I scarfed kosher sliders, caught up with old friends and colleagues, and pretended not to stare at Mayim Bialik at Monday night’s launch of a new Jewish media venture. 70 Faces Media is a merger of JTA, the venerable Jewish news service, and MyJewishLearning, the on-line encyclopedia cum almanac launched in 2002. The merger includes Kveller, a Jewish family blog that counts Bialik, now starring in The Big Bang Theory, as a popular regular contributor.
In language typical of this era of media mergers, the partners described the new venture as an effort to “grow readership and increase revenues through the formation of unified and expanded audience development, business development, and fund-raising teams.” Or as my old friend Ami Eden, CEO and executive editor of the new entity, put it, “The driving mission of 70 Faces Media is to connect as many people as possible to all sides of the unfolding Jewish story.”
(I was proud of myself for getting the new name as soon as I saw it. According to a midrash, there are 70 “faces,” or facets, to the Torah, a goad to close reading that has been taken as an endorsement of Jewish diversity.)
For now, 70 Faces represents the nonprofit model for supporting journalism in the digital age. According to a news release, the new organization is supported by about 25 foundations, 45 Jewish federations, and 2,000 individual donors. (Newspapers like ours pay a monthly subscription fee for the privilege of reprinting and reposting JTA stories.) For those of us struggling to hold onto our old-fashioned advertisers, it’s an enviable position.
Although the new company “remains committed to providing readers with news, information, content, and discussion on Jewish topics without political bias or denominational bent,” this is new territory for those of us who have long thought of JTA as the Jewish Associated Press. Jewish newspapers like ours are watching the merger closely, wondering if it will dilute the JTA brand, peel away some of our own on-line traffic, or — best-case scenario, and the one I’m banking on — generate fresh new content for our readers and create new audiences for Jewish media.
But I’m hardly objective — JTA gave me my first job in journalism, and I’ll always be a loyalist. And considering where we are all headed, you’ll forgive me for taking a look back.
When I came to JTA in 1987 as a New York correspondent, its offices were just off Times Square, which was in the early stages of its transformation from tawdry crossroads to urban Disneyland. Throughout the day, we’d hear the dull boom of demolition, and fine dust would waft down from the ceiling and onto our typewriters — yes, typewriters. We reporters banged away at IBM Selectrics and handed our “hard copy” to a typist who sat at the lone computer terminal. She chain-smoked filter-less Camel cigarettes, while the rewrite man kept a brown cigarillo smoldering in the corner of his mouth.
Within a few months we ended up in new offices on Seventh Avenue, near 29th Street. There was carpeting, bright new cubicles, and, best of all, PCs on all our desks. I don’t remember if there was a no-smoking policy when we moved in, but it didn’t take long — I remember someone fretting over how the rewrite man would take the news (with a shrug, it turned out).
This wasn’t exactly the digital age, not yet. JTA still put out a daily publication that we mailed to subscribers. Our clients were mainly weekly Jewish newspapers around the country, but the bulletins allowed us the illusion that we were a daily news service.
I learned the weirdly parochial mindset of any special-interest publication. One of my colleagues was our specialist in covering global disasters — which meant trying to identify the Jews who died in tornados or airplane crashes, and weeping as she took down the names. (I still remember this 1999 headline: “Two Turkish Jews Killed in Quake.” Remember, some 17,000 people died in that earthquake.)
In 2011, JTA launched a searchable database of articles reaching back to the 1920s (archive.jta.org). Before a glitch anonymized most of the articles, I spent time obsessively searching my own byline. The articles hold up as bare-bones reporting on the days’ major events, although they also suggest I spent too much time anchored to my desk on Seventh Avenue. My coverage of the Soviet Jewry movement strikes me as particularly shallow. The major policy themes are there — glasnost, the Jackson-Vanik amendment. What’s missing are the people. (Gal Beckerman’s masterly 2011 history, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, tells the story as it should be told.)
But that was my failing, not JTA’s. I only got serious about Jewish life after college, and JTA was my combination yeshiva, synagogue, and graduate program. Every article I researched was an education — in kashrut (“Illinois Firm Alleged to Be Distributing Non-kosher Poultry”), in Jewish law (“No Jewish Consensus on Whether to Include Condoms in AIDS Education”), in interfaith relations (“Pope John Paul II May Meet with Waldheim in Austria”).
Now in its new incarnation, 70 Faces Media is trying to bring that kind of education to a wider audience. They should only know from success.