Starting in the mid-1970s and for the next three decades or so, the Baltimore Jewish Times, with its annual awards in journalism competitions, extensive local, national and international reporting, and hefty volume of advertising, was the leader in its field and the envy of communities around the country.
I was proud to be associated with the JT, as it’s known in Baltimore, for almost two decades. In its heyday in the late 1980s, the weekly magazine grew so fat, averaging 200 pages an issue, that it had to be perfect bound (with the binding stitched and glued like a book) because staples couldn’t hold all the pages together. And instead of running timely book excerpts to fill the space between all those ads we would joke that it would be easier to just print the whole book.
But no one following the saga of the JT is laughing today.
This week’s issue may be the last produced by the Buerger family that has owned the publication since it was founded almost 93 years ago, in 1919. And as it goes to auction, the victim of a lengthy and devastating legal battle, bankruptcy, family friction, deep communal divisions and the general decline of print media in the age of the Internet, the JT and its uncertain future make for an unhappy and cautionary tale about the outlook for American Jewish journalism.
Looking back on my tenure in Baltimore, I am deeply saddened for the Buergers and the vibrant local community they served, and filled with many memories of what was, in hindsight, the JT’s Golden Era.
The man who changed the profitable but sleepy publication into a powerhouse was Charles “Chuck” Buerger, a Pittsburgh native who came to Baltimore in 1972 to take over the JT his grandfather, David Alter, founded as part of a chain of seven Jewish newspapers. Only two survived the Great Depression and one, in Baltimore, did well financially over the years, in large part because of the unique demographics of the Jewish community there.
A high percentage of the approximately 90,000 Jews settled in a tightly concentrated area of northwest Baltimore, which came to be known as The Golden Ghetto. Large synagogues sprouted along Park Heights Avenue, Jews began moving into the Pikesville area just beyond the city line, and real estate agents took to advertising in the JT.
But there was little local reporting, and much of the editorial content was filled with social news featuring photos of organizational events and charitable check presentations (known as “grip-and-grins”) and dozens of announcements of weddings, engagements and bar and bat mitzvahs each week.
As Chuck Buerger later said in an interview about the paper he inherited, “if the Messiah had suddenly arrived in town on a donkey, Baltimore’s Jews would only have known about it if he’d sent in a press release to the JT.”
As a businessman who wanted to be proud of his work, Chuck decided to plow profits into the product — an all-too-rare concept in Jewish journalism. He brought me to Baltimore as editor in 1974, and began hiring staff writers and correspondents in Israel to deepen the coverage, and a wonderful graphic artist to spruce up the look.
People began to notice the changes, often grateful for the expanded content and sometimes irritated with the deeper, occasionally critical reporting on communal sacred cows.
One memorable story we did in 1977 on the social pecking order of the local Jewish country clubs — who they attracted and why — prompted a brief but noisy attempt by some club machers to organize a boycott of the JT.
To his great credit, Chuck didn’t back down. He defended his staff, and wanted his readers to know that as an independent publication, the JT felt it was fair game to cover the community “like a real newspaper,” as he said.
That approach caused more than ripples if we offended agencies of the Associated Jewish Charities, the powerful Jewish federation in town, or large congregations or major philanthropists. But the community needed the JT as much as we needed them, and we managed to gain credibility, incrementally — and sometimes begrudgingly.
Over time the relationship between Chuck, eight years my senior, and me evolved from boss-employee to friend and partner. And though our personalities were decidedly different — he shot from the hip and didn’t hold back — he was my mentor throughout.
My decision to leave the JT in 1993 and come to The Jewish Week was not an easy one, and it tested our friendship for a time, but in the end Chuck was supportive. His death during heart surgery three years later was a shocking blow for family, friends and all who knew him as such a vibrant presence. Not a day goes by at the office that I don’t think of him and wonder how he would handle the crisis of the moment.
Chuck’s older son, Andrew, succeeded his dad as publisher of the JT, and expanded the parent company with several successful secular publications while selling Jewish newspapers his father had bought in Detroit, Palm Beach, Fla., and Atlanta.
One unique aspect of the Baltimore Jewish population is that about one-third of the community identifies as Orthodox, and much of it is haredi. Many felt that the JT was insensitive in its coverage or increasingly irrelevant. Their alienation increased sharply when, in 2007, my friend and longtime colleague, editor Phil Jacobs, began writing a series of hard-hitting reports about rabbinic sexual abuse in the local Orthodox community.
Given the criticism that the stories were lashon hora and excessive, growing numbers of Orthodox Baltimoreans stopped reading the JT, which for a brief time launched an alternative publication geared to appeal to that community.
With subscriptions declining and the JT already dealing with the industry-wide challenges presented by the Internet and young people’s aversion to paying for news, a lawsuit from its longtime printer delivered the lethal blow.
It resulted in the JT’s declaration of bankruptcy, major legal fees and a bitter inner struggle that has led to this week’s auction to be held among five bidders. They include the Washington Jewish Week, the Baltimore Sun and several local groups seeking to restore and revitalize a once proud publication that has long served as the pulse of its community.
Whatever the fate of the JT, and I fervently hope for its recovery, it is important that our national and local leaders and philanthropists recognize the value of the Jewish press, and not take for granted the unique role it can and should play in educating and connecting diverse segments in the community. And those leaders should consider what would happen if local Jewish media disappeared from the scene.
I’m not a pessimist, just a realist. And if the Baltimore Jewish Times is this close to being silenced, it could happen anywhere.