We don’t normally like to toot our own horn, but since these are hardly normal times, please indulge us.
Remember the story about the five members of the Weinhaus family who all tested positive for the coronavirus? You may have seen it on television or read about it in the Post-Dispatch, but it was the Jewish Light that first reported the family’s troubles, then followed up with later developments, including an update on page 7.
The Light was able to get out in front of the journalism pack because of our deep commitment and roots in the local Jewish community. That kind of rich source material in specialized markets is what can truly distinguish local newspapers from their bigger siblings. It is what makes such news outlets indispensable at any time, but particularly in times like these.
Calling a news source local doesn’t just mean geographically; more broadly, it indicates a commonality of interest. The audience for the Light may primarily be Jewish, a particular slice of the St. Louis area market. For other newspapers, like the West End Word or the Webster-Kirkwood Times, or relatively new weeklies like the Northsider and Southsider, operated by former city alderman Antonio French, stories are aimed at particular locales in the metropolitan area.
The venerable St. Louis American is a respected voice in the African American community. Then there’s the Riverfront Times, whose audience may be harder to classify but could be defined as readers who have a particular political outlook.
Those publications share a particular problem in this stressful era of quarantine and social distancing — they have shut down, cut back or are in danger of doing so.
At the Jewish Light, we are hanging on, trying to produce the best newspaper possible for our community both in print and digitally, but we don’t know how much longer we will be able to print the paper on a weekly basis. Some of the reason has to do with money, some has to do with the safety of our employees. Here’s the situation:
In the summer of 2018, the Light went from a paid subscription model to a free model, thanks to a generous three-year grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the Staenberg Family Foundation and an anonymous donor. Our objective was to reach more people by being free, which would in turn motivate more people within our community as well as those who cater to our community, to advertise in the Light. The first part happened — circulation increased vastly; the second part, which is essential to the future health of the Light, is a work in progress and one that is taking a beating during this tenuous time.
As a free publication, we count on advertising revenue to keep the presses rolling. When advertisers’ typical patrons are confined to their homes, they aren’t out spending. Ads pegged to events or even designed to bring in business do not work when people have to stay indoors. So, like many newspapers across the country, big and small, our advertising revenue has greatly declined during this pandemic.
Journalists are a dedicated bunch, and they attract dedicated supporters. At the Light, we hope to keep publishing a weekly paper for as long as possible, but between declining advertising and wanting our staff to be safe by working from home, we may alternate weeks between a digital paper and one that is in print. Things are changing rapidly in this unknown world and we just don’t know at this point when or if that will have to happen. One advantage the Light has over some of the previously mentioned papers in St. Louis is that we are a non-profit. That means our readers can donate to us and enjoy the tax benefits.
Some may say that print newspapers are old technology, that news outlets should just publish online and save the costs associated with printing and delivery. Online certainly has its advantages. But not all subscribers have the technology or the resources needed to read news online, and even for those who do, there is something about making that treasured trip out to the mailbox, holding and reading a newspaper, that distinguishes it from its online version. We realize that and know how important the print paper is to many of our readers.
Journalism is suffering not only in the St. Louis area but nationwide. The last several years have seen a steep decline in the number of people who are reporting and writing the news. And for every person who is gone from the profession, there are stories that won’t be covered, good news that won’t be shared, and people in high places that will be able to get away with the kind of behavior that shouldn’t go unnoticed, but sadly will.
Far from being the enemy of the people, as some have branded members of the media, those of us who bring you the news on a regular basis are friends, a vital part of your lives, every day. That relationship, between news gatherers and news consumers, is truly a partnership, one that local, focused journalism needs today more than ever. We’re here because you’re here; we matter because you matter. And in the end, isn’t that kind of social togetherness the best way, and maybe the only way, to get through not only this crisis, but every crisis?