In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Soviet regime released refusenik Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky from prison, the New York Mets won the World Series, and “The Cosby Show” ranked No. 1 on television.
In the same historic year, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles published its inaugural issue on Feb. 28.
On the 40-page newspaper’s first cover, above the headline “Bobbi and the New Jewish Right,” was a photo of Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, who had sparked the movement against the busing of school children to further the integration of public schools.
In many ways, that first issue, with its mix of politics, personal voices, solid reporting and spirited editorial independence, has endured as a model for an organization that has grown and changed greatly in the decades since.
In the early 1980s, involved Los Angeles Jews had a choice of two privately owned weeklies, the venerable B’nai B’rith Messenger and the free-swinging Heritage, plus The Federation’s Jewish Community Bulletin.
Attorney Richard Volpert served as committee chair, and, after a year of deliberations, he handed in a report recommending the establishment of a new weekly, financially supported by the Federation, but with complete editorial independence.
At the time, that last suggestion constituted a fairly radical step. Almost all other Jewish weeklies in the country were owned and run by local federations, which rarely, if ever, brooked criticism of Jewish institutions or Israeli policy.
The new editorial concept wasn’t an easy sell to many of Los Angeles’ Federation board members. Quite a few thought, “If we pay for the paper, then we run it,” Volpert recalled, “but I felt that without independence, the paper would have no credibility.”
Eventually, Federation started the paper, investing $660,000 and subsidizing subscriptions for its donors.
One of the strongest advocates for independence was Jonathan Kirsch, the youngest committee member, whose combined background as magazine writer, book critic and attorney specializing in publishing and libel law proved invaluable.
Kirsch has served as pro bono legal counsel for The Journal since its inception.
The next step was to select an editor. Gene Lichtenstein, who had edited a Jewish weekly in the Boston area, written for major national magazines and taught journalism courses at East and West Coast universities, was the pick.
His first two hires were his competitors for the editor’s slot, local writer Marlene Adler Marks and journalist Yehuda Lev, while Volpert became the first board chairman — in effect, publisher — of the fledgling weekly.
“I wanted an American newspaper, Jewish but connected to the larger world,” he said more recently. “It wouldn’t just reflect the viewpoint of The Federation or be mainly about fundraising. It wouldn’t print only favorable stories about the Jewish community and Israel.”
In the beginning …
“There were no computers,” recalled Toni Van Ness, now an advertising senior account executive at the Journal. “All invoices were typed on an IBM Selectric. There was no email. Ad proofs were copied and then sent by messenger or delivered by sales reps for approval. There were about 20 full-time people on the staff.”
Van Ness shared a small office with Janet Polyak, and the two personified the diversity of the personnel.
“I was a girl from South Central [Los Angeles] who spoke Ebonics, and Janet had a thick Russian accent,” Van Ness recounted. “In the beginning, there was a lot of, ‘What did you say? I didn’t understand you. Can you repeat that?’ ”
Naomi Pfefferman joined the Journal as a reporter in the fall of 1986.
She wrote her first cover story about the rising tensions between Jewish and African-American students on the UCLA campus. Pfefferman soon focused increasingly on movie and art stories, and now is the Journal’s longtime arts and entertainment editor.
In its first few months, the Journal received kudos for lively writing, outraged comments from some Jewish organizations and a weak response from advertisers.
Almost from the beginning, the paper was hemorrhaging money, and some influential Federation leaders demanded more control over the paper.
Lichtenstein was meeting monthly at Nibblers restaurant with a four-member Federation subcommittee to chart progress and iron out problems.
Three months after the paper launched, a very influential member of the committee demanded that, from then on, all the paper’s articles be vetted by the committee’s members.
Lichtenstein says he told the committee that “this was a really bad idea.” The proposal was put to a vote and defeated, 3-1.
Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the editorial and business performance of the Journal continued, and the Journal came close to being sold to an East Coast Jewish newspaper publisher.
At this critical point, major Federation leaders, with Edward Brennglass, Stanley Hirsh and Osias Goren in the lead, rode to the rescue, personally underwriting a loan from City National Bank to provide working capital for the paper to be an independent entity and continue publication. The group founded Los Angeles Jewish Publications as an independent nonprofit to serve the Jewish community, and the Journal lived to fight another day.
However, by 2000, strong editorial and personality differences between publisher and editor led to a parting. Lichtenstein resigned and was succeeded by the managing editor, Rob Eshman, who had first joined the staff as a reporter in the mid-’90s.
Changing of the guard
The transition from Lichtenstein to Eshman represented a generational shift in the leadership of the Journal. In addition, Eshman was a local, from a family deeply rooted in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Eshman, a fluent and prolific writer whose interests and expertise range from politics to food, also had lived in Israel and spoke Hebrew.
At the turn of the century, Hirsh’s health deteriorated, Irwin Field took over as acting publisher, and, upon Hirsh’s death in 2003, Field became publisher.
Following on the heels of managing editors Amy Klein and Howard Blume, Susan Freudenheim, previously a longtime arts editor at the Los Angeles Times, joined the Journal as managing editor in 2005, eventually becoming executive editor before departing in 2016 to run Jewish World Watch.
Always forward-thinking, Eshman recognized early on that the future of journalism was rapidly evolving beyond the printed page. His vision was to use digital technology to turn a small, local paper into a media enterprise that reaches deeply into the community, as well as around the world.
“Jews see the world through a particular set of values, and those values shape our journalism,” Eshman said. “The digital revolution has suddenly made it possible to share that point of view with everyone, instantly, Jews and non-Jews.”
The Journal had already launched its first webpage in 1996, but that early effort served primarily as an electronic reprint of the articles and columns running in the weekly print edition.
But gradually, especially with the appointment of Jay Firestone as web and multimedia editor in 2009, jewishjournal.com has evolved into a 24/7, constantly updated news machine with original writing, foreign reporting, videos and dozens of blogs.
After Firestone went on to a post at Facebook, his successor, Jeff Hensiek, oversaw a complete renovation of the site — which goes live this week.
“As the Jewish Journal moves into the next 30 years, we are staying ahead of the curve by drastically expanding our multimedia efforts,” Hensiek said. “We are introducing a new digital media team, partnering with content producers and even entering the world of virtual reality.”
The next chapter
With millions of page views from around the world each month, jewishjournal.com is among the most-viewed Jewish news websites and by far the largest Jewish website in Los Angeles, according to Google Analytics.
In the midst of the 2009 financial crisis, local philanthropists Peter Lowy and Art Bilger, along with Irwin Field and an anonymous donor, stepped in to make major contributions to shore up the paper’s recession-battered finances and to help position it for more aggressive growth.
Lowy and Bilger said they were inspired by the growth of the Journal beyond its original scope and audience, and by its record of community service.
“The future for print media isn’t the rosiest, but this is a way we can add philanthropy to a business enterprise,” Lowy told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “This is an experiment in what I would call a community media group. The Journal is very important to the Jewish community. But we think this might work for any communal group.”
With the addition to the board of Lowy, Leon Janks, an additional member and Bilger (who has since stepped down), the Journal undertook a major reorganization and diversification of its corporate structure, forming TRIBE Media Corp. to reflect its broader vision and ambitions.
Part of the changes included hiring columnist David Suissa as president of TRIBE Media Corp. when Eshman was made publisher/editor-in-chief.
Suissa, with 30 years of experience in advertising as founder of Suissa/Miller, and deep roots in Jewish life, increased the paper’s advertising and fundraising efforts.
Suissa and Eshman’s often contrasting points of view have made news themselves. During the Iran nuclear deal debate, JTA reported on how the Jewish Journal stood out among Jewish news outlets for offering sharply divergent opinions in its pages.
Who we are now
Led by Eshman and Suissa, TRIBE Media Corp. consists of four divisions. They are the weekly Jewish Journal; jewishjournal.com; the production of live events and videos; and JewishInsider.com.
TRIBE acquired Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Insider in 2015. Founded and edited by Max Neuberger, Jewish Insider (JI) provides breaking news, curated sources and politcal analysis. Its Daily Kickoff newsletter has become a must-read for diplomats, journalists, activists and philanthropists around the world. This year, JI expanded to include full-time New York and Capitol Hill correspondents.
In 2016, Julia Moss joined TRIBE as director of community engagement as the company seeks to bring its content to the community through events and video. TRIBE’s many online videos and live feeds have attracted millions of viewers, including its annual live cast of Nashuva congregation’s Kol Nidre services, which last year attracted 90,000 views. A 2016 Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund grant will enable TRIBE to develop a dedicated video production team.
Moss also has increased the Journal’s fundraising efforts among foundations and individuals.
None of this has weakened the Journal’s devotion to its founding principles of independent, high-quality journalism.
Over the years, it has been the big story — often an unpredictable disaster — that pushes Journal reporters and editors to battle deadlines and transmit the first drafts of history to their readers. To mention only a couple of examples, in the 1990s there were the Northridge earthquake and the shooting spree by a white supremacist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.
In the first decade of this century, the Journal broke news on the killing of Daniel Pearl by terrorists and murder at the Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al ticket counter.
In its coverage, the printed and electronic Journal count on a large roster of experienced and diverse correspondents in the field, be it an Egyptian reporter filing from Cairo or Israeli journalists tracking the crises and achievements of Israeli politicians, entrepreneurs and average citizens.
During the Iran nuclear debate, the Journal conducted a national scientific poll that made international news, showing that a plurality of American Jews supported the deal. Its coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France earned the Journal a special commendation from the Los Angeles Press Club (LAPC). And senior writer Danielle Berrin’s 2016 cover story on sexual harassment made international news.
As a model, the new corporation “is redefining community journalism for the digital age,” Eshman said, and outside observers seem to agree.
The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s English-language daily, noted that “The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles … is truly cutting edge in pursuing a 21st century platform mix.”
Former Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey wrote in a column in 2010, headlined “New Life for Jewish Journal,” that the paper is successfully meeting the tough challenges posed by the economy and the general media market.
“If [the Journal’s] experience holds lessons for other ethnic and religious-oriented publishers, it’s that you can do good by being good,” Rainey concluded.
The quality that marked the original Journal’s writers and columnists continues to this day.
Media expert Marty Kaplan’s biweekly political analysis has earned two Columnist of the Year Awards from the LAPC. Former reporter Jared Sichel received an LAPC Journalist of the Year Award in 2014. Dennis Prager, Gina Nahai, Raphael Sonenshein, Bill Boyarsky, Judea Pearl, Danielle Berrin and Jonathan Kirsch — yes, that one — all contribute regular columns from across the political and cultural spectrum.
In addition, a rowdy Letters to the Editor section, a weekly Torah Portion and a contributor-driven Opinion section ensure that the Journal remains the most lively and diverse gathering space for the Jews of Los Angeles and beyond.