Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ongoing Debate on the Usage of Print vs. Electronic Journals: Perspective from Tradition's Online Editor

To the Editors of the Seforim blog:

I thank C.G. and Menachem for their thoughtful comments regarding Tradition at the Seforim blog (see "The Ongoing Debate on the Usage of Print vs. Electronic Journals: Perspective of an Ivy League PhD Student," available here). Since I understood the post to be using the example of Tradition for a larger phenomenon of deciding between print and electronic journals, I will also try to relate to this ongoing discussion in the context of explaining Tradition's situation. I should note from the outset that I write only from my limited experience and perspective as the online editor, and that these views are strictly my own, although they have certainly been shaped by discussions with Tradition's editor, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, and Rabbi Basil Herring, executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, publisher of Tradition.

When I first became Tradition's online editor this past spring, I asked the same questions regarding making Tradition free online. C.G. raises the issue in particular with regard to university students, who get electronic access to many journals through their university. I initially raised it, however, in the context of offering it online to the wider public.

This issue has been raised multiple times, by readers and editorial board members alike. Everyone would like to see Tradition available to as wide of an audience as possible. Unfortunately, it has been deemed unfeasible, at least for now, for the following reasons:

1) Despite the fact that Tradition is edited on a volunteer-basis, producing the journal 4 times a year costs tens of thousands of dollars. Rising printing and mailing costs as well as other factors have increased the cost of print journals, which is one of the major factors propelling different journals to publishing an online-only journal. While producing an online journal still costs money, the costs are definitely reduced - you do not have to pay for paper, ink, design, layout, shipping, etc...

If we made Tradition entirely free online, however, the feeling is that the print subscription would drastically decrease, especially with younger subscribers who are willing to print out journal articles for shabbat reading, and thereby undermine the financial stability of the journal.

Many people, however, continue to find a printed journal as a more enjoyable reading experience, as they do with magazines like The New Republic, Commentary Magazine, etc. This was, indeed, the concluding point of the article in The New Yorker by Princeton University professor Anthony Grafton, linked at the Michtavim blog. Yet the initial cost of printing even one copy of the journal is quite expensive, and one needs to preserve a minimum number of print subscribers in order to maintain the financial viability of the printing.

To a small extent, costs could be limited by reducing the number of editions published per year, but then you lose out on the joy of receiving a new edition on a more frequent basis, and the seasonal dialogue that it generates.

2) Tradition's sponsor, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), does not have the funding to entirely absorb these costs. While Tradition Fellows generously cover an important amount of these costs, we must still pass some cost on to the reader. We are, of course, regularly pursuing other sources of revenue, and our outside funding has increased substantially in recent years, but these resources are finite. Tradition also has to be sensitive to not accepting money from organizations or individuals that might attach ideological or editorial strings to their contributions.

If anyone, however, knows of potential donors or foundations, we'd of course be happy to hear from you.

Given that information, I proposed making a number of changes that we have adopted including offering online-only subscriptions for a reduced price, and giving a further reduction for students, which we have now implemented at We continue to have reduced prices for multi-year subscriptions.

We of course want to expand our reach deeper into the academic arena, and are currently working with our institutional subscribers to increase electronic access to affiliates of their universities, which we hope will ultimately happen, in one form or another, in the coming months. In addition to my duties at Tradition and as a Ram in Yeshivat Hakotel, I myself am also pursuing a PhD in Jewish Philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and understand that our generation of students and professors prefer taking advantage of their electronic library priviliges.

In many ways, the rising costs of printing and digitalization have forced journals to ask themselves whether they are a magazine or a research journal. The former cater to a more popular audience, and expect subscriptions from a larger audience while seeking profits. The latter limits themselves to a more limited, academic audience, and therefore mostly seek library subscriptions (at extremely high prices) to cover the costs of issues that come out on a less frequent basis. I do not agree with C.G.'s assessment that academic journals exclusively (or almost exclusively) impact currents of thought. I think magazines with a scholarly tone but a clear "public intellectual" agenda have a tremendous amount of impact, like First Things.

Having never discussed this with the editors, I'd venture to say that Tradition is somewhere in between a magazine and a journal, leaning more toward the latter in both its frequency and tone. It is a scholarly (though not purely academic) journal with a public service agenda, addressed to an intellectual religious community rather than exclusively a professional academic coterie.

Whatever one might make of that assessment, it remains clear, however, that we do not publish Tradition for-profit, and continue to publish it, lishmah, for the sake of disseminating and encouraging Orthodox Jewish thought.

Another initiative was to "offer more," so to speak, for the subscription. In addition to creating the website to increase availability, we are now in the final stages of an extensive process to digitize all 50 years of Tradition in an indexed and searchable PDF online archives. The alpha release of the full archives will hopefully happen in the next month. When that happens, individual subscribers (both print and online-only) will have full access to all 50 years of Tradition, and non-subscribers will be able to purchase individual articles for a small fee (again comparable to other magazines), as they can do already for those issues currently online.

As Grafton noted in his piece, the OCR technology is far from perfect, and produces a number of typos, particularly when irregular fonts are used, like in footnotes. Hebrew can also be a problem. Nonetheless, the overall technology remains wonderful, and having spent numerous hours this past week going through the archives online, I can testify to the blessings of digitalization, and I think that this will be a wonderful service to both the academic and broader communities.

I should also note that all of Rav Soloveitchik's writings that were first published in Tradition will be available for free to the wider public. (For copyright reasons, The Lonely Man of Faith will be available in a read-only format).

Especially given access to 50 years of Tradition, we think that our subscription prices are pretty reasonable. You can check them out here.

Another new and popular phenomenon common to magazines, but not to journals, involves special online-only features on the website. Our new books of interest section has already begun and is in the process of being expanded, and we hope in the next months to have blogs and other online-only features, all of which will be available for free to the wider public. Obviously, these changes also cost money, and we have worked to procure grants for the archives scanning (over 1300 articles!).

Anyone interested in sponsoring or dedicating other features of TraditionOnline should please contact me.

When these changes go into effect, we plan to explore online advertising, which we hope will create revenue to keep subscription costs down or even reduce them. Of course, we want to make sure that all ads are appropriate for our site, and that our intellectual and religious integrity is not compromised by any of our financial affiliations. That is why we have, for now, elected not to use Google ads.

In other words, I think within its resources, Tradition is doing a thoughtful job of balancing its agenda, different audiences, and new technology. If at some point we can make Tradition available for free online, we will do it. We continue to explore different options, seeking to spread our articles to as broad of an audience as possible. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have further questions or suggestions.

On a separate but related note, another element of the online world is that it expands the opportunities of different people to be involved with the journal. TraditionOnline is looking for limited number of qualified volunteers to assist with certain editorial elements of our expanding online presence. If you are interested, please be in touch with me.

Shlomo (Myles) Brody
Online Editor, Tradition

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