In saying goodbye to his readers, the editor of a pioneering Jewish newspaper highlighted a key problem facing much of the Russian Jewish press, as well as the readers it serves.
“We have not learned yet to support the community financially,” Alexander Sakov lamented in the January issue of the monthly Shalom, the 156th printed since 1994.
Shalom, based in the Siberian city of Omsk, in recent years had relied on funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for its entire $300 monthly budget. But the JDC decided to withdraw its support beginning this month.
Sakov, 55, Shalom’s founder, said in his farewell article that he was forced to stop the print version because of financial difficulties. He said he would maintain the online version because it doesn’t cost him much.
Similar to nearly every Russian Jewish newspaper, Sakov said his paper had to rely on donor dollars because it had no paid subscribers or advertising.
The newspaper, which was among the pioneering Jewish periodicals in Russia’s provinces, was launched with grants from the New York-based Jewish Community Development Fund, an affiliate of the American Jewish World Service, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Boris Boguslavsky, director of the JDC office for Siberia and the Far East, based in Krasnoyarsk, told JTA he was dissatisfied with the quality of the paper. Before cutting funds for Shalom, Boguslavsky said he tried “to have a dialogue” with the editor, but Sakov chose to discontinue the newspaper instead of improving it.
Sakov said it was Boguslavsky who refused to cooperate, but the editor admitted that “the Joint did not have to always support our newspaper.”
With a circulation of 1,000, Shalom billed itself as “the Jewish newspaper for Siberia and the Far East” and was distributed in 50 cities in the vast region. Aware that JDC money might dry up, Sakov said he tried to find alternative funding. But his calls on local philanthropists and regional authorities, who support some minority papers, were fruitless.
A veteran Jewish activist, Sakov said when he launched the newspaper shortly after the collapse of communism, his enterprise was fueled with the enthusiasm of people rediscovering Judaism and Jewish topics. But as the community matured, it did not become self-sufficient or learn how to survive without external funding from overseas groups such as the JDC.
In his farewell article, Sakov noted a paradox.
“The more free the country was becoming, the better people lived, the less Jews were interested in the life of their communities,” he wrote. “Today one can conclude with regret that centers of Jewish culture are more reminiscent of pensioners’ clubs” where people are used to receiving free services, including newspapers.
Boguslavsky said his office planned to invest in a new regional newspaper that would replace Shalom.
“I don’t even ask this question whether or not a Jewish newspaper can support itself,” he said.
Boguslavsky said his region alone has more than 10 Jewish papers, mostly monthlies. They’re all sponsored by major Jewish groups, as most community members have become accustomed to receiving copies of a Jewish paper as a free bonus with other services.
In the case of the JDC, the services are food packages distributed to the elderly and needy Jews.
Boguslavsky said last year he ran an experiment in one of the regions in Eastern Russia.
“I asked not to include a local newspaper into the food packages to see how many people would notice this,” he related. “Almost no one complained they were missing a newspaper.”
Vladimir Paley, editor of jewnet.ru, the Russian Jewish Information Service, agreed that having local papers come free with other charity services “spoiled” the nature of the Jewish press in Russia.
“Who would have thought back in 1991 to charge people for anything Jewish-related?” he said. He was referring to the dawn of legal Russian Jewish life, which replaced underground activism during the communist era.
“And then people got used to freebies. It’s hard to start selling something that was previously given away for free,” Paley said.
Observers also agreed that the Jewish press in Russia has become a battlefield for organizational rivalries primarily promoting the interest and image of the groups that support the newspapers.
Most of the five dozen Jewish papers in Russia today are backed by the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the leading and most affluent Russian Jewish group.
The largest and seemingly the most successful Russian Jewish weekly, the Moscow-based Jewish Word, has a circulation of 42,000, which nearly surpasses the circulation of the other Jewish newspapers combined. But the Jewish Word does not sell copies; it’s distributed free to Jews registered in the Chabad-run database.
The Jewish Word features an extensive advertising section, mostly ads for federation events, and helps the organization attract more Jews to its community centers, schools and synagogues.
Paley said that unless the Jewish press in Russia can change from being a vehicle promoting an organization’s agenda to fairly reflecting the life of the community, the newspapers will continue to rely on the goodwill of donors.
“No one will pay their own money for a newspaper promoting one organization,” he said.
One prominent Russian Jewish editor said such a change would be nearly impossible given the realities of Russian Jewish life.
“Independent Jewish press in Russia is impossible to imagine,” said Nickolai Propirny, editor-in-chief of another Moscow weekly, The Jewish World. The weekly is published by the Russian Jewish Congress, which once rivaled Chabad in community influence but in recent years has lost much of its weight in the Russian regions.
“The community is divided” among different groups, Propirny said. “In these circumstances, a newspaper will always reflect the interests of its sponsors from the Jewish community.”
When it comes to advertising income, he added, “very few advertisers are interested in small-circulation newspapers that in addition will not accept ads from non-friendly organizations.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.