Jewish Exponent celebrates an anniversary and a circulation turnaround

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In June 2015, with the Jewish Exponent poised to lose money for a 10th consecutive year, its new general manager made a decision that he described as painful but necessary.

Steven Rosenberg fired the weekly newspaper’s 15-person staff and hired a Maryland media company to run the Exponent, whose circulation had declined from 25,500 in 2007 to 22,000.

Then came the outcry.

How could a company based 110 miles away cover Philadelphia’s Jewish community, the sixth largest in the nation?  How could the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the paper’s owner and publisher, jettison the Exponent’s award-winning staff?

Rosenberg’s answer: survival.

“We couldn’t keep going the way we were going,” he said. “The only other option was to not have the paper come out in print form.”

Two years later, Rosenberg, also the federation’s chief marketing officer, is touting the paper’s revival. For the first time in a decade, the Exponent is expected to end the fiscal year in the black, heightening the celebration of its 130th anniversary.  Circulation has risen about 10 percent, to 24,000.

Key was the old collectivist notion, “United we stand.” By contracting with Mid-Atlantic Media, which calls itself a customs communication company, the Exponent cut operating costs. Its staff now consists of just six locally based journalists, but also available to the Exponent are stories from Mid-Atlantic’s other Jewish publications. The firm produces the Baltimore Jewish Times and Washington Jewish Week, and supervises editorial content for the Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh and the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Since the reorganization, opinions have varied about the paper’s content and direction, but the Exponent has continued winning journalism awards.

“My goal is for [diverse sectors of the Jewish community] to find something that will make each one feel at home in the publication,” said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Rabbi Joshua Runyan.  

The Exponent has seemingly stabilized its fortunes amid a quaking print-media landscape that continues to topple newspapers as they struggle with declining readership and ad revenue. The Exponent’s challenge to stay relevant and financially viable is faced by all print publications that must adapt to media’s digital makeover. But Jewish weeklies’ traditional role and business model make that task more complex, as they strive to serve a readership also in transition.

“Local Jewish newspapers helped the whole Jewish community to retain a sense of unity and identity,“ said Rabbi David Teutsch, chair of the department of contemporary Jewish civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. But “it’s a harder environment for them to be financially viable than at any time in memory.”

Jewish publications are largely owned by local Jewish federations, nonprofit service organizations that themselves are under financial pressure as they compete for donations  from a community that is more diverse and assimilated, “with varying relationships to Judaism or none at all,” said Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward, a Jewish national news organization.

The result has been a decline of interest in news of the Jewish community, said Betsy Scheerr, a former Exponent board member.

Papers have closed, merged, reduced publishing schedules, or gone online only, said Ami Eden, executive editor of 70 Faces Media, the parent organization of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a wire service providing news to international publications and online outlets.

Those that remain are figuring out how to pay the bills and appeal to a wider (read: younger) audience without losing the old one, said Eden, a former Exponent wire copy editor who grew up in Philadelphia. 

The Exponent has redesigned its website and increased its presence on social media, said  Runyan, who is also Mid-Atlantic’s senior editorial director. It also is focusing more on local news and less on two subjects that can fuel heated debate and division: politics and Israel. Rosenberg argues that extensive coverage of Israel is available to Exponent readers at multiple outlets.

“Throughout history, the community perception of the Exponent – right or wrong – was to view it through a political lens. It was too far left or too far right,” said Runyan, who identifies as Chabad, an Orthodox Hasidic movement. “I don’t want people to come to the Exponent for affirmation of their own views.”

His aim is to reflect the community’s diversity and concern for more than one issue, he said. “The safety of the State of Israel is a preeminent concern, but we have lots of others – poverty, engagement, strength of institutions.”

Runyan, who was born in Lower Merion and grew up in Dallas, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He lived in Israel for five years and was editor-in-chief of the news website before joining Mid-Atlantic in 2013. He moved back to the area, to the city’s Overbrook Farms section, to lead the Exponent’s local staff.

Most of the Exponent’s subscribers are federation contributors who donate a minimum of $36 annually to the organization. An additional 8,000 subscribers pay $50 annually to receive the paper.

Among its critics is Rela Mintz Geffen, a professor emeritus at Gratz College in Melrose Park, who said the Exponent focuses too much on publicizing events, institutions, and VIPs, and not enough on tough journalism. It is, she said, perhaps a reflection of its ties to the federation and fear of offending its donors.

 “I read it in seven minutes,” said Geffen, who once was president of the former Baltimore Hebrew College.

Burt Siegel’s initial fears have been allayed somewhat. The former executive director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council worried that the new business model would rob the publication of its local flavor. “But it’s not as bad as I thought,” said Siegel, now a board member of the progressive Jewish Social Policy Action Network. “They do as good a job as they can under less than ideal circumstances.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), has a harsher assessment. The Exponent, he said, has abdicated its responsibility to inform Jews about Israel and the threat of violence because of the “Arab Islamic War against Israel. I am deeply disappointed and dismayed.”

For the foreseeable future,  Runyan expects  the Exponent to continue as a newspaper. “Print is king,” he said. “No one has figured out how to make a lot of money digitally.”

Whatever the platform, Jewish news outlets will continue because “there will always be a Jewish community,” he said, “and stories that need to be told.”

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