The Forward, America's oldest Jewish news outlet, faces an unsure future

An influential US Jewish outlet is confronting the digital revolution — painfully


Stuck between a largely assimilated American Jewry and the financial instability of digital media, America’s leading Jewish newspaper is struggling to keep its soul.

Pressured to reorganise for the future, the Forward responded with a digital-first transition in 2016 that critics say sidelined investigative journalism for clickbait, saw numerous employees leave, and stifled writers with content quotas.

“I think most writers of the Forward, when this regime had been inaugurated, felt they were neither paid well, nor respected, nor permitted to do substantive work,” a former employee said.

It began life in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily, providing news and guidance to newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. But, as American Jews assimilated, the paper began facing the ongoing question of diaspora Jewish journalism: how can a paper serve a niche population that may not want it any more?

Seth Lipsky, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, answered in 1990 by creating the English-language Forward. It was lauded for strong investigative journalism and an impressive culture section, an reputation that remained after he was ousted as editor in 2000.

“Lipsky created a Jewish newspaper unlike any other in America,” wrote former columnist Eric Alterman in the Nation magazine at the time.

“Instead of puffing up the chests of the smug leadership of Jewish officialdom, he sent muckraking journalists into their offices to make them miserable.”

But in the 2010s the Forward began spending heavily and losing revenue as newspapers moved into the digital realm, a situation which prompted some board members to insist on running it like a business.

This came as a high-profile 2013 Pew survey shocked the American Jewish establishment by detailing the extent of assimilation, intermarriage, and alienation from traditional Jewish institutions like the paper itself.

The Forward shifted to more cultural Jewish content, advice columns, and opinion pieces in the hopes of staying relatable to a new American Jewry.

In 2016, the paper hired consultants Empirical Media Advisers (EMA) — responsible for the much-ridiculed rebranding of the Chicago Tribune’s parent company as “tronc” — who advised laying off staff to streamline operations.

EMA’s strategy involved cutting the number of staff by roughly a third. Over the past year, longtime journalists Larry Cohler-Esses and Natan Guttman were among those let go.

Mr Cohler-Esses was responsible for some of the Forward’s most lauded reporting in recent years, including reports from Iran on the cusp of the 2015 nuclear deal, while Mr Guttman covered the American alt-right movement, reporting from infamous rallies inculding Charlottesville, Virginia.

Coupled with pressure to meet content quotas, the layoffs created a “toxic” newsroom atmosphere for the younger staff.

“Journalism is supposed to be based on a mentorship relationship between young and old,” one former employee said. “At the Forward, as veteran journalists were purged or sidelined, this became a predatory relationship.

“Accompanying the pressure “was this insistence that ‘enterprise’ reporting and clickbait could coexist. But ultimately that proved to be false.”

Another former employee who spent a full day working on an interview recounted their experience the next day: “My boss sat me down and said management noticed I hadn’t produced aggregated content during that day. My explanation that I was working on an original story really didn’t matter. It was content first.”

Figures in publicly-available accounts filed by the Forward’s parent company shows it has substantial cash assets, but these are dwindling and there has been no significant injection of revenue in recent years.

On current trends, the publication could run out of money by 2023.

Tax forms showed the company spent over $1.5 million on management for its 49 employees. In 2012, with 58 employees, these costs were only around half-a-million dollars.

In an email responding to a request for comment, the Forward’s chief executive Rachel Fishman Feddersen wrote: “your numbers don’t jibe [sic] with ours.

“We have made adjustments throughout the organisation to achieve sustainability. Some teams were expanded, including development and technology, and others reduced.”

She added: “We will not comment on the personnel changes necessitated by our transformation described above.”

Ms Feddersen said she stood by the paper’s strategy, pointing out the increase in digital subscriptions and organised fundraising.

“Our efforts are aimed at reaching break even in the next few years, at which point our finances will stabilise,” she said. “We consider this is our best shot at continuing the 120-year tradition of proud, independent, Jewish journalism.”

Others disagree. “Don’t tell me it’s all about money as you all are operating like baseball owners now, which kick out the older seasoned players,” was what documentary film-maker Aviva Kempner told the editor (*) after Mr Cohler-Esses and Mr Guttman left.

She wrote in an email leaked to the JC: “You are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Us older folk are just not going to read you anymore.”

And while the has over a million unique visitors a month, some Jews have been so frustrated that they created a Facebook group, “Is the Forward Okay”, to vent their feelings about content they find poorly written or pointless.

With or without the digital-first strategy, concerns about the Forward’s audience remain. “The golden age of secular American Jewry is over,” explained a former columnist.

“If you look at the decline in the Conservative and Reform denominations, you see that the people who so identify are rapidly disappearing.

“At the same time — because in a multicultural society being Jewish is just another way to be American — it is now possible to write about Jews and for Jews in any number of places.

“So the natural audience for the Forward is also disappearing.”

(*) This article was updated on 28 August to clarify that Aviva Kempner's email to the Forward's editor was obtained by the JC from another recipient. Ms Kempner contacted us to make clear she did not grant permission for her remarks to be published.

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