Thinking about Jewish community journalism

Thinking about Jewish community journalism

Some of the stories we’ve had to run in the paper recently have gotten me thinking about what community journalism means.

Whatever it means today, it’s not exactly what it used to mean, back in those long-gone pre-internet days (that many of us remember), when all of our information came from a few carefully guarded sources.

Aside from all the other advantages and disadvantages of getting news that way, the technology made it impossible for us to be up to the minute on everything all the time. By then, news already could move more quickly than carrier pigeons could fly. But we didn’t live with 10-second news cycles.

Back then, a community daily could provide straightforward news, and even a community weekly could run niche news stories that otherwise would have remained untold.

Now much of that has changed.

As a community weekly, we can’t get breaking news. The paper doesn’t come out often enough. And we can’t do investigative journalism. We don’t have the staff or the budget or for that matter the stomach for it.

What we do have, though, is the deep understanding of the communities we cover, and an emotional investment in helping those communities flourish. We have a desire to help weave the bonds of community ever more strongly together, to explain ourselves to each other, to overcome the tyranny of small differences.

Most of the time, that means that we can take stories and add the insight and layers of narrative and detail that come with time. We can help explain why a story matters. We can describe how a story fits into the community, and what it might mean. We can showcase members of the community; we can create friendships and partnerships.

And sometimes we have to tell bad stories.

We all understand the desire to make unpleasant things go away. That’s what led people not to say words like “cancer,” as if not naming the killer might cause it to vanish. It’s what makes people describe a death as “passing,” implying that someone who’d “passed” might possibly come back for a visit some fine day.

It doesn’t work that way. Cancer is cancer, death is death, and bad stories don’t go away if we don’t mention them. Communities don’t flourish if their bad stories are hidden, because those stories, like most secrets, don’t stay secret. They molder underground, and send out toxins.

Also, of course, sometimes telling bad stories makes their complexities more clear.

This week, our bad story is about Baruch Lanner, the disgraced rabbi, teacher, and NSCY leader who abused young people, mostly but exclusively girls, mainly but not entirely sexually. That story’s local, so it’s in our local pages. It first was broken by the intrepid Gary Rosenblatt, then of Teaneck, now the retired editor of the New York Jewish Week, in 2000, but it’s returned, Gary told us last week, as victims beat the closing window to file civil suits.

That story is set in the Orthodox community, but that shouldn’t leave anyone else feeling good. In the last few months, there have been (and we have covered) scandals about the Conservative movement’s youth group, USY, and about the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, HUC. There are enough terrible stories to go around.

It is also true that most of our stories are not terrible but life-enhancing. Those are the stories that we prefer to write and publish as Jewish community journalists. Most of our stories, and the community’s, are those positive, helpful, hopeful ones.

But some are not, and we firmly believe that it is our obligation to tell all of our stories as directly and honestly as we possibly can.

As these shortest days of the year bring us to increased sunlight in just a few weeks, we hope that you, our readers, always bend toward the light.