Is this the best way for our future Jewish stories to be told and recorded?

The preceding was quoted from a mass fund raising email sent out by the President of the JTA, Elisa Spungen Bildner. As can be expected (duh!), the Jewish blogosphere did not take too kindly to the implication that “Jewish storytelling” was somehow diminished in their hands.

Leah Jones, who I met and befriended thanks to blogging wrote:

I have no relationship with the JTA and unless a retraction is posted quickly, this email guarantees that I will never have one. The JTA is one of the news services for the Jewish community and they have put a stake in the ground that a blogger has no right to tell the Jewish story

Dan Brown of eJewishPhilanthropy (the first to blog on this issue) noted:

Considering that the JTA has professional staff who blog and twitter, both for the JTA and privately, and considering all the communal professionals who also engage in the use of new media, one wonders what the JTA is even thinking with such a comment.

Steven Ira Weiss, a pioneer of the Jewish blogosphere was scathing in his rebuke of the JTA:

While Spungen Bildner’s disdain for new media producers can perhaps be attributed to the fact that these efforts by JTA to recruit new media producers into making them relevant have thus far failed (as of this writing, the most recent posts to Kavod are 11 days old, and JBlogs seems to produce no noticeable traffic), it’s nonetheless truly galling to see JTA speaking out of both sides of its mouth in this manner… Like some old-school Jewish organization raising funds with a list of anti-Semitic activity, JTA is hoping to preserve itself by reaching out to potential donors with a list of the media produced by Jewish youth… Instead of making itself relevant enough to Jewish audiences to gain enough advertising and subscription revenue to survive (something that Gawker has achieved in a fraction of the time that the hundred-year-old JTA has been around) JTA is pleading for those who haven’t yet caught on to the changes afoot in today’s media landscape to subsidize them a bit longer. As every other media organization struggling with the transition is looking for ways to embrace new media, pare down and develop new and real revenue streams, JTA is hunkering down, insulting new media and asking for a bailout from moneyed older Jews.

Even Dan Sieradski, the JTA’s Director of Digital Media and founder of Jewschool distanced himself from the fund raising letter in, ironically enough, a tweet that read “agrees entirely that today’s JTA membership email was ill-advised and has made it known to the powers that be.”

Finally, you can always expect Esther Kustanowitz to be the calm voice of reason, and she didn’t disappoint when she concluded her blog post on the topic as follows:

If you ask me, the news, personal reflections or opinions that resonate with people who blog or Tweet or Digg or Facebook message are becoming – as much as any piece of current news or element of our written history – a vital part of our Jewish storytelling, for the present and future. Jewish bloggers are not the enemies of Jewish storytelling: if anything, as bickering, economic collapse and technological confusion compete for communal attention, they just might be its salvation… But what do I know? I’m just a blogger.

As for my response, I guess if you’re still reading this post, I owe you that much at least! To me it’s kind of obvious that traditional media (ie Newspapers and Television) and digital media (blogs, facebook, twitter etc.) have a symbiotic relationship. Many blog posts take the form of commentary on articles published by traditional media. When properly cited and linked, these posts generate additional traffic for the original news source. Most newspapers are still struggling to redefine themselves in this new digital era, but one can’t help but note that those that are succeeding have done so by integrating their own blogs, twitter feeds and facebook pages as well as instantaneous reader comments, into their digital offerings.

It is however true that we are not “professionals.” We do not get paid to blog. A professional news gathering organization like the JTA is and ought to be seen as an essential and important part of the Jewish community. But please, do not cast aspersions on bloggers’ capabilities. Successful bloggers are passionate about what they write about. They don’t cover a story because someone told them to – they cover it because they care. This adds an added dimension to Jewish Story telling that you often don’t get in traditional Jewish media. Furthermore, because bloggers aren’t professional, they are independent and free to cover controversial stories that news gathering organizations, beholden to their major funders, wouldn’t touch.

In fact, one can arguably state that the rapid rise and success of the Jewish blogosphere came about because traditional Jewish media had become as stale and uninteresting as the organized Jewish community organizations that funded them and for whom they gladly acted as mouthpieces. Just as the organized Jewish community was seen as unfriendly and unsupportive of young Jewish innovators and alternative perspectives, so too did the traditional Jewish media do a rotten job of presenting content that was interesting to the emergent digital generation.

Now I’d like to think that the organized Jewish community is making progress and being more receptive to and accepting of a multiplicity of voices. The JTA however has taken a giant step backwards and I hope for their sake and ours that this was just a momentary setback, an editing error or a poorly thought out idea. I eagerly look forward to some kind of clarification or retraction by the JTA.

Oh and just to be fair, if you want to pony up the $50 a year for JTA membership – “less than $1 a day” as noted helpfully noted by Spungen Bildner (more like less than 14 cents a day bit who’s counting?) – you can do so here. And if you’re feeling REALLY generous, please help Save Passover here.

I only read this after I wrote the post but for yet another perspective, read Maya Norton’s post “The JTA in Crisis” on The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy where she concludes with a prediction:

What’s the story here? Are the JTA’s own blogs showing them how truly powerful a medium blogging can be? Are they being hit so hard by the economy that they have to separate themselves from their closest competitors, self-identified as the blogs? Whatever it is, the message of the site, heavy with a new media blog-based design, and its blogging and twittering staff, do not align with the negative heavy handedness of its organizational message. Be on the look-out for some back pedaling in the near future.

Stay tuned!

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About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.


  • I think that some people would be surprised to learn how many bloggers are current/former journalists. Not to mention that there are many other fine writers who work hard to produce solid blog posts.

    Certainly there are issues within the blogosphere just as there are within traditional media.

  • Maybe it’s not about just about Jewish storytelling with an ironic twist, but journalism. JTA’s coverage is extensive…and it does complement the blogs/tweets/social media jargon out there. There is a place-and a need for both out there. Clearly, the comment was a misstep. And clearly, the people who work at JTA are aware that blogging is where it’s at (the editor and other reporters blog there). But, like many institutional old-school J-orgs, they just need to be a touch more relevant at the top–a typical issue with these orgs. At least they’re not printing a weekly). Maybe we can all get along…and work together.

  • I agree that her statement in the name of fundraising was ridiculous, however, I think you’ve missed an important point. It’s not that you’re not “professional” because you don’t get paid, it’s that you’re not a JOURNALIST. Blogging is not journalism. She said “the storytelling will be LEFT TO…” She’s not saying it’s either-or, that there’s no room to share the storytelling, or that blogging should go away; she’s saying that without JTA’s actual JOURNALISM as a component of that storytelling, it will all be said by bloggers.

    I think the most important criticism of that statement is from Steven Weiss when he points out that there are a lot of local Jewish newspapers plus there is the Forward, so it’s not like JTA is the only outlet for Jewish journalism. But let’s be honest about the difference between journalism and blogging (or the 99.9% of blogging that is done by non-journalists, because as Jack said above there are certainly a couple of blogger/journalists). For example, Esther Kustanowitz is someone who “does journalism,” in other words, she gets paid to publish articles in newspapers that are the result of the cultivation of sources, investigative interviews, and fact-checking. But if you look at her vast catalog of writing to date, what percentage does that constitute? Nor should she want the responsibility of “journalism” for everything she writes! I think there is a defensiveness and alarmism going on here in the bloggosphere that it unfounded. You provide something occasionally engaging and valuable, but don’t call it “news” or “journalism.” If blogging were the only source of news, we’d be in deep, deep doo-doo, and that’s why it’s so worrisome when every day we hear of another local newspaper going under.

  • Just received this twit – “JTA (jtanews) has requested to follow your updates on Twitter!”

  • It might just be my impression, but the responses we’re seeing are that of hurt egos rather than that of journalists’ insulted professional honour. I don’t see the JTA cutting off anybody’s internet connection just as little as I see coverage living up to standards of professional journalism on most blogs. (Often enough, we get opinion pieces based on hear-say and that’s-the-way-I’ve-always-done-it and I’m-right-because-I’m-more-minority/testosterone-ladden/frummer-than-thou and best case feature stories rather than news stories.) There are two different genres that, due to their nature, interrelate ever so often but are not congruent. Analogously, both draw different and in part congruent audiences / readerships.

    I’m still amazed by that twitter thing; is it exhibitionism paired with voyeurism or the love of the banal that draws people to it?

    Let’s not half fancy ourselves. The fly was there before we were.

  • Blogging does not place upon us the same responsibilities as reporting does upon newspapers. One of the differences is that we’re not paid to report. I would think that although we take ourselves seriously here, if we were being paid for our writing or if we were an “official” publication, we’d have different standards for our reporting and would be far more careful about what we publish.

    Blogs are on-going op-ed sections, nothing more.

    Newspapers bear the weight of fact-checking and supposed objective neutrality and fairness in their articles. This does require a different range of resources than blogging and in the current economy forces these publications to raise funds to survive.

    I, for one, am not that insulted by the fund-raising letter, although it insulted without any need to do so. The biggest problem we all face is that civilian-reporting is untrustworthy and amateurish, as visits to Wikipedia or demonstrate. In fact, those sites’ editors and reporters rely on “real” media for their sources. Dwindling resources for “real” media, however, force publishers to compromise on quality and will winnow out many publications entirely in the coming years.

    What this means is that fewer “voices” will exist in the media world, and those who do exist will rely upon less experienced and less capable (read: cheaper) writers to bring us all the news we need. Less checking on the editorial side will also be a result, and then we all suffer because the quality of newspapers and magazines will diminish. Can anybody really claim that key newspapers such as the LA Times are better today after their layoffs and budget cuts as they had been before? I don’t think so. And every time a publication decides to tap into AP’s or Reuter’s syndicated stories instead of covering something themselves, they choke off true debate and discussion in our society because everything is reported by just a couple of sources.

    So I’m kinda, sorta, with the JTA on this. I just hope that next time, they use better judgment in expressing the value of their publication and in contrasting it with, say, ours.

  • Can’t Israel invade Damascus or something so the “J-blogosphere” can convulse over something that actually matters? Yes, the turn of phrase was probably ill-advised and undiplomatic, and blogging is extremely important, but as Proud Self-Loather said, nobody was talking about an either-or between journalism and blogging.

    ck, per your comment “Furthermore, because bloggers aren’t professional, they are independent and free to cover controversial stories that news gathering organizations, beholden to their major funders, wouldn’t touch.” — This is only half true. Yes, you aren’t beholden to certain major funders, but you probably are beholden to your own funders, and this gets to the main difference, in my opinion, between something like JTA and blogs: Journalistic ethics. In the absence of any standards and codes of professional conduct, bloggers can post press releases and pretend it’s “coverage,” and this happens all the time.

    For instance, Jewlicious has advertisers (clearly visible on the banners) and funders (not visible on the banners), and it also covers programs sponsored by its advertisers and funders. Only once or twice have I seen the kind of disclaimer that journalists are professionally bound to print: that the program or initiative gushed about in a profile is backed by a funder (or is itself a funder) who gives Jewlicious money. If you want to be taken more seriously as a viable complement to actual news gathering organizations, I would urge you, and all other bloggers who receive communal funding, to print these disclaimers every time a post might express a conflict of interest due to direct or indirect funding sources. You can even print something in your “edgy hipster vernacular” shtick (throw in some curse words, etc.), so that your readers won’t be too stunned, but at least it’ll be there. Do that, and the independence you cite will have a lot more bite.

  • I didn’t realize we have “funders.” Jewlicious Festivals has funders who have been identified publicly. has no funders that I know of although it does have advertisers and sometimes those advertisers get posts, generally positive in nature, written about them. That is a conflict of interest, but considering the ad is flashing somewhere on the page, one would think that is disclaimer enough.

    Also, it would be nice if somebody actually took us that seriously. I, for one, have not been approached with any book deals or even offers to write articles. But that’s because I don’t curse enough and never use fucking edgy hipster vernacular.

  • Honored to be used as an example by PSL.

    If they had said “journalism’s in trouble” or “we need unbiased journalists to provide accurate news stories,” that’s one thing. But the framing of “Jewish storytelling” as being under attack by a group of people who are actually contributing to that entity was unfortunate, and what fueled my response, as well as likely the responses of several others of my blogging colleagues.

    The vast majority of my work these days never appears in a print publication, mostly because – in a strange twist of writing fate – Jewish print publications are rarely paying for freelance contributions these days. I can’t tell you how many times I pitch “print publications” and am told that they’ll either pay extremely low rates for original work (ranging from $15 to about $300) or that they have no budget for freelancers at all, and that “we already pay for JTA” and therefore use those stories as the bulk of the publication. When I manage to place a reprint, I’m lucky and rejoice at the extra few dollars it brings me.

    As one of those people lucky to be getting paid (albeit minimally) for blogging, I think that usually, although there is some reporting involved, such pieces count on being infused with the unique perspective of the writer – as a result, most blog pieces (at least the ones I do) are less reported pieces and more observations on those stories, filtered through my own perspective. This is blogging’s strength – today’s source of instant op-eds.

    Most of my posts (especially the ones on JDaters Anonymous and My Urban Kvetch) wouldn’t qualify as “journalism.” But I wouldn’t knock the role of independent voices contributing to Jewish storytelling, either.

    And I’d just repeat, אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו: blogging is a medium. So is Twitter. Within the limitations of each of those media spaces, people occupy those spaces differently. And I think there’s room for lots of voices, and clearly so does the JTA, by providing really excellent blogging – @Fundermentalist’s liveblog of the JFN conference was a recent standout for me. Which is why this email seemed so out of character, why I felt I had to speak out, and why I’m glad Dan was the one to author the response/apology. Now we can all move on.

  • Lookit what we have to do to get EV to comment on Jewlicious! I friggin colored in not one, but 2 panels of your last cartoon, used them in two supportive posts and did I get a response? No. Nothing. Now you trot out the journalistic ethics argument again… Oy! You can make that argument because our sponsors and advertisers are plain to see! The Festival receives support from many entities and those are prominently listed on the Festival site. I don’t feel the need to state the obvious when writing a post! Furthermore, Jewlicious is more than just me – we have a whole crew of writers who have never been told what they can and cannot write about, regardless of who our perceived sponsors are. None of us is in this for the money and none of us are journalism professionals. If people think our ethical standards can be bought, they are free to not read Jewlicious and not attend our Festivals and other events. People vote with their eyeballs and luckily, those eyeballs are still popping over here to read what we have to say.

    Please note that I refrained from using curse words or difficult to understand hipster vernacular for the sake of better communication with you EV. Hope I made my point. Now back to our regularly scheduled program. 🙂

  • Esther,

    While I agree with almost all of what you say, I respectfully disagree with your last sentence.

    While I appreciate Dan’s response to what has been said, I am quite disappointed that it came from him (regardless of his position in the JTA). The feelings that Elisa’s solicitation email apparently brought forth deserve a response from her, as both the author of the email and President of JTA.

    On a related note, and lost in all the various comments is that the solicitation email asks us “to join JTA by becoming a member of our online community. For just $50…”

    Membership implies certain benefits not available to non-members. Does anyone have any idea what exactly are the benefits of JTA membership?

  • “Jewlicious Festivals has funders who have been identified publicly.” Really? On this website? On this page? I don’t see it. And I certainly don’t see it on posts covering programs initiated by these sponsors. Jewlicious has a whole host of funders identified on Slingshot’s 2007 submission form, but if this (updated) list also exists on Jewlicious’s site, please identify it. I don’t see it on your “About” page.

    Per your remarks separating the Festival from the blog: and the Jewlicious Festivals are the same brand. You can’t separate the Festival from the blog in terms of funding sources and coverage. It’s natural that coverage will tend to be hagiographic when money for the Festival is on the line. So whenever the blog covers an organization for which it receives money for its festival, there is a conflict of interest that needs to be clarified through a disclaimer in that very post, period.

    Also, I was talking about “direct” and “indirect” funding sources. The latter category would include any instance in which David Abitbol designs a website for a Jewish organization and then writes a flattering post about that organization on Jewlicious. I’m only singling out Jewlicious because Abitbol posted about this. The same would apply to any blog that aspires towards credibility.

    I really hope Jewish blogs — and ultimately all blogs — will move towards a culture of total transparency, as that was one of the ideas behind the emergence of blogs as forces of news commentary in the first place.

  • ck — just saw your comment. The coloring job was delightful! I didn’t comment because I felt you were maybe overly harsh on social entrepreneurs as pernicious hucksters, which wasn’t my intent in the comic. The comic’s target was Jewish communal organizations that are chasing after the latest perceived panacea of Jewish “engagement,” with typical myopia and cluelessness.

  • …and still NO mention of the awesome coloring job I did on the last EV comic…

    I like to think I’m pretty transparent. Unless I’m obligated by the terms of an NDA, I take no measures to hide any of my professional work. To date I’ve written 1259 (!!) posts, none of which I get paid for. The money we generate from advertising is so little it would make you cry and barely pays for our servers. In any case, there’s a link on top to the Jewlicious Festival site which contains a thorough list of all our Festival sponsors ever. I made a web site for ROI 120, I’ve helped run a few Birthright Israel trips, We were paid to produce a video for Birthright, we’ve done work for 2 trip providers, a wide variety of Jewish organizations have advertised on Jewlicious – I can’t even remember them all… given that I don’t get paid to blog, having to figure out all the possible connections and interconnections a blog post might involve is simply not realistic. I don’t have the time to do that. I think it’s enough that the information sought is publicly available AND anyone wishing to dispute my impartiality is free to do so on Jewlicious. We never delete critical comments. So yeah, given all that, I think it’s fair to say that I do a reasonable job at being both credible and transparent. Also, I am not a journalist! Jewlicious presents our posts free of charge and as is.

    Oof. Thank Hashem for my non-Jewish clients! 🙂

  • EV wrote “The comic’s target was Jewish communal organizations that are chasing after the latest perceived panacea of Jewish “engagement,” with typical myopia and cluelessness…” perhaps fed by said “pernicious hucksters?”

    Glad you found the coloring delightful. Me? I find you delightful!


  • I delete certain anti-Semites regularly, but none of them have ever offered to advertise with us. 😉

  • I think one thing that we can all agree on is that EV is absolutely delightful, no?

    I dare someone to fight me on this…

  • “perhaps fed by said “pernicious hucksters?””

    — or by overexcited imbeciles whose agenda may or may not be pernicious. I give them the benefit of the doubt and conclude they’re simply imbeciles. It’s the community’s responsibility to see through the bloviation and blather and stop latching itself on to the latest trends. But as the community is led by so many of the imbecilic persuasion, and as the community is desperate to be “hip” to the “next-gen,” the phenomenon feeds itself quite nicely, and will continue to do so with whatever trend appears next on the horizon.

    Anyway, I didn’t comment mostly b/c I would like my comics to speak for themselves without explanation, but I do think the distinction re. “hucksters” is worth pointing out.

    So whose skin tones did you use? Mine?

  • given that I don’t get paid to blog

    That’s too bad. I make serious coin.

    And I get to have lunch with Kelsey and dinner tonight with two more infamous bloggers.

  • EV: No you have to guess! I didn’t use your birthday pic skin tone because it was too pale – from the flash, not the shtetl skin.

    And speak for itself? Don’t you LOVE the discussion inspired by your comics?

  • Thanks EV for your comments and I hope that you will join the discussion on a regular basis.

  • My blog’s news reporting during Cast Lead (and the Second Lebanon War) was carried everywhere. It was alot more up to date and informative than anything on the web, let alone JTA (except of course, for Aussie Dave and Israel Matzav)

    A Happy and Kosher Passover.

    Jameel & Crew
    The Muqata