The Future of Jewish News

The new millennial editor of The Detroit Jewish News discusses his plans to revitalize the paper for a new era.

Mari Cohen
August 25, 2020
Detroit Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Lapin, who assumed the role at 30 years old.

Andrew Lapin assumed his role as editor-in-chief of the 78-year-old Detroit Jewish News this past January, at the age of 30. A young editor of a local Jewish publication isn’t unheard of: The paper’s publisher, Arthur Horwitz, was 31 when he joined as the editor 33 years ago. But in today’s context, bringing on a millennial editor holds special significance. Local Jewish outlets, including The Detroit Jewish News—a glossy weekly with free digital content and a print and digital subscriber base of 6,500—are hammered by the same decline in advertising and other financial challenges facing print media broadly. They need younger readers if they hope to survive, but are often perceived as part of an older, more conservative Jewish establishment alienating to young Jews. 

Lapin—who grew up in Huntington Woods, a suburb just north of Detroit with a large Jewish population, and moved back to Michigan after working as a journalist in several US cities and in Paris—hopes to bridge these generational and political gaps in the paper’s readership. In part, this means including a broader range of voices in the paper’s pages than often appear in the local Jewish press. In one of his first editor’s notes, accompanying a feature on Jews of color in Detroit, Lapin wrote, “My hope is that we at the JN can make a regular, standing commitment to telling the stories of Jews from diverse backgrounds, including Jews of color, Jews from migrant communities, Jews in interfaith families and Jews from the LGBTQ+ community.” But writing for a bigger tent requires a delicate balancing act, given that the paper’s constituency also includes longtime conservative readers.

I spoke to Lapin (who has contributed film criticism to Jewish Currents) about the challenges facing local Jewish media; the experience of catering to a politically diverse, multigenerational audience; and his vision for the paper’s future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mari Cohen: How did you end up with this job?

Andrew Lapin: Honestly, it wasn’t on my radar as a career path. But last summer, I got a call from a friend who worked for the company that owns The Detroit Jewish News, and she said, “They’re looking for a new editor. They want someone who is relatively young, knows digital media, knows the Detroit Jewish community, and is familiar with the publication. It’s a very narrow list of qualifications, and it’s basically you. There’s no one else.”

So I met with the publisher, Arthur Horwitz. I told him, “Listen, I’m concerned that, even though I’m really excited about this opportunity, maybe my ideologies don’t align with what you’re trying to do.” He said, “That’s absolutely no problem. I want you to have total freedom to re-envision and reshape the Jewish News as you see fit.” That really encouraged me. It’s very rare that someone is willing to just hand over the reins of a historic 78-year-old publication to a millennial. I had to follow through and see what would happen. 

How does this strategy differentiate The Detroit Jewish News from other Jewish weekly newspapers around the country?

A lot of the Jewish publications are not really thinking about digital: Their core audience has just been getting the print edition forever. The economic forces that have affected print media generally have just completely walloped the Jewish media because it is so print-focused. They’ve been in this perpetual state of shrinking and not being able to respond to the changing times. But that’s a recipe for disaster, just kind of aging out of your readership. To survive, you have to diversify—not only your business model, but also your staff, your reporting methods, the ways you approach big stories.

The Detroit Jewish News is in a unique situation given its level of independent, local control. A lot of the local Jewish newspapers are not independent. They’re owned by a local Federation or by a larger Jewish media company that owns several publications in different regions. Many are struggling: The New York Jewish Week and The New Jersey Jewish News just shuttered their print papers due to financial difficulties. I’ve been seeing more submissions from Toronto, where The Canadian Jewish News just closed; I’ve been seeing a lot more submissions lately from Chicago. We’re trying to do way more ambitious narrative pieces and debates and dialogues. Arthur Horwitz wants us to lead that charge for all the other local Jewish outlets.

MC: What are some of your priorities for expanding the paper’s coverage?   

AL: We are trying to think of ourselves more as a digital outlet that pushes out fresh, original content every day—not relying so much on wire services, pursuing different kinds of voices in the opinion section, and reporting on the stuff that really resonates with people. I’ve recruited writers from Israel/Palestine. We’re trying to invite our readers into a conversation, such as with our recent feature “The Future of Shul,” which asks: How do you feel about potentially losing a communal house of worship if memberships continue to decline, and Covid continues?

MC: One of the biggest stories you covered recently was the re-election race of US Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian woman to serve in Congress. You did an interview with her as a cover story, and that elicited a huge range of feedback. What led you to pursue that story, and what did you make of the response?

AL: There is no public figure who elicits more intense reactions from the Detroit Jewish community than Rashida Tlaib. To me, there was no question that it was necessary for our publication to talk to her about why she has become such a vilified figure in some corners of Metro Detroit. I don’t want to have these separate worlds where we’re not even talking to each other. There’s such a prominent community of Tlaib backers in the area, including many Jews, and a huge Arab community in Detroit. I want The Detroit Jewish News to be a place where we can interview Rashida Tlaib. I should also note that the publication started trying to interview her since 2018, before I arrived, and was ignored at the time—though Tlaib’s campaign says they never heard from us.

I got calls and letters about the interview for almost a month. I still hear from people who are angry about the story. A good number of people canceled their subscriptions—though a lot of people also signed up for subscriptions for the first time. The difference between interviewing Rashida Tlaib if I was with The Forward versus doing it with The Detroit Jewish News is that people just call me directly to tell me how much they hated the article. So I was doing a lot of one-on-one interfacing with people who were upset with the publication and with me.

The critical response fell into three camps. There was one group of people who thought we should not have interviewed her at all, that it was like interviewing Hitler or something. There was a second group of people who said, “It’s fine that you interviewed her, but you shouldn’t have made her the cover, and you shouldn’t have given her the kind of space you gave her and chosen those smiling photos.” Then there was a third group of people who actually read the article and were upset that I hadn’t asked her more challenging questions and pushed back on certain things.

One thing I will note is that I also recently did a story on an ex-neo-Nazi in Detroit. Jeff Schoep was, by his own admission, an antisemite, the leader of the largest neo-Nazi group in North America. He has since left Nazism, but he was very clearly someone who hated Jews. And we put him on the cover; we interviewed him and gave him a lot of space. No one complained about that story. I’m fascinated by the contrast there. 

MC: Do you feel like you’re able to make headway with the critics you’re in dialogue with?

There are definitely moments where it feels a bit like banging your head against the wall, and I think it’s good to recognize that there are people who don’t want a dialogue and who just want to yell. But a lot of the time, it’s been heartwarming. I will have conversations with people who have very different views from me, and they’ll say, “Well, I don’t agree with what you said, but it’s your right to publish it.” I had one woman give me a bracha over the phone for the work I’m doing as the editor.

A working theory I have is that—although a lot of the oxygen is spent on Israel, and on Democrats versus Republicans—the main tension in the Jewish community is generational. Much of the older generation just doesn’t believe younger Jews understand what it means to be Jewish. Someone literally told me, “Because your generation did not grow up with the Holocaust, you don’t understand what it means for the Jewish population to be afraid and to be vulnerable. And because you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing or talking about these things.” I understand that it’s scary to pass the torch to a new generation, but there is no other option.

At the same time, I’m not trying to be a fork in the eye. There’s a decent percentage of readers for whom The Detroit Jewish News is one of the few media outlets they still trust. They think the national news is too liberal and not covering the right issues. But they place a degree of trust in the Jewish News that they don’t place anywhere else. And so why would I want to totally cast them out of the conversation? 

MC: Do you get pushback from the left, as well? 

AL: Yes. I think the perception for a lot of people had been that we were very conservative, which was never the image Arthur [Horwitz] or anyone at the publication wanted to cultivate. A lot of feedback I got from the Tlaib story we ran is, “I didn’t think the Jewish News would ever do this.” Some people thought the paper was anti-Arab, and never saw it as a place where that kind of conversation could happen. We are a Zionist paper. That hasn’t changed. But there’s so many different ways to interpret what Zionism means, especially among younger Jewish generations. 

MC: You’re balancing a lot of constituencies.

AL: It’s a lot. The Jewish Humanists were birthed in Metro Detroit. The entire atheist Jewish movement started in [the suburb of] Birmingham. We’ve got a Sephardic Jewish community that I want to be able to write about more. It was only recently that the Jewish News was writing about intermarriage and interfaith families in a substantive way. We’ve done more reporting on issues facing Jews of color this year, which was important when the Black Lives Matter uprising happened because we had been able to establish some good relationships. A lot of local Jews of color wanted to tell their story and wanted to let the white Jews of the area know what that moment was like for them, and we were able to provide a platform. 

We also have a pretty large Orthodox population in the Metro Detroit area, which has actually seen growth among younger people in the last few years. Much of the Orthodox community doesn’t agree with our business practices, such as allowing ads from treyf restaurants, but I still want to be there for them. They are also part of the young Jewish conversation, and shouldn’t be left out.

MC: You’re doing this in a precarious financial environment. Somebody might say, “Well, maybe if there’s no business model to support it, it means these types of local Jewish newspapers aren’t useful anymore. Maybe everybody’s just able to read The Forward online, or people are assimilated enough to just read The Detroit Free Press.” But what do you think is lost when there’s no outlet that can serve as a Jewish communal hub?

AL: You lose this sense of history, of place and purpose and identity. A lot of what it means to have a Jewish identity is in flux right now, and people are confused and increasingly isolated. There are fewer and fewer places and gathering spaces where you can feel distinctly Jewish. And so we can be a community space. The Free Press can interview Rashida Tlaib all they want, but it means something different when we do it.

Half of what we’re doing is big picture stuff, like engaging with Black Lives Matter and having the conversation around Israel, and half of it is hyperlocal: what is the local school doing, and who was hired for this position, and what’s the situation with daycare. It’s been a challenge and a privilege to be able to balance both of those things. So I hope that The Detroit Jewish News continues for a long time, and I hope that other local Jewish outlets are able to find a way as well. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.