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Is Madoff a reason for the decline of Jewish newspapers? Ish don’t think so

Gary Rosenblatt has a nice column in his Jewish Week about the future of Jewish journalism.

Most of it is based on his experience last week at Brandeis University, where 14 journalists who work for Jewish publications were fellows at the weeklong Gralla Fellows Program, which is funded by Milton Gralla and directed by noted Jewish historian and Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna.

The fellowship, which is in its 12th year and is offered in alternating years to reporters at Jewish papers and religion reporters at mainstream papers, is essentially a crash course in what is going on in the Jewish world at the moment.

(For full disclosure, I was a Gralla fellow several years back and taught a class this year, so I am partial to the program and found it one of the more worthwhile initiatives on which Jewish money is spent.)

As Rosenblatt notes, Jewish journalism (like most old media) is certainly in crisiss:

The newspaper business in America is in deep decline, bordering on a deathwatch in some cities, and, alas, Jewish newspapers are no exception to this troubling trend.

The combination of the national economic meltdown, the trend among younger people away from print journalism and the “original sin” of news organizations making content available for free online, where more and more people go for information, has created a perfect storm for the news industry in general.

Almost daily we read (those of us who still read the news) dire predictions of newspapers going the way of the dodo bird, on the fast track toward extinction.

Gary knows this pain firsthand. The Jewish Week, one of the pre-eminent Jewish publications in a once rich media market in New York, has seen its budget cut and has been subject to furloughs and layoffs.

We see it here every day at JTA, where we have been subject to budget cuts and furloughs and staff cuts. Though we are a nonprofit that relies on charitable contributions, much of our revenue is tied to the fees that Jewish newspapers around the world pay for our wire service.

Every day we see that revenue stream shrink, as papers close and others admit that they simply can’t afford JTA anymore. (No. This is not my pitch to contribute to JTA. This was.)

Case in point: Two of the 14 fellows at Gralla this year had been laid off between the time that they were invited to attend the program and the program’s start.

But this point that Rosenblatt makes is one with which I take issue:

“When it comes to Jewish newspapers, though they are targeted at a niche audience, a plus these days,” he writes. “They continue to suffer from the fallout of the Madoff scandal’s impact on Jewish wealth and the resulting steep decline in advertising from Jewish organizations.”

I think that it is far too early to make this statement.

Yes, we know that Jewish foundations may have lost $2.3 billion or more in the Madoff scandal, and untold hundreds of millions of dollars in personal were lost wealth from the Jewish community’s charitable coffers.

Let’s just put that into perspective for a second. Yes, there were foundations such as the Chais family foundation and the Picower Foundation that were wiped out. But by and large the average loss to Madoff was no more than the 30 percent loss that foundations on average have seen just because of the downturn in the stock and real estate markets.

Yes, Madoff was shocking and atrocious and it added insult to injury because it was just so damned embarrassing for us as a people. But let’s not forget that we were already in the throes of a recession on the eve of Dec. 11, 2008, when we found out that there was a villain among us.

The truth is that we have no idea right now what Madoff will mean in terms of actual philanthropic loss. We won’t know until the end of the year, when all of the asks have been made and we really see who says they cannot give money because Bernard Madoff ripped them off (and in truth we will really never know how many of those folks are just using Madoff as an excuse).

But if you want a glimpse of what we might find out: I met last week with a group of fund raisers from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. After the discussion I asked if the Joint – which raises money from both Jewish federations and a broad, broad array of Jewish donors across the country — has seen a drop off in donations from donors claiming that they had been hurt by Madoff.

The answer? Eh. Not so much.

(But, please, if you have seen differently, let me know.)

A final point: In the cases where money was lost and fund raising has been hurt, do we as a community really have a right to complain about the loss of what appears to have been fictitious gains?

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