Paper Chase
Mark Graham

Paper Chase

Having grown up Jewish in Dallas, I rarely read the Texas Jewish Post--OK, one time when my sister got married and the newspaper ran her picture, and another time after I had heard a rumor that the weekly had extended birthday wishes in its pages to a dead guy. It seemed like such an antiquated rag, a poorly pieced-together hodgepodge of Israeli boosterism and community gossip. Its better features were straight off the Jewish wire (Jewish Telegraphic Agency); its editorials were indistinguishable from its news stories; its endless listings of life-cycle events seemed a trivial chronicle of local Jewish life.

And my parents loved it.

Sitting on their kitchen countertop every Friday for more than 40 years, next to the coffeepot and the stale box of matzo, was the Texas Jewish Post. For them, it offered a sense of community, connective tissue between the layers of their Jewishness--chicken soup for their soul. Once every decade or so, I might peruse its pages, amazed that it continued to be in business, surprised that it looked and felt and read the same.

Why I glanced at the September 7, 2000, edition, I don't recall. But beneath the fold in bold red print was the headline, "Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Declares War on TJP: Imports New Jewish Weekly."

Apparently, the Dallas Federation, the powerful fundraising arm of the Jewish community (a.k.a. the Jewish mafia--using guilt not guns to separate donors from their money) felt that after 54 years, the Texas Jewish Post was no longer serving the needs of the local Jewish population. It had organized a newspaper committee to study those needs and, based on the committee's findings, induced the for-profit Washington Jewish Week to begin a sister paper in Dallas. According to the article, the federation guaranteed the new paper, Dallas Jewish Week, at least 6,000 subscribers, access to its prized mailing list of donors, and "bountiful" advertising revenue. The Texas Jewish Post claimed this arrangement was "an open attack for the subjugation and demise" of the newspaper. Yet even as the newspaper accused federation officials of deceit, favoritism, unfair competition, and "chutzpah a la carte," it praised Stephen Waldman, the organization's president, as a "fine young man whose bar mitzvah story and photo the TJP printed some decades ago."

Despite the folksy asides and the blatant editorializing in what was billed as a feature story, the author (also the editor and publisher) Jimmy Wisch raised some provocative questions. What business did federation--a kind of Jewish United Way--have going into the newspaper business? It was a charitable organization, a vital, effective fundraiser not only for Israel but also for dozens of needy organizations within the local community. Even if federation honestly believed that the Dallas Jewish community needed a better newspaper, why should it allocate donor dollars to help a private enterprise generate a profit? How could this new paper, billed by the federation as an independent voice, critically report on the federation when the paper owed its very existence to the organization? Could any Jewish newspaper, for that matter, truly operate independently when it attempted to serve both the community and the truth?

When I phone Jimmy Wisch for an interview, Rene, his wife (also his managing editor, co-publisher, and staff writer), takes the call in their Fort Worth office:

"Mrs. Wisch, my name is Mark Donald, and I am a writer with the Dallas Observer, and I read your husband's article about the newspaper war, and I would like to do a story for my...."

"Is Ann Donald your mother?"

"Yes," I say, instantly reduced to adolescence.

"So, how is she?" She spoke with a deep, scratchy voice. East Coast accent.

"Fine, fine. Is your husband there?"

"Yes, I'm sure he would like to speak with you."

She puts me on hold, but only for a beat.

"Jimmy Wisch." He sounds just like her. Tough, throaty.

I begin my spiel again, telling him that I think this is a story of general interest--how this same Jewish newspaper battle has been fought in major cities across the country, and wondering why he thinks the federation is trying to run him out of business.

"Are you Martin Donald's boy?" he asks.

This is going to be harder than I thought. "Yes. I'd like to come over and interview you."

"It's a classic David and Goliath story."

"That sounds great."

"Not to me!" he shouts.

"How about tomorrow? Are you free?"

"Tomorrow is bad. We go to press on our Rosh Hashana issue tomorrow."

"You publish for the high holidays?"

"Fifty-four years, every week. I never missed an issue."

"Well, Thursday then. That way I can tell my editor right off if the story is a short news piece or a longer feature."

"Listen," he tells me. "I've been in the newspaper business for nearly 60 years. I am 84 years old. I've had seven bypasses. My wife has had three cancer surgeries. Trust me: It's a feature."

Inside a dilapidated gray brick building south of downtown Fort Worth sits an irascible old man whose light blue eyes dance as he relates his adventures in Jewish journalism. That the editor of the Texas Jewish Post could have traveled to Russia with Nixon, gotten in a fistfight with Russian commissars over the plight of Soviet Jews, journeyed to Israel 31 times, and interviewed five U.S. presidents, all on the press credentials of a paper that has never had more than 6,000 subscribers, seems unbelievable. But among the piles of notes, photos, and books stacked haphazardly in his musty office are press clippings bearing witness to these events. And if you don't believe what you read, white-haired Jimmy Wisch radiates a charming, grandfatherly gruffness that makes you eager to interpret his hyperbole as truth.

"I lived through the deep Depression in Brooklyn," he says. "I should say, I starved through it--not eating for two, three weeks at a time, living off cold tea. It made my heart and mind always be for the people."

Wisch followed his family to Fort Worth in the late 1930s, but only came up with the idea of starting a Jewish newspaper during the war when he handled morale problems aboard an Army troop transport ship. In 1947, he and his new bride, Rene, bought out a Jewish monthly that was only a few issues old and converted it into a weekly. From a spare bedroom in their apartment, his family (including his mother and brother) ran the paper.

"It was our first child," says Rene, though five more would follow. "I would be back working at the paper within a week after I gave birth."

The Texas Jewish Post would serve both Dallas and the much smaller Jewish community in Fort Worth, but it was here that Wisch had the most trouble gaining a following. "You have to understand the influences in Dallas," he says, sprinkling his speech with Yiddish phrases. "At the time, the federation's machers [big shots] were greatly affected by the American Council for Judaism, which was predicated on the idea that Jews should be Americans first and Jews second." The council believed that there was no better weapon against anti-Semitism than fierce allegiance to this country.

"When I arrived in Dallas in the '70s, I saw the last remnants of an era which was typical for Southern Jewish communities," explains Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "To work behind the scenes, to keep a low profile, and not to draw attention to the community."

Because its members didn't want to be disloyal to this country, there was less support for the foundation of Israel in this community. Judaism wasn't considered a people or a nation as much as it was considered a religion to be practiced in synagogue.

"The worst thing some of the federation leaders could see in their eyes was the postman bringing them a newspaper that says Texas Jewish Post and overtly identifies them with Judaism," Wisch claims. "But I fought this attitude for years and years. This clique just didn't want a Jewish newspaper in this town."

It may be that federation leaders found his personality as bombastic as his newspaper. "Jimmy clashed with federation because he wanted things his way," says real estate developer Bob Beer, who served on the federation board beginning in the early '50s. "If a federation charity had a fundraiser, it was generally understood that Jimmy wouldn't publicize it unless you bought an ad in his paper."

But Wisch has had his supporters, particularly among Jewish journalists who elected him president of the American Jewish Press Association in 1969.

"He is definitely one of my mentors," says Bob Cohn, editor and publisher of the St. Louis Jewish Light. "He filed some memorable stories, and it's easy to underestimate the guy. He has the street smarts of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and the don't-tread-on-me backbone of a true Texan." But Wisch is definitely old school, part of a dwindling group of independent mom-and-pop Jewish newspapers. "There was a certain Old World charm about these papers," Cohn says, "a certain haimishness [warmth] that was lost by my generation."

Cohn was part of this new breed of Jewish journalists (often the sons and daughters of the moms and pops) who had learned their craft in the general media and came to prominence in the early '60s. Embarrassed by the poor quality of the Jewish press, which tended to focus on feel-good community stories and articles endorsing Israeli politics, they sought to upgrade the professionalism of the Jewish newspapers they ran. The Baltimore Jewish Times, Detroit Jewish News, and Washington Jewish Week became known for their snappy layouts, solid reporting, and artful graphics.

But even for this next generation of editors and publishers, there remained an inherent duality in their mission. As journalists they had an obligation to the truth. That meant not shying from controversy that might put the Jewish community in a bad light--even if it stoked the embers of anti-Semitism. As Jewish journalists, they had an obligation to promote community and continuity, and that meant making Jewish life appear attractive. Is it good for the Jews? Will it be a shanda far de goyim (a scandal in the eyes of the Gentiles)? Did it violate the 11th commandment in American Jewish life: Thou shalt not air thy dirty laundry in public? These concerns, though less pronounced over time, were factored into a delicate editorial balance that created its own brand of self-censorship.

"I have lived, breathed, and worked for the advancement of my community," Wisch says. "I have never written about scandals involving people, their divorces, rabbis having affairs--you would be surprised at what we get. But we don't go in for that. I look at it as a heartless thing."

Complicating the duality problem was the fact that beginning in the late '50s, federations across the country began entering the newspaper business, either publishing newspapers directly or subsidizing them indirectly. Publishers of privately owned papers accused federations of trying to take control of the Jewish press in order to enhance fundraising. The encroachment became so pervasive that the American Jewish Press Association adopted a resolution in 1977 declaring that if a viable Jewish newspaper was already serving a community, federations were discouraged from establishing a competing publication in that community. In Los Angeles and New York, bitter newspaper wars broke out between independents and deep-pocket federation papers--protracted battles over subscribers and advertisers that continue to be fought today.

"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.

The Jewish Dallas of Jimmy Wisch's early years, the one that felt compelled by anti-Semitism to quietly blend in with the community at large, scarcely exists now. Certainly there are remnants of the old way: a cautious attitude that looks at the nomination of the Democratic vice-presidential candidate and worries whether it's good for the Jews. But the sons and daughters of the past have mostly refused to inherit their parents' insecurities about anti-Semitism. In this community and others, there has been a flowering of things Jewish, a roots consciousness, a pride in Israel, and a search for Jewish meaning and ritual as the culture enters the new millennium. With the local Jewish population reaching 45,000, the community has become more diverse, and Jewish expression is no longer confined to the inside of a synagogue. Quality Jewish day schools compete for quality Jewish students. The Dallas Holocaust Center lectures thousands of public school children each year about the Jewish genocide. The orthodox movement has gained a strong local following as men in black walk the streets of North Dallas on their way to Shabbat services. No longer is there shame in having a Jewish newspaper; for the young federation leadership, the shame is in not having a better one.

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.

"Don't you see that they [the investors] are back with intrigue?" Wisch later asks me.

No, not really.

"They made their own investments; they lost money, and now some of them served on this committee that is using charity money, without the general community ever having been told. Just an in-group that is out to serve their original purpose...yes, a vendetta."

Or else the paranoid musings of a man who believes his life's work is under attack.

In June 1999, after the committee completed its study, Belofsky and two other committee members met with Wisch to discuss "how [the] federation could make the Texas Jewish Post a better newspaper," Wisch says. In a meeting at Belofsky's office, Wisch told them. "First thing, I want your federation [donor] lists." With that list, he could build circulation, increase advertising, and perhaps raise the quality of the paper. But the federation had a proprietary interest in that list, which it jealously guards, even with its own charities.

"[Belofsky] said the list is unattainable," Wisch says. "And that was the main topic of conversation."

A week later, Belofsky sent Wisch a letter inviting him to submit a written proposal for "a new, expanded version of the Texas Jewish Post." Four other publishers of existing Jewish newspapers were also invited to submit proposals for "the possibility of publishing a Jewish newspaper in independent voice that tells the story of a people and a community."

Wisch was suspicious of the federation's motives. After showing no interest and some animosity for so many years, suddenly they wanted to help him become a better paper? What business did the federation have telling him how to run his business? He interpreted their attitude as an attempt at "editorial domination" and had no intention of submitting a written proposal. He phoned Belofsky and told him, "I was sitting in your office, and I told you what I wanted--the list. Why don't you tell this to your people?"

Other papers offered more specific proposals, and one in particular, the Washington Jewish Week, emerged as an attractive and willing alternative to the Texas Jewish Post. The Washington Jewish Week, based in Rockville, Maryland, had been an award-winning family-owned newspaper that had gained a certain cachet on Capitol Hill for its incisive political coverage. In 1999, the paper was sold for an undisclosed price to Capital Jewish Publishing, a subsidiary of NewsCo., which owns a large chain of secular newspapers around the country. The Jewish Week was its first Jewish paper.

The new owner, according to a May 1999 article in the Washington Business Journal "gained control of a publication beleaguered by financial woes and inflated circulation figures." The Journal also reported that Capital Jewish Publishing had been accused by former and current employees of "cultural insensitivity" and "diminishing the quality of editorial content." Craig Burke, the paper's new publisher, claimed these complaints were largely attributable to belt-tightening measures. He did not return a Dallas Observer phone call requesting an interview.

On June 27 this year, the Dallas federation's board of directors accepted the proposal of Capital Jewish Publishing to "publish a quality weekly Jewish newspaper in Dallas." In return, the federation promised that it would guarantee the newspaper chain 6,000 paid subscribers at an introductory price of $18 each, for the first year of publication only. To build circulation, the federation's mailing list would also be made available to the publisher.

Wisch says he had heard rumors that the federation had made a deal with an out-of-town paper, but he was inclined not to believe them, particularly after he spoke to Craig Burke, who phoned him several times in early July and offered to buy the Texas Jewish Post. He and NewsCo. Chief Executive Officer Ryan Phillips were ready to talk business; they could fly down immediately and negotiate a deal. But Wisch hesitated too long. His wife was sick; he had a paper to get out, and the calls stopped coming.

At the same time, Wisch began tapping his sources and learned that the federation had closed the deal with Capital Jewish Publishing. Outraged that the federation was subsidizing a for-profit enterprise with non-profit perks, he fired off a letter to federation president Stephen Waldman (whose bar mitzvah photos appeared in the Post decades ago). He condemned the deal as an "act of unilateral favoritism...detrimental to the independence of Jewish journalism." He demanded that he be afforded the same treatment "to level the playing field."

That never happened.

Wisch phoned Gary Weinstein at the federation, who instead encouraged him to sell to Capital and offered to be his intermediary. "I think they suspected there would be some community outrage if it ever got out, the way they treated me," Wisch says, "and it would be much more placid if I was bought out."

But no more calls were forthcoming, and Jimmy Wisch was anything but placid.

He used the power of his press and began a blistering attack on the federation. Week after week he assailed its actions as "fallacious" and "clandestine"--"a shanda...that will live in the annals of Jewish history."

Wisch didn't quite get the outrage he had hoped for. He received a dozen phone calls, half a dozen letters to the editor, some private encouragement--and me.

"Now, you're a journalist, you should know this," he lectures me. "The only way you can be independent is if you are not beholden. So why would someone come down here from Washington and accept 6,000 subscriptions? Do you think they will refuse [the] federation if they ask them not to run a story?...Investigate this thing on your own. See for yourself."

I telephoned the federation's Gary Weinstein, who is cautious. The federation is in the middle of its largest capital campaign ever, hoping to raise $50 million dollars to build infrastructure for 10 Jewish charities. He doesn't want to jeopardize anything, but he wants the truth told. He agrees to arrange an interview: Steve Waldman (who happens to be my insurance agent and friend) Selly Belofsky, Weinstein, and another federation staffer will be there. The interview gets canceled twice. The federation agrees to provide documents that it says will tell its side of the story, but no attempts will be made to reschedule the interview.

I poke around with some off-the-record sources, phoning community leaders and friends, some of whom in different ways tell me to leave this story alone. It's not in the best interest of the community. It's airing our dirty linen. It's a shanda far de goyim--all remnants of an attitude that a secure community celebrating its Jewishness is not supposed to harbor. If a Jewish journalist is deterred from writing a story that might be critical of the federation, what hope did a Jewish newspaper assisted by the federation have? The story might be bad for the campaign, but isn't it worse for a community trying to develop a sense of self to remain uninformed?

Yes, Jimmy Wisch hadn't kept up with the times, and yes, his paper wasn't reaching--much less covering--the community. But was Jimmy Wisch treated fairly after serving the Jewish community for nearly 54 years? How did the federation justify taking resources given to charitable causes and giving them to a private enterprise? Was it the organization's intention to give Dallas Jewish Week a competitive advantage? These are questions that the federation had an obligation to answer either from an independent or a dependent press.

Dave Sorter, the newly appointed editor of the Dallas Jewish Week, believes he will have no problem maintaining the independence of his paper. "They [the federation] are not going to dictate a single thing on the editorial side, because I am not going to let them," insists Sorter, who just left his job as news editor at the Richardson News. "I have told them that, and Craig Burke has told them that."

On the other hand, spending a day with the Wisch family can also compromise independence. Over my protest, Jimmy insisted that he pay for my lunch. ("Don't talk nonsense. It's my pleasure.")

And how could I say no to Rene when she gave me five children's books for my own son? ("You said he likes it when you read to him? Here, take them.") When I was leaving, Rene said that she wanted to hug me and did. Then I turned to Jimmy and asked if he thought he was going to survive the war.

"I may lose money," he said. "I may die. I may have a heart attack."

"God forbid," Rene said. "I won't let you."

"But I am not going to let them do this."

Editor's note: Mark Donald's bar mitzvah story and photo appeared in the Texas Jewish Post some decades ago.


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