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Jewish views: Tales of two newspapers

In the office of Jonathan Tobin, top editor of Philadelphia's weekly Jewish Exponent newspaper, hangs a portrait of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the Zionist leader who urged Jews to arm themselves against future attacks, then founded the Irgun militia.

A man sells copies of the Daily Forward in a photograph from "A Living Lens," a compilation of scenes from the paper.
A man sells copies of the Daily Forward in a photograph from "A Living Lens," a compilation of scenes from the paper.Read more

In the office of Jonathan Tobin, top editor of Philadelphia's weekly Jewish Exponent newspaper, hangs a portrait of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the Zionist leader who urged Jews to arm themselves against future attacks, then founded the Irgun militia.

In the office of J.J. Goldberg, editorial director of the Forward - the English-language spin-off of the Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish paper that taught Jewish immigrants how to be Americans - hangs a portrait of founding editor Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), a Russian Jewish socialist who evolved toward liberalism.

The opposed visuals confirm that history counts for a lot at these two vibrant, yet different, survivors of Jewish newspapering in America.

Tired of all the kvetching about crises in the newspaper biz? Here's some good news: Jewish newspapering remains alive and well.

As 2008 begins, the Exponent, which hasn't missed an issue since debuting in 1887, comes off its 120th anniversary year in the black, with a circulation of about 50,000. The Manhattan-based Forward, having celebrated its own 110th anniversary as a Yiddish paper last year, continues as two weeklies: the Yiddish version, with a circulation "well under" 10,000, and the English-language version begun in 1990.

The latter enjoys a circulation of 33,380, a devoted following among opinion-makers, and a mission, quips Goldberg, 58, "to teach Americans how to be Jewish."

The Exponent, according to Tobin, didn't have to teach its readers much of anything.

Sitting in his Arch Street office, Tobin, 53, explains that the Exponent, founded by Philadelphia businessmen, spoke to a community whose "leadership was already very much part of America, part of Philadelphia, sort of feeling its oats." Unlike the Forward, notes Tobin, executive editor of his paper for more than nine years, "the Exponent has always been in English."

Those early differences help explain enduring ones.

"This is the newspaper of record for the Jewish community of this region," continues Tobin, a native New Yorker. "Generations of people have had their births, engagements, weddings and obituaries published in our newspaper. . . . That's important."

Regional Jewish newspapers in the Exponent's league include the Baltimore Jewish Times. Chicago and Miami don't support a comparable paper despite Jewish communities larger than Philadelphia's, which numbers more than 200,000 as well as 100 synagogues and schools in its five-county area, according to Tobin.

Even other elite regionals, says Tobin, "are not as old, and don't have as powerful a hold on their communities." Thanks to plentiful ads, the Exponent frequently runs more than 70 tabloid pages long.

Both the Exponent and the Forward count as survivors in American Jewry's love affair with journalism.

Robert Singerman, a University of Florida scholar whose "Jewish Press" article in

Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia

surveys the field, writes that "approximately 2,500 dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, bulletins and annual reports . . . have been published in most of the 50 states."

The oldest continuously published Jewish paper in the United States is Cincinnati's American Israelite, founded in 1854. Philadelphia papers have included Isaac Leeser's Occident and American Jewish Advocate (1843-69).

Singerman also reflects on some standard criticisms of the weekly Jewish American press, referred to as "weaklies" by nonadmirers. He notes that many papers "rely almost exclusively" on copy from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency ("the AP of Jewish journalism," says Tobin) for nonlocal Jewish news.

Singerman observes that "more often than not, local 'news' is a bland potpourri of self-congratulatory press releases prepared by institutional public relations specialists." Some weeklies, he warns, "become subjugated to the local Jewish federation's fund-raising."

Tobin and Goldberg concede that such generalizations apply to some publications. But the Exponent employs 11 editorial staffers, the English-language Forward "about 15." They break their own stories and offer the rich culture coverage typical of Jewish papers.

Goldberg takes pride in a story last year on "labor conditions in the largest kosher slaughterhouse" in the United States. Tobin beams about a piece he did on Navy Capt. Herman Shelansky, a Jewish Philadelphian who commands the Harry S Truman, a nuclear aircraft carrier now in the Gulf. Awards from the American Jewish Press Association adorn both papers' offices.

The Exponent was bought in 1944 by the forerunner of the area's Jewish Federation - the "United Way of the Jewish community," Tobin explains. He concedes that "rocking the boat" ended for a while but adds that the paper long ago returned to "hard-nosed" reporting.

Goldberg, who has been his paper's top editor for 71/2 years - he's stepping down to write a book - similarly assures that the association that owns the Forward keeps hands off its journalism. The Forward, he explains, covers "local Jewish communities" the way the New York Times covers parts of the United States - with an eye to a story's national significance.

"We get read pretty avidly by a lot of people on Capitol Hill," he continues, "by the heads of the Jewish organizations. They open it up every week to see who we went after. . . . In a way, we're the bad boys, the dog that pulls away the curtain on the wizard."

Both Tobin and Goldberg sardonically acknowledge each other's mission.

"Their job is to announce what's going on in the local community," says Goldberg. "To help people share in each other's joys. To give people recipes . . . and to defend the good name of the Jews."

Tobin on the Forward?

"It's really about the world of the apparatchiks . . . who's doing what to whom in the 'alphabet-soup world.' " For the Exponent, he maintains, that's "too inside baseball."

The two editors also exhibit stark differences in their political stances. "Editorially, we are a pro-Israel newspaper," says Tobin. "We write from a Zionist frame of reference that represents the consensus of the community. I feel very strongly about that."

In contrast, says Goldberg, an ex-kibbutznik, "we're not here to defend Israel. We're here to tell you - on the assumption that you care about Israel - what's really going on in Israel." Similarly, he advises, "we're not here to defend or convince people of Zionism, though personally I'm a card-carrying Zionist."

Tobin considers the Exponent "centrist." Politics matter, even if they don't influence reportage, because both editors also write almost all their papers' editorials. And Tobin produces a separate column under his own name.

"Obviously, I'm not a traditional liberal," says Tobin, who has won many prizes for his writing. Goldberg expresses his social democratic views, too, but strives for diversity on his op-ed page.

Has assimilation damaged their franchises? Goldberg calls the issue "exaggerated" - American Jews are simply "becoming something very different." Tobin sees some shrinkage in the Jewish community but notes a countertrend of Jews "interested in being more Jewish."

The supposed decline of reading hasn't hurt much, either. A Forward reading series, Goldberg notes, "was jammed every month. It became a pick-up place."

Neither Goldberg nor Tobin displays anxiety about the future of the Jewish newspaper. "Jews are still readers," says Tobin. "It's a very educated audience."

" 'I always ask, 'What are we selling?' " he says. "We're selling Jewish ideas. . . . As long as there are enough people who care about that, you're going to have a newspaper."