One of the fundamental articles of the US Constitution is a guarantee of Freedom of the Press which most Americans always took for granted. The Boston News-Letter was the first US newspaper in 1704, founded by John Campbell, a bookseller and postmaster. The Boston paper made its debut nearly 100 years after a 1609 appearance of a German newspaper said to be the world first newspaper.
Back in the early days of the nation, the newspaper was designed to do exactly that – provide news. It often took a week or more for news to make its way through the country. Contrast that with news nowadays that takes only seconds. Students of early newspapers noted the clear demarcation between news and editorial, despite the fact that depending on the location there was a definite bias. Almost as early as the first newspapers, governments saw newspapers as a tool to manipulate public thinking which led to controlled censorship in many nations.
This history is very telling considering the extraordinary scrutiny that modern-day media has been under. Accusations range from a clear bias towards political figures to censoring major news to protect a favorite personality. But newspapers have much more to worry about than the criticism. Nearly 2000 have shut down since 2005 with 1300 communities no longer having their own newspaper. Americans in growing numbers are telling surveyors that newspapers and magazines are no longer their primary source of news and that they have lost faith in the media. The Internet has completely uprooted the value of newspapers. Revenues have dried up as advertisers have a broad range of choices that more accurately target their audiences.
Newspapers have sought creative solutions to stay alive. Most publications now have a digital version. Many have launched advertising platforms in attempt to salvage advertising revenues. Even with these remedies, newspapers and magazines continue to close at record pace.
The exception in these last few years has been niche publications like Hamodia, which rely on a specific constituency and perhaps ideology. Looking at the world through the prism of Torah lenses is so unique that there is no alternative. Shabbos is also a major reason for the survival and even success of the orthodox or Torah media. These newspapers have become an extension of the community in every respect, ranging from the news to even the advertisements from local commerce
Despite the various electronic gadgets that people have nowadays with a world of information, there is still an interest in reading text or copy the old-fashioned way. In our community, perhaps it is our constant ties to reading Torah that makes us natural readers. But interestingly enough, even secular readers say they like reading, particularly if the content is of interest to them. There are literally thousands of publications of every kind that the person who has a hobby can find a magazine on that hobby.
The closing of newspapers has, of course, created a large group of unemployed journalists. It is not uncommon to find a journalist who journeyed from one newspaper to another only to have the door close behind them in each locale. Imagine winning a Pulitzer Prize, the gold medal of Journalism, which is followed by a pink slip. How ironic that in a field that covets quality reporting, winning the ultimate prize does not guarantee the survival of your employer or even a job.
Of the myriad of newspapers that closed not all of them closed altogether. Some ended up merging with larger syndicates. Others converted from dailies to weeklies or even monthlies. In this way they were able to generate enough advertising revenues to stay afloat.
I can remember the day when a newsstand in New York was several rows deep with newspapers. In the front row you might have found the New York Times, Daily News, Daily Mirror, Herald Tribune, Journal American, and Village Voice. There were many newspapers in Yiddish including The Tag, Morning Journal, and The Forward. Then there were the locals like the Sun and the Brooklyn Eagle. The latter category has caused consternation across America, particularly small communities. No longer were local citizens able to read about issues affecting their communities. A small newspaper in Florida about to close carried a letter to the editor: How will I know what my local Council votes on? Who will cover corruption story on some of our local officials? It is certainly not worthwhile news for larger regional publications.
Recognizing the importance of covering small communities, news publications like Hamodia have created special sections at least covering some of the larger Jewish communities. “It may be a nuisance for the big city readers,” said Aaron a community activist, “but for us it is an essential lifeline. “In other words, people like Aaron stay connected with their communities and their own neighborhoods through a weekly community news column
Aaron was clear that his relationship with the newspapers was a quid pro quo. “if they see fit to cover my community despite the fact that its size is only a fraction of a Lakewood or New York, I will support them.” That relationship always existed between a community and the local press. That relationship even extended to advertising.
Of late, the big issues for newspapers is the slimming down of advertising budgets and the clear political slant that many have adopted. A not so robust economy has forced many businesses to significantly cut back on advertising. The pandemic has further created havoc with advertising budgets. The on again off again retail market was surely one of the chief victims.
Ironically many advertisers judge a newspaper by their views. In at least a few cases, advertisers pulled their ads because of a strong pro-Liberal anti Trump agenda. Ostensibly they are doing this to reflect their readers views. Really? It would be hard to say that some of these publications are a mere reflection of their readers. The proof is in the Letter to the Editors which in almost 65% of the cases, according to one study, goes against the editorial policy of the paper.
The forecast is for many more newspapers to close including some of the iconic ones, with the economy being the main culprit. Thousands of retail stores have closed in the past two years alone. Only 10% of Manhattan has even returned to work. These were all potential advertisers.
Newspapers that target a general audience will have to avoid the temptation of trying to be “kingmakers” or the vehicles of dethroning. They will have to drop an overt but obvious bias whether it is towards people, countries, or organizations. When a newspaper uses the slogan “All the News That’s fit to Print,” they had better find room for the stories that don’t agree with their views.
Newspapers in America are at a critical juncture and their future may very well hang in the balance. They will have to once again bring value to the customers, lest the doors will continue to shut for even the most illustrious newsperson. Kudos to Hamodia for giving its readers a well-written, well-balanced and well-reported newspaper.