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Nov. 20, 2023, 1:07 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“Everybody’s sense of emotion and devastation is heightened”: How Jewish Currents is covering the Israel-Hamas war

“We’re very conscious of trying to hold this large community of people who are really struggling.”

Earlier this month, Mari Cohen reported on how the 92nd Street Y, a New York City cultural center, canceled a scheduled event after the slated speaker signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence in Gaza.

“The controversy suggests that the post-October 7th political landscape will pose existential challenges for mainstream Jewish institutions like the Y trying to maintain traditional pro-Israel politics — which have generally hardened in the wake of the Hamas attacks — alongside a broad cultural mission predicated on diversity and free expression,” Cohen wrote.

It’s a divide that she sees coming up in her own work as an associate editor at Jewish Currents, where she covers American Jewish institutional politics. Jewish Currents, a nonprofit digital and quarterly print magazine reporting from a Jewish left lens, has gotten more than 500,000 website visitors a week in the last month, 10 times the weekly average prior to October 7, said publisher Daniel May. It’s also gained more than 1,000 paying subscribers since October 7. The publication is sending out more frequent editions of its newsletters, creating more posts on Instagram, and publishing first-person dispatches from Palestinians in Gaza living through the current violence.

I caught up with Cohen in late October to talk about the challenges of covering the current crisis and how Jewish Currents navigates a balance between breaking news and longer-term coverage. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Hanaa’ Tameez: How are you? What have the last couple of weeks been like?

Mari Cohen: Really hard. There’ve been other times when I’ve encountered emotionally difficult material and stories that are hard to figure out how to cover. But this has come right up against the work that we do. It requires us to grapple with a lot of information, and there’s been a lot of fracturing and intense emotion among our audience.

We’re a magazine with an online component. We do do news coverage, but we’re not really a breaking news shop. Jewish Currents is known for longer-term pieces, for a rigorous and in-depth editing process that takes time.

The big change has been shifting out of that long-form mode into this really fast-paced news environment. We have to try to keep up with that and think about what we can add when a lot of news organizations are covering this.

I reported a story on Palestinian-American analysts whose appearances were canceled or who had segments pulled on CBS and CNN. I sometimes report scoops like that, but this is pretty different from the stories I would normally do.

Tameez: What’s your news production process like for stories about the conflict?

Cohen: We’re a remote newsroom, and we’re having much more frequent meetings about what we should be covering and whether certain things are appropriate. There’s also a lot of checking in, like, are people doing okay?

A lot of the stories I’m reporting rely on sources I’d built prior to October 7; the people I talked to for the TV news story were people I’d previously talked to for different stories.

We’ve been publishing first-person dispatches from Palestinians living in Gaza, and from Palestinians living in the West Bank who have faced settler violence. [For those stories] there’s an all-hands-on-deck effort with people working together to communicate with different sources and then transcribe [interviews]. Our normal process might be to have one writer and two editors in each piece; this is even more editors in the process.

 

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Tameez: What has been different from covering previous conflicts?

Cohen: The current incarnation of Jewish Currents didn’t really exist in 2014 [when Israel last invaded Gaza]. So [the crisis in] 2021 is the most recent example. This feels like a more challenging moment, though, because there was a very large attack on Israeli civilians, which has impacted how a lot of our people are thinking about this and changed the way people might be reading our work.

Some of the things we’re doing now are similar [to coverage we did in 2021]. We have a rolling explainer where we answer readers’ questions. That was something we’d done in 2021 with a lot of success, so we repeated it.

Everybody’s sense of emotion and devastation is heightened. We have contributors who are in Gaza or have family in Gaza, and Israeli contributors who are connected to people who were killed or taken hostage. We’re very conscious of trying to hold this large community of people who are really struggling. That was true in certain ways in 2021 too, but I think everything is heightened this time.

Tameez: Which news outlets are you following to keep up with your beat?

Cohen: It’s challenging because we’re at a moment in which a lot of foreign journalists aren’t allowed into Gaza. So where do we get on-the-ground news? There are a lot of obstacles.

I’m more of a text-based news consumer. I read The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post. I balance those more mainstream news outlets with outlets with a slightly different mission like The Intercept and the Guardian, and outlets doing more analysis and literary approaches, like n+1 and The Baffler.

The Intercept has been good on the American politics side of things. Forward has done a lot of reporting on where Jewish organizations are in their politics [on this].

I read the English version of Haaretz. Certain things reported in The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post are also useful. Al Jazeera has also done a lot of coverage.

Tameez: What are the elements that make a Jewish Currents story on the Israel-Hamas war?

Cohen: We’re thinking about our value-add: What can we bring people that they aren’t getting in other outlets? (And can we realistically do it, because we have limited capacity as a small staff?) What can we focus on that will make a difference and won’t duplicate other efforts?

We’re not breaking news reporters. But there might be context from sources we’ve developed in the past about [for example] what Congress is doing and how they’re navigating calls for a ceasefire. That might be something we can put out a story on, where other people don’t have those sources.

Our first-person dispatches are unique because those voices often aren’t given a chance to speak directly to U.S. or other audiences around the world. A lot of them are oral history and interview pieces that wouldn’t be done otherwise.

We’re also thinking about this within our own context of Jewish left politics. I’m working on a story about controversies at [the 92nd Street Y] around this: What do these events mean for the politics of Jewish institutions? I think most other outlets would not necessarily take that angle on that story.

Tameez: How do you get these stories to reach mass and targeted audiences?

Cohen: We don’t have a staff social media person, so we all chip in. We post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We have two weekly newsletters that send an article directly to people’s inboxes and a weekly email that summarizes all the articles we’ve published. We’ve ramped up some of that; we’re sending most of our articles [as soon as] they come out. Our designer is making Instagram graphics to go with our articles to make them easier to share…

We’re doing all those things to increase engagement, but a lot of it has just happened organically. People want news, analysis, essays, and dispatches on this topic.

Tameez: What’s the most challenging part, for you, of covering this issue right now?

Cohen: It really is the increased emotional context. Continued deaths in Gaza, relentless bombing, having to grapple with real horror. And then also, obviously, what a lot of people in Israel went through on October 7. Figuring out how to meet that moment in a way that speaks to what people need…has been challenging.

I think there’s a common mainstream narrative about Israel and Hamas, about which types of violence are acceptable and which aren’t. In many Jewish spaces and organizations, there’s a strong pro-Israel political position that doesn’t really grapple with what Palestinians in the region have experienced — their expulsion, the occupation, and the apartheid system.

I think there’d been a slow but steady chipping away at that [position], accelerated this past year by the fact that there was a very right-wing Israeli government and a lot of citizen protests. After the October 7 attacks, I think some people immediately felt like we had to forget about the political differences around Israel’s policies…I think a lot of people who’d started to think about things somewhat differently snapped back into that mainstream narrative, and some people were no longer as amenable to hearing about this in the larger context of what’s been going on in the region for a long time…

In the weeks since October 7, we’ve seen an outpouring of popular support for Palestine, for ending the bombing of Gaza, for a ceasefire, for [the belief that] the way to Israeli safety is not through what many scholars are calling a genocidal assault. That’s been more than I expected.

There are people in my life who, based on their own experiences, feel really alienated by my work and my coverage. [For them], to talk about and focus on what Israel is perpetuating in Gaza, and the larger context of the region, feels like a lack of recognition of what happened to Israelis in the attacks. I’m trying to find an understanding with people in my life who don’t feel seen or heard by what I’m reporting, while continuing to focus on what I think is right and what I think is a really important message to amplify.

Tameez: How have readers reacted to Jewish Currents’ recent coverage?

Cohen: We’ve gotten a big bump in subscriptions. Numbers that we normally would get from doing a dedicated subscription drive where our operations team is really promoting it, we’ve just gotten from people finding us and subscribing. We’ve gotten like a 60% increase in Instagram followers. There are a lot more small donations coming in. We’re hearing from more news outlets that want to interview our editor-in-chief.

Obviously, some people aren’t happy with [our coverage] and we hear from them [too]. We sometimes publish letters to the editor alongside articles.

This is ongoing. These these conversations are going to reverberate for a long time. It matters how we continue to cover this, not just what we’ve done so far. We’ve had this moment of all-out, pedal-to-the-metal, doing as much as we can. Now we’re trying to figure out how we can sustainably continue to put out this work and support the conversations we need to have going forward.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Nov. 20, 2023, 1:07 p.m.
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