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‘new Jew’ Publications Abound, but Can the Market Sustain Them?

November 23, 2006
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Remember when Heeb, the self-proclaimed “New Jew Review,” was the bad-boy, new kid on the block? Today, the nearly five-year-old magazine that the mainstream press insists upon calling “irreverent” (really, guys, get a thesaurus) is the granddaddy of a new generation of online and offline publications by and for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

This year was particularly fecund for new print publications, with the arts quarterly Guilt and Pleasure launching in early 2006, American Jewish Life (formerly Atlanta Jewish Life) in September, and PresenTense in late October.

“The fewer people read in America, the more they write,” Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” said with some exasperation during a panel discussion earlier this month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “We live in a culture where expression trumps everything.”

But some people wonder whether there’s a market to sustain all these ventures. One kid with a PC who doesn’t sleep much can run a blog, but a print publication — or an extensive Web presence sustained by advertising — requires real money.

Ilana Sichel, 23, editor of the 15-year-old Jewish student magazine New Voices, is doubtful.

“I’m surprised every time a new one is launched,” she says. “There’s so little money for print journalism.” Rather than a surfeit of ventures all seeking the same young adult readers, she would prefer “one or two terrific publications” where the best writers could work together.

“How many sub-niches in the Jewish literary world can really exist?” she wonders.

Heeb editor Joshua Neuman suspects that the young people behind these new ventures saw Heeb’s success and imagined they could do the same.

“For the past five years I’ve said over and over again that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemies,” he cautions.

Some of the new publications depend solely or largely on grants, usually from Jewish organizations. That’s the case with Guilt and Pleasure, New Voices and Zeek, which was founded in 2002.

Others are consciously forgoing foundation money, leery of the strings that may be attached to it.

New Voices, published by the Jewish Student Press Service, ran afoul of such strings this summer, when this year’s portion of a $100,000 three-year grant from the Solelim Fund, a venture philanthropy group of the UJA-Federation of New York, was slashed for what Sichel and others say was the magazine’s refusal to toe the Israel advocacy line.

New Voices, which distributes 5,000 to 8,000 copies of each issue to 400 campuses around the United States, lost $20,000 of this year’s $40,000 grant and had to lay off one of its three staffers. Sichel expects next year’s Solelim grant of $30,000 to disappear altogether, cutting a big chunk of the magazine’s $180,000 budget.

“When community leaders choose propaganda over dialogue, they reveal their condescending conviction that we are just malleable kids,” Sichel charged in an October 2006 editorial.

She says she finds it “particularly frustrating” that her donors “assume that publishing student work critical of Israel is dangerous” when, she says, open and honest dialogue is encouraged at Hillel, where she spent much of her time in college.

A spokeswoman for UJA-Federation declined to comment on why the grant was cut.

Columbia University journalism professor Sam Freedman, who is on the board of New Voices, says that publications put out by people in their 20s “should be daring and innovative.” They are, he says, “places where people find their voices.”

That’s true, say editors of other publications oriented toward younger Jews, which is why some of them avoid free money altogether.

Miriam Eljas, the 28-year-old editor of Blueprint, a New York-based events magazine and Web site, has not sought foundation grants since she founded the publication five years ago.

“We wanted to be independent,” she says.

Supported completely by advertising, Blueprint distributes 20,000 free copies of its print version every month, and advertising is sold out online through 2007, she says.

Some of the new ventures don’t need institutional money. American Jewish Life, owned by Jewish investors in Atlanta, is one of the few for-profit operations in the field. Half its pages are filled with ads, says editor Benyamin Cohen, many of them from blue-chip companies like Delta and Bell South.

“It’s a real magazine,” says Cohen, 31, who founded the popular site in 2001. “I don’t want to be a Jewish mouthpiece for a federation. I want to run my magazine the way non-Jewish magazines run their businesses.”

American Jewish Life distributes 15,000 copies of each issue and pulls in approximately $50,000 per issue in advertising revenue.

Cohen left in April 2005. “You can’t pay the rent doing online magazines unless your last name is Steinhardt or Bronfman,” he says, referring to mega-philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.

Paying the rent is something Ariel Beery’s job may not help him do for a while.

The 26-year-old editor of PresenTense is, like the other 100 young people contributing to the just-launched magazine, working for free.

He’s confident that will change. Although Beery says he won’t take foundation money to publish the magazine, he’s betting on advertising, investors and the magazine’s ability to reach the “huge, untapped market” of 60,000 Jewish college students in New York City, not to mention the half-million nationwide.

“If they’ll pay $5 for a cup of coffee, they’ll pay $5 once a month for PresenTense,” he posits.

So far it’s working. Their first issue, a print run of 5,000, cost $5,500, and they netted $372. The editors plan to publish two in 2006, three in 2007, and work their way up to 10 by 2012.

“We’ve put out two issues with no institutional donations, and we’re already turning a profit,” he says. “That says something about the opportunities that exist.”

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