The Social Network

If you’ve ever heard me give a speech, you’ve heard me tell this story. It’s a good one, with the added quality of being true.

A few years ago, a reader called my assistant and demanded I return his call immediately.

I moaned — what editor isn’t used to returning those calls — steeled myself and dialed his number.

The man answered, I introduced myself, and off he went, screaming into the receiver.

“How can ANYONE write such a thing!?” he said. “How can any responsible paper publish it!?”

I asked him to tell me which article he was referring to.

“The one that says George Bush was bad for Israel!”

I racked my brain.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just don’t remember printing a piece like that.”

“No,” he said, “It wasn’t in The Jewish Journal. It was in the Los Angeles Times.”

“So why are you calling me?” I asked.

“The L.A. Times,” he said, “ isn’t going to call me back.”

True story.

I tell it because it says a lot about community journalism. Long before words like social media, interactivity and reader-generated content became the buzzwords of many a new-media conference, community journalism thrived by depending upon and nurturing those same concepts.

Readers saw in the pages of their local publication a more detailed mirror of their lives — not just who was newly born, married or deceased — what we in the business call hatched, matched and dispatched — but who and what was newsworthy within their community. If readers had issues or opinions they cared about, they knew that their community paper would help them get the word out. While general-interest media might occasionally dip into their neighborhood, the local paper lived there, prayed there, went to school there.

For going on 25 years, The Jewish Journal has been that kind of weekly — not flawless, to be sure, and not above criticism, but always reaching to tell stories that reflect, reveal, inspire, entertain and, yes, sometimes provoke its — our — community.

Along the way, thanks to a superb staff, we’ve picked up many journalism awards, built, the largest Jewish news Web site outside of Israel, and expanded into webcasting, video, live events and a monthly glossy magazine, TRIBE.

Then, last year, came the recession and the precipitous downturn in the traditional print advertising market. Put very simply, our survival was on the line.

At that time, someone asked me how The Journal could possibly survive when papers like The Boston Globe, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and even our own L.A. Times were closing or declaring bankruptcy. What did we have that they didn’t?

The Los Angeles Jewish community, I answered.

Despite all our differences — cultural, economic, religious — the 600,000 Jews in the greater Los Angeles area share a sense of common destiny. The same goes for the 13 million Jews around the world. A local paper enables us all to participate in a common conversation, across all the many boundaries we delight in setting up. It can educate, inform and hold leaders and institutions accountable. In a world that works constantly to divide us, it can be the glue.

And, if you read the front page article by James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times this past June, or a similar story in our own pages not long after, you’ll know that this story has a happy twist.

About a year ago, our Board Chair, Irwin Field, along with Peter Lowy, Art Bilger and an anonymous donor, provided seed capital to help us stabilize, reorganize and ultimately grow The Journal. Our new model is a media company that combines solid journalism with emerging technologies, multiple revenue streams and philanthropic support.

Industry experts agree that the one bright spot in the publishing industry is what they call niche journalism — media that serve a particular affinity, ethnic or religious group. At a Wharton Interactive Media Initiative conference last spring, media analysts said the future of their business depended on attracting “people who share a common interest and desire to affiliate. The way to get these people is to create ‘tribes.’ Local and hyper-local news help create and maintain these ‘tribes.’ ”

Well, The Jewish Journal has already been serving a 4,000-year-old tribe for years.

So, we changed the name of our nonprofit organization, from Los Angeles Jewish Publications to, naturally, TRIBE Media Corp.

Our new model no longer relies solely on advertising sales, as in the past, but now will also rest upon our readers’ willingness to help support what we do — by becoming “Members of the Tribe.”

As this year comes to a close, I want to ask those of you who value what The Journal does to consider joining our efforts. You can go to Page 33 in this edition of The Journal for a membership form, or you can enroll online at at one of several levels.

Watching the movie “The Social Network,” it struck me that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg didn’t really create something new, he re-created, in digital form, what we Jews have always enjoyed: close-knit social networks dispersed across space and time.

Our continuing job is to provide the tribe with the news, opinions and information it needs, and to engage the broader society in the issues, values and ideas we care about. We want you, we are calling you, to help us.

Please call us back.