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Foxy Meets Orthodoxy

Emily Flake

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/15/2006

Alter Communications, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times newspaper and Style magazine, recently added shopping-focused “magalog” PaperDoll to its growing roster of niche publications and plans to launch in May the Baltimore Orthodox Times, a free weekly targeting the nation’s second-largest Orthodox Jewish community.

Paper Doll was launched last fall by Ruxton resident Susan Dunn and has been produced by Alter Communications’ custom publishing division. Under the new arrangement, Alter Communications will become a co-owner in the quarterly magazine, handling production, advertising sales, and distribution, while Dunn and her staff will continue to oversee editorial content.

“We see a new opportunity in the magalog genre that you see on the national level with Lucky [magazine],” Alter Communication CEO Andrew Buerger says. “We contemplated doing it ourselves, but Susie [Dunn] has done a fabulous job, so instead of trying to re-create, we thought we’d share in her success.”

Published quarterly, PaperDoll has a circulation of about 15,000, Buerger says, and 90 percent of the copies are mailed to paying subscribers. The rest are delivered to area boutiques and sold in a few bookstores. According to its web site, PaperDoll editorial content is “highly visual with no heavy articles to digest, just easy-reading and great eye-candy delivered in a sophisticated, informative and, sometimes, irreverent way.”

The forthcoming Orthodox Jewish Times will likewise avoid “hard-hitting and investigative” content, Buerger says, though neither will it be a pure “cheerleader” for the 20,000-strong religious Jewish community concentrated in the Pikesville and Upper Park Heights neighborhoods. Any unpleasant news about the insular Orthodox world will still be covered by the Jewish Times, he promises.

Buerger anticipates a circulation of 5,000 for the Orthodox Times, 3,500 home-delivered for free in religious neighborhoods, and the rest dropped off at businesses, synagogues, and community centers.

Alter Communications’ simultaneous expansion into both the Jewish and upscale-lifestyle sectors is a continuation of a strategy developed by Buerger five years after he took over his family’s Jewish-newspaper business in 1996. Buerger’s great-grandfather David Alter founded the Baltimore Jewish Times in 1919, and it was at one time the largest Jewish publication in the country. When Buerger assumed the reins from his father, Charles Buerger, the new publisher refocused the company’s direction.

“My father’s vision was to have Jewish newspapers across America,” Buerger explains. “I changed that vision and concentrated here, wanting to diversify beyond just Jewish [readers].” He sold his company’s interest in Jewish papers in Detroit, Vancouver, Boca Raton, Fla., Palm Beach, Fla., and Atlanta, and turned Style—a Baltimore Jewish Times supplement started by his father in 1989—into a stand-alone free bimonthly that competes directly with the monthly paid-circulation Baltimore magazine.

“People are less Jewish than they were a generation ago,” Buerger says. The Jewish Times accounted for just 50 percent of his company’s revenue last year, he says, but it remains the “core” of the company’s products. The paper’s paid circulation of 15,000 is down from its 1980s level of about 20,000, though Buerger attributes part of the decline to reduced newspaper readership in general, noting that Baltimore then was also home to three daily papers.

In 2001, Alter Communications increased its non-Jewish holdings with the acquisition of Chesapeake Life magazine, a bimonthly lifestyle glossy targeting high-income residents around Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. Additional new ventures included the custom publishing division—which produces publications for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, among other institutional clients—and a book-publishing imprint.

The book venture fizzled, but Chesapeake Life has enjoyed substantial growth, rising to 30,000 paid circulation from 19,000 in 2001. At 180 pages, the current issue is the largest in the publication’s history.

Despite the dilution of Jewishness among the broader Jewish population, Buerger believes there are emerging opportunities in niche Jewish markets, where religious or cultural identity is increasingly central to work and home life. In addition to the planned Orthodox publication, Alter Communications formally launched this month, an online job board targeting people looking for work in the Jewish nonprofit sector, such as rabbis, camp workers, fundraisers, and various charity staff. The site is the first internet-only venture for Alter Communications and is being marketed in partnership with Jewish newspapers around the country.

The site currently has about 300 jobs posted and is receiving about 800 unique visitors a day, according to Buerger. “It’s a slow build,” he says.

One of the peculiar challenges of building a business that straddles both the Jewish and non-Jewish market is keeping the Jewish ventures kosher while expanding into publications, like Chesapeake Life, that necessarily extol the virtues of crabs, oysters, and other scrumptious trayf. “We used to not allow people to work on Saturday,” Buerger says. That prohibition now only applies to work on the Jewish publications.

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