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Keeping the Jewish Light burning

Reprinted with permission from the Gateway Journalism Review (Winter 2012)

By Eileen P. Duggan

Like all print news publications, the St. Louis Jewish Light, a 64-year-old weekly, has run into the reality of the 21st century: declining readership, declining revenue and online competition. To meet the challenges, the Jewish Light’s Board of Trustees and staff have made substantial changes to the paper’s content, distribution and revenue sources over the past few years.

The Jewish Light’s content runs the gamut of local, national and international news, op-ed, features, arts coverage, enterprise reporting, obituaries, columns, gossip, a calendar, crossword puzzles and social announcements. There are special sections and the quarterly Oy! magazine, each with a different focus and available in print only.

“I like the breadth of the paper,” said playwright Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company and the DisAbility Project. “It has significant relevance through its local and national and world news. None of those things are really covered consistently or adequately through other local news outlets.”

Last summer, the Jewish Light, historically a free weekly mailed to donors of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, rolled out a paid subscription program.

Larry Levin (from left), Ellen Futterman and Robert Cohn (Photo courtesy of Gateway Journalism Review)

The response was unexpectedly positive, “nothing short of extraordinary,” said Larry Levin, publisher and chief executive officer of the Light. A former real estate attorney “with an undercurrent of journalism” in his background, Levin joined the  Light in June 2008.

But before asking readers to pay for a paper that had always been free, Levin and the board made sure to improve the product substantially, including a total redesign with more full-color photos and graphics.

First, Levin hired Editor Ellen Futterman, a 25-year veteran of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Futterman has introduced a number of new features including her “News and Schmooze” column; annual fall and summer arts, Earth Day and college sections; investigative reports; and grant-funded special projects.

In 2010, the paper’s outdated website was replaced with a colorful, interactive site. “After doing a lot of due diligence in looking at both canned options and custom-built options, we chose the Town News platform, which is partially owned by Lee Enterprises,” Levin said. Town News hosts websites for some 1,500 newspapers. “Quite honestly, for an organization our size to have a website built for 100 grand or more does not make economic sense.”

The site, www.stljewishlight.com, carries the weekly print edition as well as web-specific content such as video interviews with prominent newsmakers. “We more than doubled our traffic in about a year and a half, which we’re thrilled about,” Levin said.

The redesigned website won an award from the American Jewish Press Association in June 2011.

One of the regular web features is “Cohnipedia,” a column by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Robert A. Cohn, who “retired” in 2004. Cohnipedia — its moniker a nod to Cohn’s legendary encyclopedic knowledge of St. Louis Jewish history — tackles a timely topic beginning in the print edition. Then readers are directed to the website to finish the story.

Cohn ran the Jewish Light for 35 years before coming to a mutually agreeable retirement contract with the paper’s board of trustees. Now, Cohn does nearly as much writing as he did before, churning out his column, obituaries, theater reviews, book and film reviews, interviews and news reports. He also alternates writing the first draft of the weekly editorials with Levin.

With Levin now in charge of the business functions that Cohn used to do, “I get the thrills and he gets the bills,” Cohn said. “It really is a great relief not to be involved in all that. Instead I get to do all the things that I enjoy most at the Jewish Light. It’s about as ideal an arrangement as one could have.”

Cohn also has come to appreciate having an excellent editor aboard. “Ellen has brought in editorial discipline,” he said. “I had been kind of spoiled for 35 and a half years, where nobody really touched my copy.”

Even before joining the Light in 1969, Cohn had been editor of Student Life at Washington University and The Writ, the student paper of the WUSTL School of Law, where he earned a law degree. “So when I stopped being editor, I realized I benefited a lot from Ellen being a very good and judicious editor.”

Cohn, an admitted typewriter user until 12 years ago, has embraced the new technology that has transformed the Light. “I’m more optimistic now than I was just a few years ago about how we’re going to fit into the electronic scene. The challenge is: how do you make it profitable?”

Because the Light is a 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization, financing has always been a challenge.  Born in 1947 as the “St. Louis Light,” the public relations arm of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the paper was funded mostly by the Federation. In March 1963, a group of high-powered community leaders decided that the paper should have its own identity, and the St. Louis Jewish Light emerged. Funding came from an annual allocation from the Federation along with individual and corporation contributions as well as advertising.

From 1963 to 1969, the new paper could still be perceived to be the Federation’s PR arm as it was run by the Federation’s PR chief, Jeff Fisher (not to be confused with the new St. Louis Rams head coach). When Fisher moved away in 1969, Cohn, then an assistant to St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos, was recruited to be the editor.

Cohn gradually tried to exercise more independence in the paper’s editorial content, while over the years the Federation’s financial contribution gradually decreased. After Cohn’s handover in 2004 to a new chief executive officer/publisher, there was a brief period of staff and leadership changes. By the time Levin came in, the financial situation was changing more rapidly. After much planning, the Board of Trustees notified subscribers that paid subscriptions would begin in summer 2011.

“We had some skeptics who said it won’t work in this day and age,” said Levin, who also has experience in not-for-profit administration. “Because we proved first that we were trying to substantially improve content and provide more content, I think people trusted us and believed us.”

A 52-week subscription costs $36 for Federation donors. Discounts are available for senior citizens, students and first-time Federation donors. Subscribers also may donate to “Spread the Light,” a special fund to help cover subscriptions for low-income readers.

“We have exceeded our own 2011 subscriptions goals by about 8 percent,” Levin said. The current printed circulation is about 10,000 with about 18,000 to 20,000 readers. Some of those copies are dropped at about 90 locations, such as retail shops and synagogues. The website stood at 35,000 page views in the month of December 2011, he said.

“What the subscription model does is it allows us to operate more prudently financially, because it’s something we can budget on, plan on, depend upon as opposed to donations, which are much more volatile and unpredictable,” Levin said. About 70 to 80 percent of the paper’s budget comes from advertising  and 7 percent currently comes from the Federation, he said.

Another new income source has made it possible to improve the paper’s content. “We have been much more aggressive about getting grants to help us fund good journalism,” Futterman said.

A grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis funded a series on hate crimes in 2010 that the Light ran in cooperation with the St. Louis Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU-FM). “The Faces of Hate” featured a two-week series of 15 stories that appeared in both the Light and the Beacon. The series won an award from the National Jewish Press Association.

“We choose consciously to focus on some areas of social justice that we think resonate with the Jewish community,” Levin said.

Another grant funds “Can We Talk,” an ongoing quarterly series that explores a specific topic in depth through articles, an editorial, community opinions and a panel discussion open to the entire community, Jewish and otherwise. The series is a joint project with the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“We’ve tried to meld our journalistic responsibility with our collaborative responsibility within the community,” Levin said. “Because resources are precious, we want to make sure they go as far as they can toward very important topics.”

One of those important topics is, of course, Israel. “The Light has consistently supported a two-state solution of Israel and a Palestinian state, as long as the security and safety of both can be assured,” Levin said. “There is a huge number of opinions about issues surrounding Israel, and we do our outmost to publish a wide variety of perspectives from locals and from other voices in the United States, overseas and Israel itself.”

Joan Lipkin is one reader who appreciates coverage of such topics. “I think it is important to understand the culture of a community in which you live,” she said. “The Light has run so many excellent features — everything from Jews and the Civil War, to the coverage of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Death of Klinghoffer to the annual ‘Unsung Heroes’ magazine. It is a complicated time to be a Jew and to try to sort through the complexity of issues in the Middle East. The Light helps to ground me in my Jewish identity, both on a local and wider level.”

Yet another grant allows Futterman and Managing Editor Mike Sherwin to do workshops and programs in area schools. Community outreach to youth also is achieved through a teen page called Ohr Chadash, which recently won an award from the National Newspaper Association.

With only 15 people on staff, seven of them full-time, the Light is a “mean machine,” Futterman says. She does much of the writing, along with Cohn and free-lancer Dave Baugher, who briefly served as editor before Futterman arrived. She has brought on a bevy of free-lancers with well-known bylines including Eric Mink, Patricia Corrigan and Cliff Froehlich.

Levin and Cohn write the editorials, which are then approved by an editorial committee consisting of members of the Board of Trustees.

Plans for the continued evolution of the Light include a new focus in 2012 on “Israel Alive,” featuring stories on the cultural life of Israel, unrelated to war or politics.

“The Jewish Light will continue to serve the community, both in print and online,” said Cohn. “I think there’s a need for the print edition at least for the next 10 or 20 years, and I hope beyond.”

Visit the St. Louis Jewish Light  online at  www.stljewishlight.com

Shorter version originally published March 2012 in Gateway Journalism Review at http://gatewayjr.org/2012/04/23/jewish-light-changing-with-the-times/.

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