By Jim Schutze
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"Historically, federations have felt that it is important for them to get their fundraising message out in a credible vehicle," says Cohn, whose St. Louis paper is a "constituent agency" of his city's federation. "Often, if your paper is reporting international and national news, there is a competition for space, and this way, federation is guaranteed a certain amount of coverage in the news well."
Depending on the closeness of those ties, it may also guarantee them a certain amount of editorial control. "There are so many different stories, where federation swore independence to its editors, and when the editors tried to be independent, they got shut out," says Jerry Lippman, editor of the Long Island Jewish World, which has been in a long-running newspaper war with the New York Jewish Week. "Editor after editor--if they took a political position that was different from the federation board, they got their heads cut off." (New York Jewish Week has a "business relationship" with its city's federation, but maintains it has "total editorial independence.")
Wisch can list only a few instances in which he ran articles whose content was critical of the federation and raised the ire of its leaders. Surprisingly, the first challenge to his paper didn't come from federation but rather from a for-profit monthly, Dallas Jewish Life, which began operation in 1992 to considerable acclaim.
The magazine was everything the Texas Jewish Post was not: younger, glossier, more entertaining. Only local in scope, it vigorously reported on the Dallas Jewish scene. It didn't cover national, international, or hard news. And it didn't succeed. It never secured a strong advertising or circulation base and was given away. Wisch believes the magazine received support from federation, but its former publisher, Larry Postel, denies it. "We asked for federation help, but they refused," he says. "If they had agreed to help, we would still be in business today."
Wisch outlasted the competition by never changing and always charging. With age, his international globetrotting slowed down, and he relied primarily on the Jewish wire service for national and international news. Community charities sometimes complained that he didn't send reporters to cover local events, instead publishing press releases (often unedited) from the Jewish organizations that sponsored the events. He excerpted his own memoirs in a weekly feature, "My Father, the Publisher" (Wisch is the father). His thoughts also received page-one play in a column by "jess jawin" (his nom de plume). The design of the Texas Jewish Post remained reader-unfriendly--poorly packaged and hard on the eyes. But Wisch never missed an issue, working with his devoted wife seven days a week, in sickness and in health. If left to his own devices, he would probably find a way to publish the paper posthumously. If only circumstances, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, hadn't conspired against him--or so he believes.
In 1998, the federation decided that the expanding needs of the Jewish community were not being met by the Texas Jewish Post and did what most organizations do when they want to change something: form a committee. Headed by Dallas businessman Selly Belofsky, the newspaper study committee was charged with examining Jewish newspapers from around the country and identifying--after consulting with journalism and marketing experts--what it would like to see in a local Jewish newspaper. The federation did invite the Texas Jewish Post to participate in the process, but if its leadership knew Jimmy Wisch at all, they had to realize he would resist their lofty communitarian ideals. Big time.
"What mattered to [the] federation was growing the community," says Mark Briskman. "A quality Jewish newspaper is part of that growth and something we didn't have. Because there was a major campaign effort to expand and strengthen communal resources, the appropriate time to address the newspaper issue was now."
When Wisch received a letter from a federation staffer--Executive Vice President Gary Weinstein--informing him of the committee's mandate, Wisch says he phoned Weinstein and only wanted to know one thing: Was this committee stacked with any investors from the now-defunct Dallas Jewish Life? Possibly the same people who had tried to put him out of business once before? According to Wisch, Weinstein assured him that no investors were on the committee, but Wisch says he later learned that at least one investor was asked to join.
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