The Chronicle, with its storied past, looks to future
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Well, some things, anyway.
Take The Jewish Chronicle, for example. When it was founded in 1962, after the United Jewish Federation (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) established The Pittsburgh Jewish Publication and Education Fund to purchase and merge Jewish Pittsburgh’s two existing newspapers — The Jewish Criterion, published since 1895, and The American Jewish Outlook, published since 1934 — The Chronicle was the place to go for community news, to find out who was getting married, who was born and who had died. It was also where Pittsburgh’s Jews turned for information on community events, and to read insights and opinion pieces on Israel and world Jewry.
It still is all those things, but as the world has changed, so has some of the content of the paper.
Just take a look at some of the early issues of The Chronicle, which have been digitized by the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project of Carnegie Mellon University and are easy to search online. In addition to announcements of upcoming Jewish community programming and news of national and international interest, there was a column written by Berenice Ellman Bluestone called “Social and Personal.” In that column, one could find out who vacationed where and who had out-of-town visitors, in addition to marriages and b’nai mitzvah. There were also plenty of announcements for upcoming events of “family clubs” and “cousins’ clubs” — which were apparently a thing in the 1960s.
“It was an intimate, street level view of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community,” said David Schlitt, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center.
But, from its very beginning, the mission of The Chronicle was to go well beyond the intimate and the personal.
“The Jewish Chronicle will be, in every sense of the word, a newspaper,” wrote its general manager, Albert Golomb, in its first issue. “It will not purport to speak for the Jewish community. But it is the policy of the publisher to make of the newspaper a mirror of the community in its local, national and international aspects.”
The Chronicle, from its earliest incarnation, was to be a serious paper. To that end, its founders hired Albert Bloom, an avowed Zionist and a career journalist from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to be its first editor.
“My father saw The Chronicle as an educational tool,” said Dov Bloom, speaking by phone from Israel, where he now lives. “He said that when he decided to leave the Post-Gazette, the city editor said, ‘Al, what are you doing? In 20 years, there’s not going to be a Jewish community in Pittsburgh. You’re leaving to go to a backwater weekly.’ But my father didn’t believe that.”
Bloom edited The Chronicle for 21 years, with the aim of providing professional journalism to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. During that time, he became known for his thoughtful opinion pieces, and served as president of the American Jewish Press Association.
Bloom said his father, who died in 1990, would have been proud that The Chronicle is still going strong more than 50 years after its launch.
“I think he would have been astounded if it wasn’t still existing,” Bloom said. “He had no doubt that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh had a future, and that the community would need a Jewish newspaper.”
In 1983, Joel Roteman, a reporter for The Chronicle, took over as editor, and held that position until 2001. It was on his watch that the paper became independent of the Federation.
“We always called ourselves a newspaper of record,” recalled Roteman, adding that readers typically combed the paper looking for announcements of births, marriages and deaths. “If it wasn’t in The Chronicle, it didn’t matter.”
The paper’s place in the community continues to remain important, according to Roteman.
“It’s a major force; it’s as important as synagogues,” he said. “It’s important to maintain continuity. The Jewish Chronicle is basically an archive of the community.”
Local historians and archivists agree.
Tammy Hepps, who has been chronicling the history of Jewish Homestead for the past two years, has taken advantage of the archived Outlooks, Criterions and Chronicles on the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project’s website in her research.
“I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent looking at these papers,” said Hepps, 38. “They are so specifically local, with family notices. All that information is valuable and textures the community. If you take time to look at it, you will find a priceless treasure.”
For that reason, it is imperative to maintain a Jewish paper so that future generations can continue to have a record of Jewish Pittsburgh, she said.
“We don’t know what record-keeping is going to look like,” she explained. “It may be digital, but we have no reasons to believe that we’ll do a better job of preserving records. A newspaper is a starting point for a deeper investigation, to help put a story back together.”
Local Jewish historian and author Barbara Burstin also relies heavily on Pittsburgh’s archived Jewish newspapers in doing her research.
“Even just for the recording of events, the personalities, the letters to the editor,” Burstin said. “It’s a gold mine of possibilities for researchers and people interested in their own genealogy. It’s more than a record. It’s really the depths, breadths and extent of activities that have evolved the Jewish community over the years.”
And as the community has evolved, so have the editorial policies of the paper.
For starters, “you didn’t say anything critical of Israel,” recalled Stan Levine, who served on the board of the paper for many years, including during the tenures of Bloom and Roteman, and also served as its president.
Levine also remembered being prohibited by the Federation from running a story — picked up by the Post-Gazette — that involved the son of a prominent community member being tear-gassed by police for disrupting an appearance by Golda Meir at the Syria Mosque.
After The Chronicle became independent from Federation, it had the freedom to cover news more broadly, Levine said.
Lee Chottiner, who was hired in 2001 to succeed Roteman as executive editor of the paper, focused on “digging a little deeper, and going after more enterprise stories,” pursuant to the directives of the paper’s board, he said.
Chottiner recalled being on the job for only two months when planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. That week’s paper was well into production when Chottiner decided to pull the planned High Holiday cover and replace it with an editorial cartoon showing the Statue of Liberty with two prongs of its crown in flames. He also mobilized his reporters to cover the story by reaching out to community members for reaction, and wrote an editorial about the attack.
“We wanted to cover news that was breaking and had immediate impact on the Jewish community,” said Chottiner, who served as editor until 2014.
Chottiner, who currently works as the interim editor of Community, the Jewish newspaper in Louisville, Ky., believes a Jewish press is even more essential now than it was 50 years ago.
“The Jewish community is more integrated today to the broader region than it was 50 years ago, but it is still a community,” he said. “It still has the same components — its own leaders, its own interests, its own problems — and they need to be addressed. If you’re Jewish, and you care about being Jewish and Jewish issues, then a local Jewish paper is essential.”
David Horvitz, a longtime subscriber, agrees.
“The Jewish Chronicle gives insight into the Jewish community more than any other paper or magazine,” he said. “It allows you to have a sense of community and a connection between everyone. And issues get addressed in a way that have meaning for us as Jews in Pittsburgh.”
The paper remains an important resource for Jewish Pittsburgh, echoed Scott Tobe, 38.
“It keeps you up to date with people you know and care about in the community,” said Tobe, who added that The Chronicle also provides a platform for local organizations to get the word out about their work.
The purpose of the paper is multifaceted, according to David Ainsman, chairman of The Chronicle’s board.
“The paper engages individual members of the community in community activities, and local, national and international events that impact Jews, and creates a sense of community,” he said.
The Jewish community has evolved substantially since its early years, and like other Jewish communal organizations in Pittsburgh, The Chronicle has had to “wrestle with how to remain relevant to the community and how to remain financially viable,” said Jim Busis, the paper’s CEO and publisher since 2012. “What we’ve been focused on for the past four years is bringing The Chronicle up to date on both of those fronts.
“In particular, the community is far more diverse than it used to be, and far more dispersed, and so we are trying to cover news and events that are of interest to everybody and to engage as many members of the Jewish community as possible in the news and events of our own Jewish community as well as the broader Jewish world,” Busis added.
The staff and board of the paper are also working to appeal to a younger demographic.
“Like many other organizations, many of the people who use us most often are older, and we have to appeal to a new set of members of the Jewish community who are younger and have different habits and interests,” Busis said. “We have brought a large number of younger people onto our board, so that we can remain relevant and interesting to them. We are going to be revamping our website, our presence on social media, as well as refreshing the paper to position ourselves for a new generation of readers.”
Busis emphasized The Chronicle’s potential.
“As the Jewish community becomes less cohesive overall, our own local Jewish news service has the potential to be the single greatest touchpoint for the largest number of members of the Jewish community,” he said. “We see it as a core institution that sustains the community overall, and the way for the greatest number of people to remain connected with each other and with the community as a whole.”
The success of any community paper, particularly a Jewish paper, lies in its “ability to engage, inform and inspire readers,” said Joshua Runyan, who has served as editor-in-chief since 2014.
“That’s been my focus since becoming the editor and it is the animating force behind every one of the journalists who contribute to this publication,” he said.
Through the years, The Chronicle has won many awards, both from the AJPA and the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. For a time, it produced a biyearly magazine called Jewish Life, and another quarterly called J Mag. It remains a print publication, but also has a popular online presence.
Former board member Marlene Silverman has been a subscriber to The Chronicle for more than 40 years, and intends to keep reading the paper, she said.
“I want to know what’s going on in the community,” said Silverman. “I look forward to getting it each week.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.