The Jewish Exponent has been publishing its weekly paper in the Philadelphia area since the 1880s, said to be one of the oldest continuously running Jewish papers in the country.
But it’s now undergoing one of the most tumultuous times of its long history. On Wednesday, the paper announced that it laid off its entire editorial staff and plans to outsource its management to a Baltimore company.
Exponent‘s chief marketing officer Steve Rosenberg wrote in his “special announcement” to readers that all 15 staffers who work in production and editorial will be canned “to achieve the savings, and to position us for future success.”
The Baltimore company Mid-Atlantic-Media, which runs other Jewish publications, will take the management reins and be charged with hiring new staff in Philly.
“If you keep getting punched in the face when you walk down the street, walk down a different street,” Rosenberg said on Thursday, explaining the move.
And the blows were costly. The paper was operating at an annual loss of $300,000. Roseberg said the Jewish Federation, the nonprofit connected to the Exponent, was filling in the hole left by fleeing readers and vanishing ad dollars.
“That can’t happen,” Rosenberg said. “We’re using donor dollars here. We need to save people who are hungry and needy and take care of people who are in real need. Not save a newspaper.”
Rosenberg said it was his decision to eliminate positions to save money, not the Federation’s, yet still “nobody was enthusiastic about continuing to give the money,” he said. “But there was not an ultimatum that said, ‘you do this or else,’ but, you know, when you read between the lines, there certainly a there has to be a better model.”
He called the layoffs the most difficult decision of his career, although he contends that the paper’s future existence depends on it.
“Maybe I was the only person who had the chutzpah, sort of speak, to sit there and actually do it. It’s not an easy thing to do to lay people off,” Rosenberg said.
Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, a national publication covering Jewish issues, said the change could weaken the connection 24,000 local subscribers have to the paper. She said replacing institutional knowledge about the community the staff accrued over decades isn’t easy.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a harbinger of things to come, or a trend, any more than it’s a trend in media in general,” Eisner said. “I do think, though, that our communities need to figure out ways of sharing information, spreading the word, debating issues of the day through media. Media binds a community together. I think there is something lost when those things are under threat.”
Eisner, who spent some 25 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said despite the rise of digital media, the printed weekly paper has been vital to Philly’s Jewish population.
For instance, some Jews, she said, give up electronics on the Sabbath and opt to read Jewish newspapers instead.
Others considered the paper a mainstay, turning to it for things like marriage announcements and local business news.
“I do think that there is a vital role for a community newspaper for a group of Jews, especially when you look at a Philadelphia with not just a thriving Jewish population, but universities, rabbinical schools, a real kind of intellectual hub as well. A lot of creativity happening in the community,” Eisner said.
Thursday’s edition of the Exponent was aided by staffers from Mid-Atlantic Media, who will stay in Philadelphia through the transition, which will include hiring five editorial employees. Rosenberg said some former staff member will be rehired, but he declined to specify.
“These are not people who live in Baltimore,” Rosenberg said of the paper’s new editorial staff. “These are people who drink the same Schuylkill punch that you and I drink, that breath the same great Philadelphia air that you and I breathe, and working here. They will be paid by a company in Baltimore, but who cares where they’re paid?”