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Voice of the Community

August 12, 2012 – 12:06 pm11 Comments

The front page of the AJN, with what might appear to a critical reader as a giant advertisement for a brand of confectionery.

By Ashley Browne
The views expressed in Robert Magid’s column in last week’s Australian Jewish News sparked a huge reaction – mostly negative – but by putting pen to paper as he did, the AJN publisher has inadvertently started an important debate for the Australian Jewish community.

What do we want from the community’s newspaper?

Before we get to that, we should spare a thought for Magid and his beleaguered editor, Zeddy Lawrence. Yes, they both should have known better than to muddy the distinction between an editorial and personal view. At the very least Magid needed to make it clear that this was his personal view and by failing to do that, they broke rule 101 of journalism – newspapers and their publishers are supposed to report the news, not be the news.

But they have also been hurtled at lightning speed into the digital era. Daily newspapers grapple constantly with how to cover breaking news – what should go online versus what should be left for the next edition of the paper.

Weekly newspapers such as the AJN have it even tougher. In this age of instant information, what sort of content can hold for up to a week? Sports results? No. Hatch, match and despatch? Not in the Facebook era. News and views from Israel? Not with excellent content from JTA, the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz and even the New York Times now available for instant consumption. If famous and well-resourced publications such as Time and Newsweek are finding it tough going in 2012, then what hope has the chronically under-resourced AJN?

Magid and Lawrence face real challenges in steering the AJN through the stormy and uncharted waters of this rapidly evolving media landscape. At the same time, they sit at the helm of a newspaper that purports to represent the community, but one because it is owned by a private individual, has no real accountability to the community, a state of affairs that has been made abundantly clear this week.

As this week’s AJN editorial suggests, support for campaigns to free Gilad Shalit and for a minute’s silence for murdered Israeli Olympians might align the paper with the views of its readers. They give voice to community feelings, they go beyond reporting and take on a role that is more like activism ostensibly on the part of the community, but also to build goodwill and reinforce that alignment because it’s good for business.

But much of this goodwill then disappears when the publisher writes a column that clearly doesn’t reflect a community consensus. And then when challenged vocally and in large numbers about it, not only does he dig his heels, but he claims that most in the community actually agree with him, but are too scared to say so.

Magid is playing a dangerous game with the brand and reputation of the Australian Jewish News. As it is, the paper has few younger readers. Most people under 35 who choose to open the AJN do so by hurriedly flicking through its pages at their parents on a Friday night, usually while waiting to sit down for dinner. Readership is declining and it is ageing. And a dim view on asylum policy – irrespective of whether in an editorial or the publisher’s column – is hardly likely to get younger people to buy the paper or to consume it in some sort of digital format.

In turn, they will look towards other media outlets to engage them with their community. Already, the level of debate and discussion on websites such as Galus Australis is superior and more diverse than those of the AJN letters pages, dominated as they are by the same few contributors. J-Wire is going hard after the breaking news market, turning around news stories and media releases from community organizations on a daily basis, giving them a competitive advantage over the weekly AJN. Galus Australis and J-Wire are also getting at least some of the advertising spends of organisations that previously exclusively used the AJN.

As the community becomes more diverse with respect to location, affluence, and religious observance, the AJN will find it harder to claim it is the community voice. Granted, it still offers great reach and community professionals, despite many having reservations about elements of the newspaper’s editorial direction (nothing new by the way, angry calls from community leaders is par for the course for every AJN editor), they recognize that it still offers the best way to reach large segments of the community.

So from a commercial perspective, the AJN still is the community’s newspaper. From an editorial point of view, I’m no longer so sure.

Ashley Browne has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and editor in newspapers, online media, books and magazines. He was national editor of the Australian Jewish News from March 2007 until August 2009. His contract was terminated at Magid’s instigation because Magid wanted to take the newspaper in a different direction. Ashley is now a senior writer with AFL Media and is a teaching associate at the journalism school at Monash University’s Caulfield campus.

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11 Comments »

  • Levi (a refugee from the USSR) says:

    “At the very least Magid needed to make it clear that this was his personal view and by failing to do that, they broke rule 101 of journalism – newspapers and their publishers are supposed to report the news, not be the news.”

    There is also a rule 101 of hypocrisy. for years organizations like Fairfax and the ABC have consistently editorialized the “news” that they report. Their coverage of Israel is only one out of many examples and a really good one at that. This standard “journalistic” practice clearly doesn’t bother you because it’s consistent with your world view.

    And if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t magid’s piece published in the “opinion” section and not the news section of the paper? If you read the “news” section of the Age all you will be confronted with is editorials and opinion pieces.

    “At the same time, they sit at the helm of a newspaper that purports to represent the community, but one because it is owned by a private individual”.

    Well at least they don’t do it at the tax payer’s expense like “our” ABC. What could be worse?

    “In turn, they will look towards other media outlets to engage them with their community. Already, the level of debate and discussion on websites such as Galus Australis is superior”

    I’m still waiting for Galus to publish a piece that represents another view to this debate.

    [Eds: You’re welcome to submit “a piece that represents another view to this debate.” We are yet to receive such a piece by you or anyone else for that matter].

  • Daniel Levy says:

    I notice Levi leaves News Limited out of his list of organisations editorialising news.

    So it’s absurdly and hilariously hypocritical when he writes “This standard “journalistic” practice clearly doesn’t bother you because it’s consistent with your world view.”

    It’s almost like he’s -completely- unaware of it.

    That said, this is a ridiculous propaganda piece. Who are you trying to convince? Are you so insecure about Galus’ position that you now have to have weekly digs at the AJN? That you have to constantly ‘remind’ people that Galus is better? Something you’ll learn, is that when you are legitimately better than another service, you don’t need to go around advertising the fact at every turn. It’s classless, and only makes you look jealous and petty.

    I don’t really care much for the AJN either, but you should know that this only makes Galus look extremely weak. With all your media experience, I would have thought you’d realise that before hitting ‘post’.

  • Levi (a refugee from the USSR) says:

    I know News Ltd is biased. All media outlets are. That’s not news.

    Yet, I’m not the one who is getting on my high horse and pontificating about the need for the AJN to distinguish between what is “news” and what is an “editorial,” when it doesn’t convienantly fall in line with my own ideological agenda.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    In fact, that’s exactly what you did. The only two news orgs you named as your examples were ones with agendas you did not agree with.

    You’re absolutely right. It’s not news, it’s simply hypocrisy :)

  • Levi (a refugee from the USSR) says:

    I only mentioned those two organizations because they fall in line with Browne’s perspective of what an “objective” and “impartial” media outlet should look like. Remember you can call me out for hypocrisy also, but then again I’m not the one who penned a piece talking about the need for the AJN to distinguish between what’s news and what’s an editorial.

    Funny that this is the only issue that motivated Browne to pen a piece on such a topic concerning the Jewish community. What about Aunty’s coverage of Israel, done at taxpayer’s (our) expense? Or Aunty’s sister organization in the UK – the BBC. In their Olympic games profile for Israel they had an evil Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a poor Palestinian while Syria ( which is currently slaughtering tens of thousands of women and children) has a rosy profile picture. what does Ashley Browne think of this? Will he penn a piece on this as well? What about his concern for the British tax payer who is footing the bill for this antisemtic propaganda?

  • Larry Stillman says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with respect to the ontological crisis of the AJN in the era of diversity and choice. I’ve been taking private bets on how long it is going to survive.

    But this “Galus Australis is superior and more diverse than those of the AJN letters pages, dominated as they are by the same few contributors”? At times, I doubt your first assertion–though sometimes, it has been first class (I am talking about the content, but the quality of the writing and argument).

    But is Galus really diverse in its contributors…I’d be interested in a spreadsheet of a) writers b) posters. But that is the nature of the media beast and it probably has been so for hundreds of years. A lot of people are consumers, not writers, nor are they commentators on social or political issues. Even on the many lists and sites I waste my time on, the names that appear do sometimes seem familiar, but it is certainly a larger range than confined to a 2-page spread with word limits for letters.

  • You’ve made some very good points regarding the challenges facing the AJN as a weekly with an ageing readership. However, any assertions as to whether it or GA is regarded as a “community newspaper” really have to be backed by some research rather than personal perceptions.

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    The AJN may have broken the #1 rule in journalism.

    But I’m not sure this piece is any better.
    You say that Robert Magid initiated the end of your contract.

    I don’t doubt your expertise in the field, but I do doubt your impatiality.
    Admitting a conflict of interest isn’t a magic wand that makes it ok to say anything.
    I think i’ll listen to someone else’s opinion.

  • Sour Grapes says:

    Eds: Comment removed. If you want to make supposed ‘insider’ accusations and personal attacks, you will have to do so under your real name.

  • Ann Fink says:

    “Already, the level of debate and discussion on websites such as Galus Australis is superior and more diverse than those of the AJN letters pages, dominated as they are by the same few contributors”.

    One would hope that this was the case. However by allowing anonymous contributions and without any editorial control, the slide into non substantive and abusive comments is inevitable. I am very disappointed with what I had hoped might have been a very productive discourse but which degenerated very rapidly.

    And sadly I fail to see any widespread commentary.

  • TheSadducee says:

    Ann

    In a previous discussion you actually advised readers that Magid’s parents were made of considerably better stuff than he is – now, this is clearly a personal judgement of yours and innappropriate as commentary on his article.

    How does this reconcile with your point of view above?

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