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Adapting to the recession: Nextbook

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On the surface, the Jewish media world got a flashy newish addition in early June when Nextbook.org’s online literary publication relaunched as the beefed-up online magazine Tablet. But look a little deeper and the nonprofit world may have gotten a lesson in how an organization can cut costs and better serve its mission in these difficult economic times.

The organization Nextbook was founded in 2003 by Mem Bernstein’s Keren Keshet Foundation to promote Jewish literacy and support Jewish literature, culture and ideas. (It is now funded primarily by the Jewish Communal Fund of New York, the massive donor-advised fund to which Keren Keshet contributes $16 million per year, according to its latest 990 tax filing available). Nextbook forged a partnership with Schocken Books to publish an ongoing series of high-quality Jewish books and hooked up with the American Library Association to put together the "Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature" reading series. It also launched its online publication, Nextbook.org.

About a year ago, Nextbook shut down its offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C., through which it ran the American Library Association series, and the rethinking took hold when the organization hired the former arts and culture editor of the Forward, Alana Newhouse, to oversee the online publication in 2008.

“When Alana joined us, we focused on what we could do to harness the power of the web, and our main focus is to promote Jewish consciousness through Jewish culture,” the organization’s executive director, Morton Landowne, told JTA’s The Fundermentalist blog. “We wanted to find a way to wholesale our offerings.”

The major step in the revamping process came earlier this month when Nextbook.org took on new life as Tablet, transforming from a site that rarely veered from culture and books to an incarnation that is more of a feature-driven magazine — still covering arts, but also focusing on news and politics. While Nextbook Press will continue to publish books, it has curtailed temporarily its partnership with the library association and will focus more on creating discourse on Jewish culture through Tablet, Landowne said.

Newhouse has recruited an uber-talented full-time staff that includes executive editor Jesse Oxfeld, formerly an editor at New York Magazine and Gawker, as well as a number of former staffers from the Forward, the now funderless Jewcy.com and The Jerusalem Post. Among the stable of high-profile columnists and contributing writers are Jeffrey Goldberg, Seth Lipsky, Victor Navasky, Daphne Merkin, Ruth Wisse and Leon Wieseltier. With the beefed-up staff, Tablet has expanded its editorial reach and is now writing heavily on politics, religion, news and pop culture while still maintaining its emphasis on the arts.

“It was let’s examine our mission statement and see how we can continue to uphold it with less money," Landowne said. "And we just felt the money would be better spent and we would reach more people if we built on the foundation we had with the Nextbook Web site."

Tablet’s launch created something of a buzz in the mainstream press, garnering write-ups on The New York Times’ blog and in the Atlantic Monthly’s online edition. But behind the buzz over the editorial teams is a story about bang for the buck, as Nextbook has cut its $4.5 million budget by roughly 30 percent, according to Landowne.

“There shouldn’t be the impression that we sunk a big load of money into this,” Newhouse told The Fundermentalist.

Landowne said that Nextbook laid off no staffers in cutting the budget, that he looked at the strengths and weaknesses of what he had and outlined clearly what was expected of those on the payroll. A couple staffers left voluntarily afterward. Also, instead of paying for outside Web hosting, Landowne he hired an in-house webmaster.

“These are new positions, not new money,” he said. “We didn’t add anything really. We were just trying to find a different way to get at the same objective.”

On the editorial side, Newhouse is bucking something of a trend in journalism: Instead of trying to reduce costs by relying on freelancers rather than staff writers, she decided to cut her freelance budget significantly to hire more staffers. The thinking, Newhouse said, was that she could expect more output in a variety of forms from staffers than she could from freelancers, and in trying to define Tablet’s editorial voice, she felt she needed a consistent core group of talent.

“We were creating a new magazine that had a personality and a voice," Newhouse said, "and in order to do that, we needed people on staff who stew in the same juices and who understand the heart and soul of the magazine and who are part of the brainstorming."

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