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Recently Departed Editor of the AJN Talks to Galus Australis

September 3, 2009 – 6:54 pm18 Comments

By Anthony Frosh and Rachel Sacks-Davis

Ashley Browne, recently departed editor of AJN

Ashley Browne, recently departed editor of AJN

Ashley Browne has recently finished a 2.5 year stint as the editor of the Australian Jewish News. Before he joined the AJN team, Ashley had been the managing-editor of Sportal Australia, Australia’s largest sports website publisher. Twenty years earlier, however, he had been part-time sports editor at the AJN. Being the editor of the AJN was always something that he had wanted to do, so when the Jewish News job came up he was excited to take it up.

Then owners, Kathy Shand and Roxanne Dunkel, hired Ashley, but four weeks after he started the job he was told that they were selling the paper. The new owner, Robert Magid wanted to take the paper in a new direction, a direction which has ultimately led to Ashley’s departure from the AJN. We spoke to Ashley soon after he had finished about his thoughts on Australian Jewish media, the AJN, and his departure.

Thoughts on the future of Jewish media in Australia:

AB: I guess Jewish media in Australia is a microcosm of what’s happening in media in general.  Putting out a weekly newspaper in the internet era is very difficult and challenging.  The readership at the Jewish news is quite elderly.  One of the things I tried to do, with some success I think, is take it younger…we did a redesign to freshen it up and make it more visually appealing.  It’s very hard, because you’ve got people in their mid-40s who won’t buy the paper because they flick through it at shabbos dinner at their parents’ place.  The challenge is to make people buy it.

On the offline / online conundrum

AB: The decision we were constantly facing was that if a big story broke, do we hold it for the paper or do we put it on online, and if so, how much do we put online and how much do we save for the paper?  [There was a need to determine] What are the valuable parts of the paper – stuff we wouldn’t put online straight away?  For example, I made the decision not to run [online] the features or the letters … or the editorial from the paper until the following Monday, because I wanted to give people a reason to buy the paper.  Those are the parts of the paper that are often first read.  If those were going online on Thursday morning, there was just no incentive whatsoever to buy the paper.

…And if we put the births, deaths, and marriages online, I’m not sure what it would do to the paper…

On competition with other Jewish media

AB: People are very set in their ways at the Jewish News, and I’m not sure that the Jewish News in a position to move very quickly.

The Jewish blogs are taking off. There’s your website, and there’s one or two others out there now.  The challenge for the Jewish News is that it’s so busy working on the news, I’m not sure how well placed it is in the future to lead the discussion of what’s taking place in the community… I’m not sure that the weekly newspaper is as well placed for that as it used to be.  Websites like yours are much more flexible, and they can move to a different topic from day to day, whereas the Jewish News can’t necessarily do that.

It’s unlikely [there will ever be a single all-round competitor to the AJN], although some publications will compete for sections of the audience.  For example, Heeb, when it comes here, might take away some of the younger readership from the Jewish News.  And your website will probably compete for the readers who are slightly more academic or cerebral; and Hamodia might take the Orthodox side of things.

On why he is parting with the AJN:

AB: All I can say is what has already been reported… that the publisher chose to take things in a different direction, and gave me some notice. I’m not privy to what that direction is.  Rumours of a major rift between myself and the publisher are not quite true.

We had the sort of differences of opinion that are quite common between a publisher and an editor.  The only fundamental issue I’m prepared to discuss is that he wanted more international coverage than I did, and that is fairly common knowledge.  In the end I acquiesced, and when we redesigned the paper, we pretty much doubled the world coverage.  It’s not how I would have done it, but I was happy to go along with it.

He didn’t hire me, he inherited me… and I think he wants to have his own editor.  He’s got the right to do that.

On whether Robert Magid has the desire to make the AJN a mouthpiece for groups such as AIJAC

AB: I don’t know. You only have to look at the Review to know that he is a sponsor of AIJAC… it could well be so, but I have no inside knowledge on that. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, but that’s just my own speculation.

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18 Comments »

  • Larry Stillman says:

    (I admit a conflict of interesting in commenting what the former, most learned editor has said, due to family ties).

    Notwithstanding my conflict of interest, I think it’s pretty clear now that the monopoly held by the AJN for a long time has not been helpful in cultivating diversity of opinion, and I am not just talking about the Israel issue, but the huge raft of issues and actions that constitute points of interest to people who have some connection to Jewish life. I think the leadership of the paper is underestimating the literacy of many people, including ageing baby boomers and the ‘elderly’. The paper, shared around as it is, is the one point of connection for many people, and I suspect many don’t connect well with it at all. So they stop reading it.

    So you can read Haaretz with up to the minute news, why bother with the AJN? If you can get commentary from BitterLemons.org, why bother with the hasbarah that passes as commentary?

    An open paper is thus far more than the ability for someone like me who has had many letters published, as well as some opeds and features over the years. It’s about the paper actively seeking and cultivating intelligence and diversity from within and externally to the Jewish community without the vilification that goes for opinion and commentary.

    Thus the AJN has failed in finding a balance or providing creative opportunities for other voices and thus, other Web2.0 places are going to be far more attractive–we can see this in some of the very interesting discussions that have been occurring online, despite the attempts to derail discussion by some people.

    Given the high level of education in the community, it is remarkable that it has has got away with low quality content and an amazing parochialism for so long. But of course, the paper’s advertising must be a nice revenue earner.

    I also think that any paper that reports golf should be boycotted on principle. But I must go home now to read this weeks and spent my 30 minutes or so yelling–‘why’ did they publish this?

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Larry, you make an fine point on reading about international Jewish and Israeli affairs more comprehensively and more timely in newspapers (sic websites) other than in The Australian Jewish News. By the time it gets into the AJN it is stale and often overtaken by subsequent events.

    It makes you wonder, then, why the AJN does not put more emphasis on LOCAL news, and there is plenty of that, and then some. There are some 80,000 Jews in Australia, and there is enough happening among them to fill up 40-odd pages in a weekly periodical.

    Perhaps the AJN could ask the Jews of Australia what they want.

    Mr Magid might own the AJN, giving him the right to turn it in any direction he desires, but he should not forget that the general Jewish community, which pays very high rates to advertise in its columns, is its demographic. Should these columns be turned into something that is, let us say, too far to the right, the readers will turn up their noses and put away their chequebooks.

    Let us hope it does not come to this. Jews of Australia need the AJN and the AJN needs the Jews of Australia.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Gary,

    I agree. Like Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” And so does a publication. Israel based publications are able to do Israel-content better than any Australian based publication.

    Perhaps Magid prefers running syndicated foreign content over producing local and original content because it is lot less expensive.

  • ariel says:

    It’s well known that many non-Jews who are belligerent to the Jewish community read the AJN and love reading about internal controversies in order to find out our weaknesses and where/when to cause troubel. (This is why shule times and other event times are often not advertised).

    There may be a lot happening in the community, but the grapevine is robust enough to spread the news without us having to hang our dirty laundry in public. In this sense, Magid’s idea for more foreign coverage is good, but as Gary says, by the time it gets here it’s obsolete and we have found out something new from the internet.

    As a weekly paper, perhaps the AJN should publish less out-of-date news and more features and opinion pieces which may still be relevant to that week.

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Ariel, once, not too long ago, we were forced at gunpoint to live behind walls. Never again, for me.

    For me, getting information from the grapevine is totally unreliable, and simply not good enough. So what if those who chose to criticise the Jewish community read about it in the AJN? Let them see we are robust and strong and not afraid to bring communities issues to the public eye … and there are many issues that should be brought forward, not left hidden behinds veils of secrecy.

    And as a journalist of some 38 years standing, let me say that good news never made a paper sell. It is a shame, but that’s the way it is.

  • Morry says:

    Ashley Browne makes it clear in the article that it is mainly the elderly who buy the paper, “with their 40 year old offspring reading it when they visit”. These people buy the paper because they don’t have our privilege of accessing the internet, and so, news from Israel, albeit dated in our terms, is for them news.

    I buy the AJN in order to support it, but how many of those who want it changed to reflect only community news actually purchase it? If, like Larry Stillman, you get your news from the internet, why, beyond your personal politics wanting to dictate what is printed, would you care what is in the paper?

  • Larry Stillman says:

    In response to Morry–newspapers themselves can change. For example, if the AJN was more like a magazine and looked like a magazine (along the lines of a Time or Jerus Report), I suggest it would gain a whole new readership with content along the lines of the usual stuff as well as space for intelligent writing and commentary. In some ways, it has ‘captive’ audience, but that audience could grow with intelligent presentation and an intelligent editor.

    I certainly think, however, a local rag would be a complete dud.

    PS Morry, not all news and commentary is ‘political’, so it simplistic to suggest that I or others are wanting to dictate content.

  • Jon says:

    I agree with Larry, Frosh and Gary.

    I would prefer the AJN had a focus on local content, as the content from overseas is already available. I’ve find that the AJN does not cover a lot of things going on in the Jewish community, and what they report, is often done pretty superficially.

    I also agree that at times the intellecutal depth and variety of the AJN has the feeling of a tabloid paper, and does not make an effort to cultivate new voices and instead rehashes the rather paranoic opinions of stalwarts like Isi Leibler.

    To me a focus on increased international coverage and opeds taken straight out of the Jerusalem Post strikes me as a remarkably lazy way of publishing a local jewish newsaper.

  • Chook says:

    As a lad the only thing that interested me in the AJN was where the dances were on. These days, there is very little, although I still like to dance. But seriously folks, the AJN is pretty much a tabloid paper. Under Magid it has turned more to the right. When Ashley was editor, there was no clear direction. He, sorry to say it, seemed to me to be without any real purpose. Dan Goldberg was much better.

    I hope the Jewish “Blues” gets it act together and start publishing stuff one can get their teeth into and make it easier for me to leave a comment. I still can’t work it out.

    PS The letters are the most important part.

  • frosh says:

    I for one struggle to recall reading a foreign news story in the AJN that I did not already know about.

    It’s the local news stories and controversies that spark my interest.

    I accept Morry’s point that the overseas content is of value to the elderly audience who do not read Israeli websites etc.

    The problem is that if you lessen local content, young people are even less likely to buy it than currently.

  • sam says:

    Any rumors yet on Browne’s replacement?

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Ready, Zeddy, go!

    Zeddy Lawrence, the editorial director of The Jewish News in Britain, has been appointed as The Australian Jewish News’ national editor. Mazeltov, and good luck to him and the AJN.

    AJN publisher Robert Magid said: “We’re thrilled to announce Zeddy’s appointment. Zeddy’s experience working closely with the local Jewish community in England, combined with his knowledge of Israel, will see The AJN go from strength to strength.”

    It is exactly what you would expect Mr Magid to say. But the question I ask is, how will his experience with the local Jewish community in England help the AJN in this country go from strength to strength? I hope Mr Lawrence learns the lie of the land down immediately, if not sooner.

  • eli says:

    Gary, isn’t that lay of the land, or was lie an intended pun!

  • Chook says:

    Rats, I just lost $10. I was betting Michael Burd was getting the job to clean the place up; too many lefties, you know.

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Yes, Eli, lay of the land is correct, but this one was not a bad miss. Kind of fits.

  • Les Rosenblatt says:

    I expect australia’s small Jewish community mainly based in melbourne and Sydney will continue to look to the AJN for its social reflection in all the photos of well-groomed would-be noticeables at various fund-raisers, openings, etc.

    It will also read with more or less interest the odd bit of coverage of scandal in the courts, stresses in the jewish education system, the latest on Jewish births, deaths, marriages, and Australian/Jewish political system/personages interaction.

    In other words, standard ethnic community newspaper fare – tabloidish, parochial commercial, social, cultural and sporting material.

    Where the AJN has been remarkably disappointing is in its hard-faced denialism of complexities of Jewish identity, religious belief, and political diversity amongst Australian Jews with particular reference to the contradictions and complexities of Jewish nationalism in relation to global and middle-east (including Israeli-Palestine conflict) issue engagement.

    It was sadly evident that the sportingly fair-minded (to the extent that a former sports editor turned AJN editor could continue to be so) Ashley Browne would run up against the Jerusalem Post-loving owner of the AJN who would be happy to see the Likud/Irgun/Labour militarist orthodoxy of Israel embraced as the pre-eminent beacon of security for Jews nervous about their place in the world.

    Absolutely no need to even admit to any alternative possibilities. Simply give AIJAC its weekly column, extract large slabs of copy from the Jerusalem Post, publish press releases from the Israeli embassy,and showcase Michael Danby as local hero. The rest is spam or real estate.

    Ashley did allow a variety of opinions in his letters columns and did at least try to be reasonably inclusive of the not too controversially border-line article. But it was not going to wash with the owner and his command of his property.

    I predict the new editor will last perhaps 18 months and be a bit like the Jonathan Shier effect in the ABC during the Howard years – a dull flash in the same tarnished pan.

    Les Rosenblatt.

  • Daniel says:

    I think it’s pretty clear now that the monopoly held by the AJN for a long time has not been helpful in cultivating diversity of opinion,

    Turn it up, Larry.

    Barely a week goes by without a letter by you, adjacent to one from Judy Bamberger, Vivienne Porszolt and a never-ending conga line of self-hating Jews, Israel bashers and extreme fringe dwellers, all kvetching that their views aren’t heard. Just like Antony Loewenstein (who has redefined “irony” having appeared in nearly every media outlet in the country, carrying on about how he is silenced).

    If anything, their absolute minority views, receive a massively disproportionate airing, thanks to the AJN.

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