The Future of the Forward

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 31, 2019.
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The Jewish Daily Forward recently announced that Jodi Rudoren, one of the highest-ranking women at the New York Times, would serve as its next Editor-in-Chief. Rudoren, who joined the Times in 1998, served as its Jerusalem bureau chief between 2011–2015, and has also worked as its Chicago bureau chief, as an editor on the Metro desk, and as a correspondent on the 2004 presidential campaign. Contributing writer Rachel Cohen talked to Rudoren about her vision for the Forward at this tumultuous moment for journalism, for the American Jewish community, and for the nation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: What are you most excited about coming to the Forward?

Jodi Rudoren: The last couple of years I’ve been working in strategic roles at the Times, focused on digital transformation and audience engagement and just really thinking about what the newsroom of the future is all about. And the New York Times is in a really good place in that landscape—we have a model that seems to be working. There are a lot of challenges ahead, and we all face an industry that’s constantly in flux, but the Times is in a pretty good place. I’ve just grown increasingly aware that the really urgent crisis in journalism is finding new models for local outlets. The Forward isn’t really a local news organization—it’s nationally focused—but it’s local in the sense that it’s niche, community-based, and identity-based. I just started realizing that that’s the place in journalism that needs the most attention, creativity, and ambition. I am really energized by that challenge

The Forward has made an incredibly bold choice to end its print version altogether, to really face the digital moment. That was courageous and risky and complicated, but I felt it was a clear sign that its board and CEO were serious about reinvention. The Jewish world is in such an interesting and challenging moment, the American Jewish story is so interesting and urgent. The rise of antisemitism and the collapse of civil debate around Israel—it’s an incredibly challenging time for journalism and also a real opportunity.

RC: It’s no secret that the Forward has faced financial challenges recently. Why do you think Jewish philanthropists are less likely to fund journalism than say, Birthright or an art museum renovation? 

JR: I’m new to this space, and there are some people who know more about Jewish philanthropy and journalistic philanthropy than me, so in some sense I’m just hazarding a guess. But it’s probably a confluence of things.

The idea of nonprofit journalism is not that well established. In the print era, people paid for a newspaper, it wasn’t something they thought required philanthropy. There were a few models, like NPR, but there weren’t that many nonprofit models before ProPublica came along, and their model has spawned a huge movement. We are very much still in the process of either teaching readers or learning from readers about how journalism is going to be supported in the future.

The New York Times is a leader in the idea of paying for news, but I don’t think that’s the only model, and I think there will be a new model of local and identity-based news supported by philanthropists who say, this work is vital to our community and should be supported, like the opera or after school programs. I think we have to keep making the clear case that the Forward has a real financial need, but also that there’s a need of the Jewish people for the Forward, that it can make the Jewish world better by [making it] more informed and engaged.

I’m also glad you mentioned Birthright. It’s a very complicated organization but one of its basic value propositions is that it adopts the broadest possible definition of Jewish identity and tries to bring everyone one step closer to their Judaism by bringing them to Israel. I’m not sure that’s how Steinhardt would put it but I think that’s one way of interpreting it. And I think that same value proposition is central to the future of theForward too: to use the broadest possible definition of Jews and people interested in Judaism and bring them one step closer to what they define as Judaism. That’s also a lot less expensive than bringing people to Israel for ten days, and I do think that should appeal to Jewish philanthropists.

RC: In 2017 you gave an interview where you noted that journalists can sometimes come under attack by pro-Israel groups for frank and honest coverage of Israel, which can then distort the language reporters use and negatively impact the overall quality of the debate in the United States. I imagine these dynamics will be present for you at the Forward, if not more intensified now that you’re likely in a fundraising role.

JR: My job is not fundraising, my job is to keep our editorial content ambitious, fair, and creative. I am going to be involved in fundraising and I’m happy to evangelize about the cause of investing in the Forward but we have a development department and a publisher.

What I want to say is that while Israel will be a serious part of our coverage and something we will be super engaged in, the bigger crisis I think right now for American Jews is our inability to talk civically to each other about it. When I was the Jerusalem bureau chief, after working in journalism for years, I found the decline in civil discourse around the conflict to be completely unique, unlike anything else I had ever covered before. And then I came back to the United States, and now it’s like every issue is the same as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. People are reading different sources, having different narratives, and not talking to each other.

And many, many American Jews are very troubled about the decline in civil discourse as it pertains to American politics. But I think they should be equally concerned about our debate around Israel. A lot of my friends, and people I go to synagogue with, are having this happen in their very own families, with their own college-aged children. They’re having trouble finding common ground, and their sources and framing are so starkly different.

RC: Yeah, it’s definitely a mutual feeling. I know a lot of people who dread going home for the holidays for fear that Israel may come up at the dinner table. But how can theForward help?

JR: This is the very crisis the Forward is poised to address. We can be a place where people come and share their views and [access] fact-based reporting. That is my profound goal, to create a forum for serious civic engagement. That’s the thing I’m most qualified to do, and it is urgent. It’s not okay the way people talk past each other and over each other.

RC: Piggybacking off of that, this past May, Nylah Burton, a black Jewish writer and past contributor to the Forward wrote an essay for Jewish Currents about how the practice of publishing all viewpoints can also come at a real cost, especially for writers of color. She recounted an explosive twitter exchange between the Forward’s opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon and Representative Ilhan Omar. Sargon charged Rep. Omar with antisemitism and compared her to David Duke, and the Forward soon ran a fundraising email endorsing Ungar-Sargon’s charge. The congresswoman was bombarded with abuse.

This was not under your leadership, but it’s a context you’re walking into. And since this happened, the bigotry against Rep. Omar and others has only intensified, with President Trump telling lawmakers of color to “go back where they came from” and continuing to attack Rep. Elijah Cummings and Baltimore. How are you thinking about these criticisms and the role of the Forward in covering both real concerns of antisemitism while also recognizing how the institution’s work and staff can be used to further racism and Islamophobia in this very fraught political moment?

JR: So I am not talking about that incident because I don’t have the facts and I am just starting my relationship with the staff. A lot of people in the last two weeks have told me both how great they think Batya is, and other people have raised concerns that she has positioned the Forward way too far to the left. And now you’re talking about criticisms of her from the left. There’s some version of this where that is a sign of a good opinion department. But the version of it where people are not feeling comfortable writing is not okay. I want people to feel comfortable writing and I want to be known most of all as a place that publishes a range of opinions respectfully.

I do think you are right that concerns around antisemitism have played into this Trump conflict with Ilhan Omar in particular and “The Squad” more generally. This morning theForward published Peter Beinart on the ways in which the right wing is invoking Israel against The Squad. There are all these ways in which Jews and Israel are being played off one another in this debate over race and immigration. I haven’t thought about this in terms of an argument, but it’s not disconnected from the “Ferguson is Palestine” movement that has divided a lot of young Jews from their natural constituencies or historic relationships on campus with people of color. So those cleavages of how liberal Jews and people of color, are uniting and dividing over issues of race, immigration, race politics, and antisemitism, I feel those are really ripe issues for the Forward to cover both in the news space and the opinion section. And it’s also super fraught.

But you know, the real challenge of a great opinion section is how do you truly have a big tent that publishes a ton of super challenging opinions from all over the map without offending people so much that they then don’t read it. Offending people does not help. Clearly I do not want to offend people and I do not want people to turn away. I do want to feature provocative opinion writing and be cutting edge.

RC: I think a particular issue from that episode was how the Forward sent out a fundraising email that seemed to take a very clear position on Rep. Omar’s comments, and land on one side of a very polarized debate.

JR: The Forward doesn’t have a house editorial opinion. It can certainly be hard for news readers sometimes to distinguish between news and opinion, and we should do our best to make really clear lines for readers, including looking at our fundraising emails and how they relate to news content.

On the other hand, activist Jews, left-wing Jews, they were among the people up in arms about whether the New York Times should be labeling Trump’s tweets as racist. And one of the interesting things in that debate at the Times was to look back at how we characterized Ilhan Omar’s comments. Our headlines said that her comments “had been condemned as antisemitism.” And the very people who were telling us that “condemned as racist” is not strong enough said nothing about “condemned as antisemitism.” Often what seems like a debate about language is actually about where you line up on the political map.

The Forward’s role is to help Jews think through this complicated situation. What do you do if you support Ilhan Omar and you’re uncomfortable by what she said—how should you think about that? We should have opinion writers saying how they think about it, who may then help people learn and think and understand why exactly it was offensive to so many, and also help Ilhan Omar understand why, what are the triggers, what is the context.

I want to push people, make people react, but not turn away. Anything that makes that wall go up says to me that was not a successful piece of journalism.

RC: When I think back on some of the most impactful work of the Forward over the last few years I think of its reporting around Sebastian Gorka and his Nazi ties, and Josh Nathan-Kazis’s reporting on the anti-BDS movement on college campusesThe Forward has unfortunately laid off and lost a lot of its veteran reporters. I know it was recently awarded a $500,000 gift from Craig Newmark. Are you looking to expand the Forward’s reporting capacity?

JR: So Josh left after nine years, and I’m sorry he left because I think he’s great, and I do hope he continues to grow in his career and do great stories elsewhere. But we are hiring behind him and we have great candidates—I have an interview for that later today—and we’ll continue doing that kind of reporting. The Forward has gone through very difficult financial circumstances while maintaining its strong commitment to reporting. It’s run by people who care about strong independent journalism. And I’m really excited about how smart and creative and ambitious the reporters and editors that we have now are.

But the Forward is not in a position to be on a big hiring spree now. I have some promises about some growth over the next couple years, but I’m just being realistic, I don’t think our short-term goals are going to be about adding more journalists. I think we’re going to do some things differently with the resources that we have, and I think we are going to expand in some new ways that will not be about additional reporting but will be about other ways to engage people in the conversation.

RC: Like events?

JR: Like events, new reader engagement initiatives, some user-generated content. There’s a lot of ways to use the platform to collect and share information, and to use our audience. We really need to grow our audience significantly and do deep engagement with them. I think we have a lot of work to do and we don’t need more reporters to do that kind of work, we need to work on our distribution.

That’s not very sexy sounding, but it will make a big difference. I think if we do this, we will attract investment, we’ll grow the audience, people will be excited, and then we’ll be able to hire more people. Some of those will be investigative reporters, and some will be podcasters, or event programmers, or cartoonists. We’ll try a lot of things to broaden who the Forward reaches.

 

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