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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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