a move that did more than anything else to create a sound community basis for The Reporter’s future and a good business foundation on which to move the relationship forward in the Reporter Group community. She is an insider, in the best sense, in the local and greater Jewish communities. I wish her and The Reporter Group strength, guidance and good fortune as you move forward in the mission to build, sustain and secure Jewish community. 
Happy 50th, Reporter! And many more.

Judith S. Huober was the executive editor of The Reporter from September 11, 2000, to December 31, 2005.