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Media

November 7, 2011

An Online Magazine for the People of the Book

Alana Newhouse, Tablet magazine's editor-in-chief, discusses the joys and challenges of running a publication that's tied to a religion.

Neil Goldman

Judaism and media have long been synonymous. Jews are, literally, the people of the book. From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Talmud to the Yiddish-language newspapers of the Lower East Side, Jews have been on the vanguard of technological shifts of the written word. So it should be no surprise that the Jewish-centric online publication Tablet Magazine has brought that esteemed media legacy into the modern web era.

Alana Newhouse. Photo by Michelle Ishay.
"We get to cover how people engage with the Big Questions of their lives—some of which are profound, others unexpected, but all ultimately fascinating."

Alana Newhouse. Photo by Michelle Ishay.

"I think of Jewish life the way an old newspaper girl would: as a beat, a neighborhood that it is our job to canvass and reflect on and glorify and excoriate," explains Alana Newhouse, the site's editor-in-chief. Tablet covers all sides of the contemporary Jewish experience—from Israeli politics to celebrity conversions, Jewish athletes to book reviews—and reflects viewpoints across the religious (or irreligious) spectrum. In doing so, Tablet has built a loyal audience, attracted top-tier talent, and won two National Magazine Awards. In the following interview, which was conducted via email and has been edited for clarity, Newhouse tells Gelf about the pleasures of long-form online writing, the site's growing non-Jewish audience, and getting hate mail from Boca.

Gelf Magazine: What was the original idea for Tablet?

Alana Newhouse: To be a modern journalistic enterprise covering Jewish life. This meant, first and foremost, that we'd be holding ourselves to the standards of top-line newspapers and magazines, while at the same time developing a sensibility and a voice particular to our beat. Also, we wanted to publish Hanukkah songs by Mormon senators.

Gelf Magazine: How central is religion to Tablet's mission?

Alana Newhouse: As central as it is to the people and institutions that we cover—which is to say, often quite central, sometimes not at all. Again, I think of Jewish life the way an old newspaper girl would: as a beat, a neighborhood that it is our job to canvass and reflect on and glorify and excoriate. When you think of it this way, you start to understand how exciting it is. It's a powerful, weird, thrilling neighborhood (with some incredible street characters).

Gelf Magazine: What are the pleasures of overseeing a magazine that is tied to religion and what are its challenges?

Alana Newhouse: The pleasures are obvious: We get to cover how people engage with the Big Questions of their lives—some of which are profound, others unexpected, but all ultimately fascinating. The challenges? I'd say the hate mail, but most of ours tends to come from Boca and it's usually very funny.

Gelf Magazine: How has being an online publication helped Tablet foster a conversation about religion?

Alana Newhouse: How do you know whom to vote for? How much you want to pay in taxes? What you think about the war in Iraq? This is journalism's basic tenet: In order to determine what kind of human beings we want to be, we need data. It's the cornerstone of Tablet's ambition, too—to present its readers with information, from whatever corner of Jewish life, that influences the way they understand Jewishness. (And it may not even be their own Jewishness; one of the fastest growing cohorts of our readers seems to be the non-Jewish relatives of Jews.) We may do this by presenting a point of view with which they vehemently disagree, but even this—often especially this—is the most successful way to craft and sharpen one's own principles.

Gelf Magazine: The internet has a reputation for being a place predicated on speed, distraction, and a lack of depth. Nicholas Carr, in an article in the Atlantic that was subsequently turned into his book, The Shallows, quotes a professor who says that the internet has given his thoughts a "staccato" quality. "I can't read War and Peace anymore," the professor says. "I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it." In your experience, has the internet been a space conducive to thoughtful, sustained conversation about the issues that Tablet cares about?

Alana Newhouse: You'll forgive me, but this argument is very 2005. It's the Big Lie of contemporary journalism: "No one reads long stories online." What's true is that writers today may have less time to capture a reader's attention (a reality that I think actually demands a return to long-form journalism's traditional tools, but that's another conversation entirely). I don't know what blogs Carr is reading, but our readers—indeed, our youngest readers—have become pretty addicted to Marc Tracy, who in addition to quick and often hilarious nuggets, regularly turns out long, in-depth, reported posts in The Scroll. As Marc (who, by the way, won the National Magazine Award for Best Blog this year) often points out, had Norman Mailer had access to the platforms and technologies that we possess today, he likely would have written at least parts of his three great works of grand event reporting—"Superman Comes to the Supermarket," The Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago—via more "Webby" means, including blogging.
But the conversation here actually has nothing to do with blogs, which are not simply collection of truncated articles but actually represent a different art form. (I literally cannot believe I am typing these words in 2011.) Here, just read this. It's a 9,000-word piece on teenage girls in the West Bank, and it brought us mighty impressive traffic. Or how about these David Samuels Q&As? They're long but they're also impossible to stop reading. Also go to longform.org, and sign up for "Send me a Story." And buy the New Yorker app. And look up The Atavist. And then, after a month of this, try explaining to me again exactly how the internet is making you stupid.

Neil Goldman

Neil Goldman works at Charlie Rose.







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Article by Neil Goldman

Neil Goldman works at Charlie Rose.

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