The Future of The Forward, New York's Legendary Jewish Newspaper
April 23, 2009
Sam Norich is the executive director of The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper published in English and Yiddish. He talked at Lehman College about the place of The Forward in the Jewish community and how he sees the future of the newspaper.
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This is Vince Bracy, a student at Lehman College. Sam Norich is the executive director of The Forward, a Jewish-American newspaper published in English and Yiddish. He talked at Lehman College about the place of The Forward in the Jewish community and how he sees the future of the newspaper.
The question really is: What future can there be for a Jewish newspaper founded in the nineteenth century? What kind of life can that newspaper have for its community in the twenty-first century. Look at what's changed.
Jews are not, today, mostly an immigrant community. There is a large Jewish immigration from Russia in the last twenty years. But that's a small proportion of the entire American Jewish community. Most American Jews, three, four generations back. It's not a poor community. American Jews are, in fact, closer to the top of the income distribution than they are to the bottom. When we were founded, this was a very poor community.
This was a community that needed help to survive. That's not the story today. When we started, most Jews spoke this foreign language, Yiddish. Most Jews today don't. Most Jews have assimilated into the wider culture. They hold positions in media, in business, in the professions, in Congress, in the White House. This is not a little minority off in the corner someplace. It's a sophisticated minority that has enjoyed the benefits of everything America has to offer.
It's also, well, I should say, it's still, one thing that hasn't changed, it's still a very argumentative minority. We always say, "Two Jews, three opinions." That has not changed. But, I think, at the same time that we acknowledge that it's argumentative community, you also have to point out where most Jews position themselves politically.
Seventy-eight percent of American Jews voted for Obama. That's a higher proportion than any subgroup in America except African-Americans. The leaders of American Jews are not 78 percent of them for Obama. I think it's pretty evenly split there. But American Jews don't necessarily salute their leaders. They don't necessarily follow the lead of their so-called representatives.
It's amazing actually that American Jews remain as liberal as we are. Milton Himmelfarb, a great student of American Jewry, a leader of the American Jewish Committee, once said that "Jews earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans." Liberal. And, you know, that's not always an obvious thing to explain.
I mean, their class interest probably should impel them to vote differently than their great-grandparents used to because they have a different class position than their great-grandparents did. So that's changed, too. There is now an Israel. There wasn't an Israel when the Forward got started. And that's a very complicated story. So there've been a lot of things that have changed.
And one more thing has changed. Because of the Holocaust, you don't have a massive Yiddish-speaking Jewish population. Cynthia Ozick once wrote that "about no other language can you say in which decade and in which territory that language was killed." I'm not sure there's no other language. There have been other genocides. And you can't point to other languages that got killed.
But this one did get killed between 1940 and 1945. And of course, there were remnants. My family is one of them. But you can't replace six million people, five-and-a-half million of whom spoke Yiddish. You just can't do that. So a lot of things have changed.
And here we are, the only surviving Jewish newspaper from the nineteenth century, still doing what we do. Now also in English. About one-third of the readers of the Yiddish paper also subscribe to the English paper. But it's a different readership.
The readership of this today is three-quarters of it above the age of 80. There are students of Yiddish in colleges and high schools who are also subscribers to the Yiddish paper. But they are a small minority of our subscribers. And you know that 85-year-old people are not gonna live forever.
This paper has a much younger readership. The English Forward has a much younger readership. Both newspapers are on the web. And on the web, their readership is very different than their readership in print, really different.
Since we won the Webby in 2007, it's now almost two years, our online readership has doubled from what it was then. And I don't think the quality's gone down. We have a claim on the future, but it's not secure. Nothing's for sure. And, meanwhile, advertising revenues at The Forward have gone down 20 percent since last August 1. Until August 1, we were about even with the previous year, which was the best year we've ever had.
But since August 1, 2008, our ad revenues have fallen off a cliff, sort of like everybody else's. We feel the economic downturn like everybody else does. So what is gonna be the future of this newspaper in the twenty-first century? Why should this newspaper figure it out? What can make this newspaper successful, have a claim on people's time, and maybe even on their donations, and their money, not only their subscriptions, but their donations as well? Three things: ownership, independence, and quality.
Ownership. We are not a privately owned newspaper. You got it right. We are a not-for-profit organization, started as a cooperative. Groups of workers chipped in to start The Forward and kept it going. When newsprint prices went up a year later, and The Forward was in crisis, the voice of labor and organization of Jewish workers organized a Purim ball where 10,000 people came out and gave a few pennies each. I mean, this was not huge donations.
And this is the paper that was owned by a cooperative. If it had not been owned by a cooperative, it would have closed in the 1950's, or maybe 1960's like all other Yiddish newspapers of that day did. Why? Because after 1945, after the survivors from the Holocaust came to America in '48, '49, '50, it was clear that there was never gonna be another Yiddish-speaking wave of immigration.
So anybody with any sense knew that the handwriting was on the wall, readership was only gonna go down. The children of the immigrants, they didn't need a Yiddish paper. They wanted an English paper. So if you had any sense, why lose more money next year than you're losing this year? Just close, if profit is your motive. The Forward's motive was not profit. The Forward was moved by mission, not by profit. So The Forward decided that the enormous wealth that had been built up by The Forward Association in the first half of the twentieth century, the paper was in fact profitable until 1944. In '45, it went into the red, and it's been in the red since. The Forward decided, "We're gonna use the assets we've built up to keep this paper going.
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