The Jewish Journal is eyeing an expansion into New York City, according to editor and publisher David Suissa.
The move would amount to the biggest of several changes – many of which are controversial – that Suissa has engineered since he took over in both of his roles from Rob Eshman in September.
“Suissa decided to change everything from the columnists to the fonts on the first week of his job.” said Eitan Arom, a staff reporter for four years, who quit the publication in January.
Arom is one of several employees who resigned or were fired in Suissa’s first few months.
Suissa claims that the streamlined staff and new editorial direction – more commentary, less local reporting, sleeker design – makes sense financially for the Jewish Journal.
The free weekly, operated by Koreatown-based Tribe Media, has weekly distribution of 50,000 copies, according to tax documents related to its nonprofit status filed in 2016, the most recent data available.
The publication has long been an influential voice in the Jewish community of Los Angeles, drawing support in the form of advertising and donations from businesses and civic organizations.
“I don’t want to show off in front of you,” said Suissa, seated in his spacious Koreatown office, which was converted from the Jewish Journal’s conference room. “But everywhere I go, I hear, ‘I love the Jewish Journal, I love the Jewish Journal.’”
Suissa inherited a publication on stable financial footing.
Tribe Media had revenue of $4.7 million in 2016, according to the organization’s tax filings, with $4.4 million in expenses.
Peter Lowy of Westfield Corp., a billionaire mall scion who helped rescue the newspaper amid the Great Recession, is board chairman of Tribe Media.
Donations have been shored up on Lowy’s watch.
“Two or three years ago we got significant money from donors,” said Leon Jenks, a board member, and accountant at Green, Hasson & Jenks. “That will keep us solvent for a while.”
Jenks declined to say who donated or how much they gave.
The newspaper’s count of advertising pages currently averages about 20 per issue – on par with Eshman’s tenure.
The paper’s traditional advertisers, a roster that includes some of Los Angeles’s most prominent Jewish organizations, are sticking with the publication.
Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles – which owned the Jewish Journal until 2005 – praised Suissa for giving more members of the Jewish community a voice through columns and commentary pieces as opposed to the more traditional reporting model that Eshman favored.
“David sees the paper as a champion of the Jewish community,” Sanderson said, noting that the Federation pays the Jewish Journal up to $50,000 a year for advertising.
There were 37 Jewish Journal employees in 2016, according to the most recent tax filing.
That number is now likely lower – Suissa doesn’t plan to replace several departed employees including Arom, Director of Community Engagement Julia Moss, and Managing Editor Ryan Smith, whose former office has been turned into a studio for podcasts, including Suissa’s own weekly show.
There were 28 people listed on the Jewish Journal’s June 1 to June 7 issue masthead.
Suissa declined to say how many full-time equivalent positions remain at the paper.
“I don’t do headcounts,” he said.
Two people added to the masthead are Suissa’s daughters, Shanni Suissa, who is the newspaper’s executive assistant, and Tova Suissa, the publication’s administrative assistant.
The family hires were “above board,” Suissa said, and done with informal consultation with board members.
Reductions in editorial staff have coincided with an increase in commentary. The punditry is more hawkish in general, and favorable of current Israeli policy in particular, than was the case under Eshman, according to Arom and other staffers who observed the transition to Suissa’s leadership.
A recent issue, for example, had five columns regarding Natalie Portman’s refusal to accept a prize at an Israel awards ceremony in order to protest the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a member of the center-right Likud political party there.
Each commentator argued that Portman should have attended the ceremony.
The paper also has bigger headlines, more illustrations, and more block quotes.
The design might be part of Suissa’s pivot to a more national audience.
“Beauty and design are here for a strategic reason,” Suissa said, while holding up a copy of the Jewish Standard of New Jersey, a business rival should the Jewish Journal expand east.
“Where’s the beauty in this?” Suissa said, pointing at the Standard’s sober, text-heavy design. “Where’s the engagement?”
Suissa also took aim at the Forward, New York City’s venerable Jewish weekly, which panned the Jewish Journal’s changes in a February article.
No one from the Forward read the reconfigured Jewish Journal, Suissa claimed, and instead focused on Suissa hiring a college student to freelance as the publication’s poetry writer.
Suissa would not say when the Journal is heading east.
Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, said several issues of the Jewish Journal were reviewed as part of the reporting for her publication’s recent story. She also stressed the Forward’s historic ties to the local Jewish community in New York as a unique strength any competitor will confront.
“We welcome competition – it makes us stronger,” she said. “But I will say that we know the Jewish community here better than anyone. We’ve been covering it for 121 years.”
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