A Brief History of the American Jewish Press Association
As of November 2014
Three score and 10, or by reason of strength, 20 is a familiar quote from the Hebrew Bible marking the gift of a long and vigorous life. This quotation applies to this year’s 70th Anniversary Annual Conference of the American Jewish Press Association as we gather in our nation’s capital. AJPA is the professional organization that represents Jewish newspapers, magazines, electronic media, social media and individual Jewish journalists.
We are indebted to our late and esteemed colleague, Joseph Polakoff, the longtime Washington bureau chief of JTA, who prepared an article in 1972 on our history at my request, in the sincere belief that the AJPA Annual Meeting of that year was indeed the 50th such gathering since the group was founded in 1943, a year which at the time was on our official logo.
Thanks to Polakoff’s painstaking research at the time, and with the cooperation of the late Gabriel Cohen, editor and publisher of the National Jewish Post & Opinion, it was proved definitively that while there were discussions for forming an association of American Jewish newspapers in 1943, the organization officially came into being at the first annual conference, hosted in Indianapolis on April 29 and 30, 1944.
Cohen served as the host and chairman of the steering committee that sought to create the national organization, which was originally founded under the name of the Association of English Language American Jewish Newspapers — a name selected to differentiate English language papers from those printed in Yiddish, of which there were several still publishing in 1944.
The English language Jewish press was sometimes called the “Anglo-Jewish press,” which some publishers and editors found annoying. About two months after the initial gathering, there was a follow-up meeting held in Chicago, where the late Philip Slomovitz, editor and publisher of the Detroit Jewish News, was elected the first president of what is now AJPA. Slomovitz was one of the early deans of the American Jewish media, and served as AJPA president until 1953, when he was succeeded by the late Fred K. Schochet, publisher of the Jewish Floridian.
In our research, Polakoff and I discovered that 30 years prior to the 1944 founding of the present AJPA, there was a previous American Jewish Press Association, founded on Jan. 26, 1914. A.M. Rosenthal, editor of the Modern View, which was published in St. Louis, served as the first secretary of that original group. That original group was replaced by the American Jewish Press Club, which was set up in New York City in 1940. Its vice president was the late Daniel Schorr, who then worked for JTA (then called the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), and later for CBS and PBS. That group folded during World War II because so many young Jewish journalists, including Polakoff, were serving in the war, some of them working for Stars and Stripes. By April 1944, two months before D-Day, the tide of war began to turn against the Nazis and in favor of the Allies, and the time was ripe to re-establish AJPA.
At the outset, AJPA restricted its membership to weekly Jewish newspapers that were independently owned and operated. Until 1970, only one newspaper per community could become a member. Over the years, the membership was gradually broadened to include Jewish Federation-affiliated newspapers, bi-weekly papers, Jewish magazines, JTA and other electronic media and finally individual Jewish journalists and Jewish organizational communications professionals. Later, the American Jewish Public Relations Society and the International Jewish Media Association merged into AJPA, making it possible to gain members from other nations.
As might be expected in an organization made up of strong-willed editors, publishers, business managers and journalists, over the years there have been serious factional disputes within the AJPA. A last-minute compromise motion to placate two factions was passed at that first meeting in 1944 which prevented the organization from dying at its very inception. Battles often raged between and among private publications and Jewish newspapers affiliated with or published by Jewish Federations. There were also turf battles over territory exclusivity and troubling advertising practices.
The early AJPA leaders were a colorful group with 19th century names like Joseph Jonah Cummins of the Los Angeles B’nai B’rith Messenger, Elias Rex Jacobs of the Buffalo Jewish Review, Jack Fishbein of the Chicago Sentinel and Adolph Rosenberg of the Southern Israelite of Atlanta.
A younger “Silver Age” group came into AJPA ranks starting with the presidency of Jimmy Wisch, longtime editor and publisher of the Texas Jewish Post, whose granddaughter, Amy Doty, would serve as AJPA president years later.
In June 1967, AJPA held its first conference in Jerusalem, when the Six-Day War erupted. Geoffrey Fisher, then editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light, was at the conference. He filed the story, No Choice But Fight To Death from Jerusalem. Fisher watched a quickly assembled unit going through preliminary tactics on Mt. Herzl.
“They wore makeshift uniforms, some bearded and some too young to shave,” Fisher wrote of the Israeli soldiers. “But no one had to explain why they were there. They knew why. How could they need any greater motivation than that which loomed right before them just a few yards away?”
During the presidency of the late Frank Wundohl of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, the Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism were created through a generous gift from the Rockower family. The Rockower Awards are presented annually and are considered the “Pulitzer Prizes of Jewish journalism.”
Over these past 70 years, AJPA has evolved into a modern, professional association of Jewish publications, electronic and other media and individual Jewish journalists. The original “Mom and Pop” warmth of prior decades has been replaced with the camaraderie and collegiality among people in the same field who seek to help each other succeed in the world of new media.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, all of our media organizations have had to become leaner and meaner. We challenge ourselves to cultivate the next generation of readers and Jewish journalists.
AJPA’s recent initiatives have included helping to establish the Jewish Scholastic Press Association for high-school age Jewish journalists, and the emerging AJPA/Hartman Institute Jewish Ethics Projects, to empower Jewish media organizations, editors, and journalists with Jewish media organizations to meld Jewish ethical values to our practice of Jewish journalism.
As we move from the biblical three score and ten 70th anniversary, let us rededicate ourselves to our founding mission of providing a formal professional association for the exchange of ideas, and for the enhancement and betterment of the quality and service to our readers of the American Jewish public, and our advertisers.
May we go from our 70th year from strength to strength to the age of Moses —120 — and beyond in the years ahead!
Robert A. Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light, served as president of AJPA from 1972-77 and 1984-88, and has served as co-chair of the AJPA Committee on Ethics and Professional Standards.