For 27 years, the Chicago Jewish Star showed up every other week on street corners and synagogues from Hyde Park to Highland Park, a plucky family-owned newspaper with ambitions to be a strong voice for the city’s diverse Jewish community.
Next week, its familiar green news boxes will be empty.
With circulation and revenue waning, the free, advertising-supported tabloid quietly folded last week, ending what co-founder Doug Wertheimer called Chicago’s last independent, for-profit Jewish newspaper.
“The advertising dried up,” said Wertheimer, 71. “It became a tighter and tighter operation until it was no longer feasible to continue with any kind of quality product.”
Put together out of his Skokie house, Wertheimer helmed the newspaper from its inception in 1991, serving as publisher and editor. His wife and co-founder, Gila Wertheimer, was associate and literary editor, and more recently, top ad salesperson.
The only other remaining full-time staffer was their son, Aaron Wertheimer, who served as assistant editor and columnist.
The Jewish Star won journalism awards and developed a loyal following. But it couldn’t survive the digital age.
In its heyday, during the mid-1990s, the Jewish Star had a circulation of nearly 25,000, a staff of five salespeople, a roster of freelancers and a robust business model, Doug Wertheimer said. “Like any startup, we did not make money the first few years,” he said. “But after that, we always made money. We always had to make money.”
The paper was not immune, however, to the revenue declines that have hit the newspaper industry in recent years, as digital competition eroded audience and advertising. The Jewish Star cut back the paper from 20 pages to about eight, while staffing was reduced to the immediate family.
“It was just the three of us at the end,” said Doug Wertheimer, a Chicago native who grew up in Hyde Park and Albany Park.
Wertheimer would not disclose exact circulation, but said “it was less” in its final years.
While he saw the writing on the wall, Wertheimer never created an online version of the Jewish Star, a “conscious decision” to stick with the print-only business plan in an increasingly digital media world.
“We put all of our effort into the print paper and tried to run it as economically as we could,” he said. “I did not ever see that the internet would help or save us.”
With the end of the Jewish Star, Chicagoans can still turn to the JUF News, a monthly run by the Jewish Federation of Chicago, and the Chicago Jewish News, a weekly nonprofit, but loyal readers say the publication will be missed.
Charles Bernstein, 76, a retired lawyer and longtime South Side resident, said he picked up his copy of the Chicago Jewish Star at his Hyde Park synagogue.
“I’m going to miss it,” Bernstein said. “It was a little more independent than other newspapers. It was well-written and they take controversial topics and handle them well. It was quite independent.”
The demise of the Jewish Star is an increasingly familiar story. The ranks of the American Jewish Press Association, a not-for-profit group, are down to 51 member publications.
“We have seen a decline in our members,” said Cathy Herring, the association’s executive director. “We have seen some publications close in recent years.”
Wertheimer and his wife, a Canadian whom he met in Israel, launched the original Jewish Star in 1980 in Calgary, where they lived at the time. They brought the paper with them when they moved to Skokie 10 years later.
The new publication came on the scene just as Chicago’s legacy Jewish newspaper, The Sentinel, was nearing the end of an 85-year run. The Sentinel ceased publication in 1997 after the death of its longtime editor and publisher, Jack Fishbein.
The Jewish Star tackled local, national and international issues of interest to the Jewish community, Wertheimer said. It also successfully grappled with the city of Chicago, which tried to remove and relocate its news boxes more than 25 years ago.
In 1994, after years of denials from the city, a Jewish Star staffer caught what was described in the Chicago Tribune at the time as “a beefy Streets and Sanitation worker” using bolt cutters to snap the anchoring cable of a news box at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. A photo was splashed on Page 1 of the Star’s next edition, and distributed to other media.
The newspaper also enlisted the help of the Illinois Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, eventually getting a sit-down with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. The city agreed to pay the Jewish Star $1,600 for moving and destroying its news boxes, Doug Wertheimer said.
“One of my regrets as a journalist here is that we did not sue the city,” he said. “I wish we would have sued them.”