A fascinating discussion took place the other day about the changes a new editor-in-chief of a major Jewish publication has been making. Having taken over as the new editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal just six weeks ago, David Suissa spoke to a room full of journalists about the new directions of the publication. With a publication of 50,000 copies per print issue, as well as thousands more of online traffic, the Jewish Journal is one of the more widely-read Jewish publications in the US.
Since the announcement was made a few months ago that Rob Eshman, the editor-in-chief of the publication since 2000, would be stepping down, it was unclear what Suissa would be doing with the paper. Upon taking over, he made immediate changes to the paper, especially regarding layout, but also content, as well. “You’re catching me in this whirlwind of change,” he observed. According to him, these changes have been working. “We’ve been getting all kinds of calls from advertisers. Why? Because of the beauty of the paper. There was no revenue model from a fancy MBA,” he said, eschewing marketing models, even though he worked at an advertising agency for 25 years. “I’ve changed the way the Jewish Journal has worked,” he said. “I can’t overstate the importance of beauty in consumer experience.”
The discussion with Suissa took place at the annual conference of the American Jewish Press Assocation, which took place semi-concurrently with the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this week in Los Angeles. The discussion, entitled “Balancing Community Leadership with Audience Development…and the Bottom Line”, was moderated by Leo Lazar, the VP of business development and strategy/associate publisher of 70 Faces Media, although Suissa largely spoke about the changes he has made with the publication and the positive responses he has received, including advertisers. “The feedback I’ve gotten from readers is that they’ve enjoyed it,” he said.
Interestingly, he said that he wanted to move away from an emphasis on current events and politics. “I didn’t want the paper to become contaminated by the anger of current events,” Suissa said. “One of the mistakes we have made is too much emphasis on current news and politics. We’ve done too much of this,” since the Jewish Journal, as a weekly publication, is more of a newsmagazine than a newspaper. What ends up happening is that readers are “angry by the time they get to the arts and culture pieces or community stories,” he mused. So, he prescribed, “You can’t let current events and politics dominate the consciousness and soul of the paper.” Inasmuch as there has been a “fetishizing controversy as the highest ideal,” he stated, “it’s not, although it’s one of the components.”
That doesn’t mean Suissa has removed the paper of controversy: “I’ve tried to take controversy and contained it.” In fact, “When we deal with controversial issues, we deal with them a certain way”, by putting “both issues on the same page, which takes a lot of work.” However, he described himself as hating anger – “I’m an anti-journalist in that sense,” going against the truism of having it as a badge of honor of getting hate letters from both the left and the right.
Instead, he yearns for the paper to appeal to the mind, the heart and the soul. One example he offered was making a significant change to the way the parsha of the week was presented. Previously, the page was offered to a rabbi or scholar to share a d’var Torah. However, he has changed it to “Table for Five”, in which five brief takes are offered each week by a variety of rabbis and scholars, whether Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, scholars, entertainers, etc. Suissa said he had “had the idea of a Talmudic layout of a page for the parsha for years.” He said he “had the idea when I was the president, but not editor-in-chief”, but wasn’t able to get it going. Now that he’s the editor-in-chief, he was able to make it happen. He said it “has become the most popular page,” but not necessarily “the most engaging.”
These new changes have not been easy, though. Suissa said the new version of the Jewish Journal has been “really carefully laid out”, and also “requires a lot of nurturing of the writers.” But he wants to make sure “we give the readers what they want.” Also, he said, “I’m not going to insult you or patronize you,” even for the Jews who are not so knowledgeable or involved. In fact, he noted, there are some Jews whose only point of connection to the Jewish community is the Jewish Journal.
Suissa has been very excited about the increase in advertiser interest since the new layout began. “Advertisers are calling us in the last few weeks because they want to be a part of us.” Advertising is very important to them since 80% of the Jewish Journal’s revenues are covered through advertisements. The remaining revenues are covered through donors. “We couldn’t survive without our donors, but we happen to have a couple of donors” who value what the paper is doing. He did mention that adhering to the stated rates can be tough, “because everyone knows someone, so they want to get deals,” Suissa said. “It’s hard to have rate integrity”, but, otherwise, everyone’s going to get a deal. And, he noted, “a lot of these organizations really have the money” to pay for the advertisements.
Since he was asked also about the online space, he mentioned that they “won’t succeed just being the print version online”, so they need different content, including video. “I tell reporters, ‘Press the red button,’” he says of his wanting video content. He also has begun running a version of the print edition in its entirety on the website, which advertisers have liked. “I’m really clear on print,” he made a point of saying, since “I have such clarity, because it’s a linear experience.” Moreover, “One of the reasons I’m so bullish on print is because advertisers love print.”
In all, it was a fascinating conversation, especially since the conversation took place amongst a room of fellow journalists with Jewish publications, who were able to ask him questions about the thinking and other processes involved that go into the paper. And, of course, Suissa kept it entertaining the entire time with his energetic enthusiasm.
A few extra tidbits: