(JTA) — Jacob Kamaras got the San Diego Jewish World for an absolute steal — $1, to be exact.
The journalist and public relations executive bought the publication for that ceremonial price from its previous owner-publisher, Don Harrison, who founded the online outlet in 2009 and was looking to step down from day-to-day operations; Harrison will become publisher emeritus.
Kamaras views his stewardship of the site as one important way to contribute to his adopted local San Diego Jewish community. Though he was born in Brooklyn, his wife Megan’s family is from the San Diego area, and they now live there.
But Kamaras brings something of a nontraditional mindset to the publication. Unlike most professional journalists, who seek to draw a clear line for their audiences between their own work and public relations, Kamaras will combine both.
“I always kind of kept my hands in both worlds, in PR and journalism, and that’s going to continue to be the case,” Kamaras told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about his new role. “I believe that the two fields, or subfields within the same space, have a more symbiotic relationship than one would think.”
The former editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, Kamaras left the wire service in 2016, though he continues to contribute to the publication; he’s since founded his own PR and lobbying firm, Stellar Jay Communications.
The firm has drawn attention for its lobbying work on behalf of the government of Azerbaijan — work that has included registering as a foreign agent and placing pro-Azerbaijani columns in Jewish publications touting the Central Asian country’s partnerships with Israel. (Azerbaijan has been engaged in an ongoing armed conflict with neighboring Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region since 2020; Israel has been sending arms to the country.)
Kamaras also has Jewish clients. He’s an associate at J Cubed Communications, an international firm based in Tel Aviv whose clients include The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli-American Council and Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit that assists Jews in emigrating to Israel.
Kamaras said he has no intention of hanging up his work in PR and lobbying just because he now owns and operates a news site; in fact, he expects his PR work will continue to be his main source of income for quite a while. He knows this arrangement won’t sit well with journalists.
“I think some journalists would look at PR reps and have an attitude,” he said, but added, “I kind of think we’re all in the same team here in Jewish journalism, and that includes PR.”
Nearly all local Jewish publications have struggled for a viable economic model in the last decade, with their financial woes intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Boston’s 118-year-old Jewish Advocate ceased operations entirely last fall; in March, the 75-year-old Arizona Jewish Post did the same. Other Jewish news organizations have been reinventing themselves: The 60-year-old Canadian Jewish News shut down in 2013, restarted operations within a year, and in August has relaunched as an all-digital news site. And the New York Jewish Week joined JTA as part of 70 Faces Media in January.
The ongoing upheaval has had the effect of causing some local Jewish outlets to abandon certain journalistic practices and values in favor of a more economically viable approach, says Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish media historian and professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University.
“The bottom line here is that many local Jewish newspapers, looking for a model that can sustain them as advertising and circulation decline, seem to be returning to an older pattern of feel-good journalism that eschews controversy and looks to boost the values and institutions that community leaders uphold,” Sarna told JTA.
“The Jewish community suffers by not having journalistic watchdogs, but the cost of having no Jewish newspaper at all may be even greater,” Sarna added.
The currently all-volunteer-run San Diego Jewish World will remain focused on local community news; Kamaras doesn’t represent any San Diego-area Jewish interests in his PR work. He does plan to run press releases on the site, including from organizations he represents, though in those cases he says he will disclose his relationship with them. Eventually, the Jewish World may charge publicists to run their releases.
The site will pursue traditional advertising for its revenue model, and will also “experiment with sponsored content, conduct online fundraising campaigns and solicit individual donors,” Kamaras said; he’s also planning their first gala fundraiser in 2022. He says he will follow the industry practice of disclosing when content is sponsored.
Kamaras said the publication under Harrison, whom he calls “the de facto Jewish historian of San Diego,” would often run press releases from his clients. It was one of the things that, as a PR professional, he’d come to appreciate about the Jewish World; Harrison’s willingness to do so was one of the reasons the two of them had become close enough for the publisher to eventually trust Kamaras with his outlet.
Kamaras also points out that San Diego Jewish readers will have local options. In addition to the World, the region is also home to the San Diego Jewish Journal (a JTA syndication client) and L’Chaim San Diego Magazine, both print monthlies. He hopes to distinguish the Jewish World by building it up as “a hub for writers from the younger demographic.”
A recent homepage of the Jewish World includes an interview with a comedian about her upcoming San Diego engagement and a profile of a San Diego man who wants Congress to honor his father’s World War II unit. There are also press releases about a recent speech in Boston by the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt and a promotion for United Hatzalah, the Israeli ambulance service.
At the end of the day, Kamaras said, keeping the lights on at the Jewish World was the most important part of the equation, regardless of how that happens. “I did not want to see this product go by the wayside.”