The term “community newspaper” usually describes the coverage of a newspaper. For the Jewish Chronicle, it originally referred to the business model.
The year 1961 ended with two local English-language Jewish newspapers in Western Pennsylvania. The Jewish Criterion was founded in 1895 and had been owned by the Alter family since about 1907. It received competition in 1934 with the creation of the American Jewish Outlook, managed by Al Golomb and edited by Dr. Asher Isaacs.
The two newspapers differed somewhat in their worldview, but their local coverage was similar and sometimes nearly identical from week to week. Any press releases and community notes sent to one publication were usually sent to the other.
These two newspapers coexisted for 28 years, until they were both purchased by the United Jewish Federation in 1962 and merged to create the new Jewish Chronicle.
The idea for consolidating the local Jewish press originated with the United Jewish Federation, rather than one of the newspapers. Both the Jewish Criterion and the American Jewish Outlook were profitable. In other words, it was not a bailout.
So what motivated the move?
“It has long been felt that it was of the utmost importance that every member of the Jewish community should be given an opportunity to be fully informed of the main streams of Jewish life in Pittsburgh, in the nation, and in the world,” UJF President Herman Fineberg wrote in a January 1962 letter to all the members of the United Jewish Federation. “Although both publications tried to extend their circulation, the results fell short of adequate coverage of the community. And even where the newspapers did circulate, many of the valuable interpretive materials in one publication were not available in the other. It was further felt that only a community newspaper could fully reflect the entire community in all of its many activities, opinions, and aspects.”
In that last sentence, Fineberg was using the word “community” to describe ownership. The Federation was so eager to start a community-owned newspaper that it briefly contemplated becoming a third competitor. But ultimately it worried about the “tremendous ill will” it would create if it entered the market without first clearing it.
“We agreed that the Federation could without much doubt create a newspaper which could destroy the others but none of us believed in the long run that it would be to the benefit of Federation even if any of us were inclined to try it,” Saul Shapira wrote in a December 1961 feasibility study on the financial prospects of a new Jewish newspaper.
And so the Federation agreed to spend more than $300,000 — almost $3 million today —to purchase the two newspapers. What did the Federation get for its money?
Here were the assets listed in the original agreement: “furniture, fixtures, supplies, lists of advertisers, contracts with advertisers, the names ‘The American Jewish Outlook’ and ‘The Jewish Criterion’ together with the good will thereto attaching.” The actual purchase agreements with the two newspapers also included subscriber and circulation figures, but Federation already had a list of every Jewish household in the region.
As Shapira explained, “The Federation is buying good will, not equipment.”
Under the original arrangement, the Federation created a new nonprofit corporation called the Pittsburgh Jewish Publication and Education Foundation. The foundation published the Jewish Chronicle as a franchise of the Federation, paying some $55,000 annually for the right to the name, a list of advertisers, and office furniture.
The franchise fee would be used to pay down the purchase price of the two predecessor newspapers, so that communal charitable funds wouldn’t have to be used. Once the debt was cleared, the newspaper could use its profits for other initiatives.
The idea of shifting a local Jewish newspaper from private to communal ownership was not unprecedented, but it was novel. It had happened in Philadelphia and a few other cities, but too recently and too infrequently to have a dependable track record.
“The Chronicle was looked upon in those first issues as a dubious experiment,” Joel Roteman later wrote about the early days. “After all, it hadn’t been done before.”
The “experiment” was this: Could a community newspaper be editorially independent and financially self-sufficient without the pressure of a profit motive?
The original business case for the Jewish Chronicle was based on reducing competition in the local media advertising market. The Jewish Criterion and American Jewish Outlook both regularly offered ad hoc deals to lure advertisers away from each other. As the only newspaper, the new Jewish Chronicle could stick to a set rate sheet.
The business case was also based on the Federation mailing list. Under the original agreement, the Federation purchased subscriptions to the Jewish Chronicle at half-rate for anyone who had donated at least $10 to its annual campaign. This gave the Jewish Chronicle a circulation of 7,500 on its first day. The Federation also expected several hundred additional subscriptions to non-members throughout the tri-state area.
The final piece was hiring Al Bloom to serve as editor. Bloom had the rare combination of deep Jewish literacy, communal connections and journalistic chops.
Soon after Bloom announced he would be leaving the Post-Gazette to lead the new Jewish Chronicle, a Post-Gazette executive pulled him aside and asked, “What are you doing? You must be out of your mind. Why would you give up a hard-earned position in the daily field to take on a weekly? You write what you like. You travel. You have the world with a ribbon around it. Why give it up for this which is completely untested and unproven? Besides, in 25 years there won’t be a Jewish community.”
Recalling that incident in the Jewish Chronicle’s 25th anniversary issue, Bloom wrote, “Deeply, I appreciated the concern — but not all of us clearly appreciate Jewish history. The more nearly appropriate Hebrew word is ‘emunah’ (faith-confidence).” PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.