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So What Do You Do, Josh Neuman?
The erstwhile philosopher now running Heeb magazine, the pub designed for snarky, hipster, young Jews, is trying to turn the thing into a viable business.- April 20, 2004
Heeb magazine—the self-dubbed "New Jew Review"—has been getting mounds of press since well before its launch two years ago. After all, when a magazine aiming to capture a younger, hipper, Jewish audience announces its plan to appropriate a long-standing anti-Semitic slur as its new, look-how-cool-we-are name, there are bound to be some ruffled feathers. Predictably, organizations like the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith were upset. Fortunately, major Jewish donors like Steven Spielberg and Charles Bronfman were not; a Jewish social-entrepreneurship venture fund they both support happily gave Heeb $60,000 to get started. Two years later, this quarterly mag put out its fifth issue—OK, not so much quarterly, but who's counting—and its first under a new editor, the onetime wannabe philosophy professor Josh Neuman. Neuman spoke to mediabistro.com last week from his apartment-slash-office in lower Manhattan, talking about his magazine, its business, and the tough job of helping young Jews break into the media business.
Birthdate: March 1972
Hometown: Paramus, New Jersey
First section of the Sunday Times: "I'm sort of strange and obsessive compulsive, and I go through and throw out the sections I don't read before looking at the ones that I do, so: Automobiles. The first one I actually read is the magazine."
Let's start, as they say, in the beginning. Give me the quick version of Heeb's creation.
Heeb was started with a grant from the Joshua Venture Fellowship, which Jennifer Bleyer, the original editor, received as a young Jewish entrepreneur. She put that towards starting a magazine. We launched in January 2002 to great fanfare and a big media explosion; since then we have put out five issues, with a sixth on the way in June. It's our first theme issue. We have a readership now of approximately 100,000, with 5,000 subscribers and a distribution of 20,000. We're distributed nationally.
Why did Bleyer decide to do this, that there was a need for this magazine?
We were looking around the newsstand, and there was a magazine addressing every imaginable ethnic demographic but nothing for young Jews. There were some Jewish publications, but none of them had the snarky, urban voice of the magazines that we were interested in, so we decided to make one ourselves.
That urban-snarky part: I wonder sometimes if Heeb isn't all that different from all the other downtown, hipstery mags.
Exactly. I think we differ from the Fader or Vice or Tokion in that, yeah, you might find something from Princess Superstar, or you might find Sarah Silverman writing a similar piece in Vice to the one she did for us, or you might see someone deconstructing the legacy of Neil Diamond, like we did, in another one of these publications. But I think where we differ is our borscht-belt schtickiness. It's a different kind of irreverence—it's an irreverence that has a bite as well. And I think we have a more discernable focus on politics than the magazines that I've mentioned. I like to call it Groucho Marxism. That sums up our editorial mission.
Of the things write about, is the sole criterion that it involve Jews?
Our mission statement says that we're interested in the inadvertently Jewish, the tangentially Jewish, the Jewish by side glance. It's easy to point out what's Jewish about klezmer, or pastrami sandwiches, or the 2nd Avenue Deli, but it's not so easy to point out what's Jewish about famine in Africa or Dolly Parton or something completely unconnected.
What we're looking for is something like High Times, where not every article is explicitly addressing weed, or like Thrasher, where not every article is about skateboards. I'm a little put off when someone pulls something out of our magazine and says, "I don't understand. What's Jewish about that?" Sometimes there's an overt connection, sometimes there isn't, but the common denominator is what we feel our readership—which is disproportionately Jews in their 20s, 30s, urban, left-leaning, non-affiliated with an organized Jewish movement—is interested in.
How much of the audience is not Jewish?
Very small, but it's growing
Is that a goal, to be more ecumenical in the audience?
No, it's not a huge goal. It's never going to be our core readership, it's never going to be a core demographic. Right now we just have our first readership stats. It's a very small percentage, it's right around 10 percent. I was in L.A. last week working with the guy who's working on some ancillary Heeb film and TV projects—
Because we all know Jews are underrepresented in film and TV.
Yeah, it's like breaking the color barrier in baseball. But we were driving down Sunset and I saw this Rastafarian guy wearing an "Honorary Heeb" t-shirt. It sort of happens dialectically. The more focused you are on your core readership, the more that your editorial captures the essence of a demographic, then the more people outside that demographic want to somehow be a part of it. So the content of the magazine will stay focused on our left-leaning, disproportionately queer, I would say, non-affiliated demographic. When you really manage to tap into that fanatic Heeb reader outside the demographic, like grandparents who are writing to us, or Irish people who are writing to us and saying that they have always dated Jews, or people in Kansas, or a kid that found Heeb in a mall in Houston—it's really overwhelming.
So talk about the business part of it. You launched two years ago as a quarterly, and since then you've only had five issues, which doesn't make one think business is booming. But now you're talking about reader surveys and brand expansion, which makes it sound much more professional and developed. What's going on?
We're incredibly encouraged by what's been happening on the business side. I've been the publisher of the magazine since February 2003. I just took over as editor in August and since then, it's been my goal to make the Heeb brand more visible given all of our limitations, the challenge of advertising and distribution and lack of frequency that we had at that point. And ads are still a challenge. But I'd say since October of '03 our sales have been up every month. I thought we could make the brand more visible with these ancillary projects. We started a storytelling series that is traveling around the country. We made the website more of a destination than a calling card, we've got content on it and games and a blog, and we've started working on a book deal with St. Martin's Press. These ancillary projects do have solid business plans and help to support and spread the gospel. I also started looking at advertising in different ways, like co-sponsoring film festivals or book tours or other release parties. We don't have money to advertise, so these cross-promotional opportunities mean a great deal to us. They're a great way for us to extend our readership. We're confident that if we can get the magazine into the hands of the demographic that they'll like it and they'll subscribe.
I've noticed credits in the last few issues that you are getting grants from UJA-Federation. How significant is that money, and how do you keep attracting these old-school conservative donors who theoretically wouldn't be into the young irreverent message?
Historically they have liked the results. We've reached an audience that they can't reach on their own. And now the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies are supporting our storytelling series, which is going to be in New York City in May and in San Francisco in June. Then we're going to L.A. and Seattle and Atlanta. Part of my goal is to turn this into a business, to wean us off of this support, and we've been doing it. Still, 50 percent of our revenue is coming from grants, but the idea is to create a business.
Why did Jennifer Bleyer hand the editorial reins over to you?
It's tiring to do this, and she needed to get away for a while. It's really hard to run an independent magazine. I've worked 120 hours a week since August, I haven't had a day off, my trip to L.A., which was semi-business last month, was the first time I've been out of New York since August. It's a grueling, grueling process. It's an all-volunteer staff
Not including myself. But it presents big challenges. My apartment doubles as the magazine's office. I have interns sitting across from me entering subscriptions as I speak. Until recently we've been silk screening t-shirts on the floor of my apartment. We're schlepping the magazines to the post office. Jen's doing a grad program in journalism, working on her own journalistic pursuits right now. I can't do this forever, either, but right now I have megalomaniacal dreams about Heeb. Heeb TV, Heeb: The Movie, and the Heeb skyscraper in Times Square. But right now it's very difficult.
Which is sort of funny, coming from you: Your background is not as a business guy. You have a master's from the Harvard Divinity School.
I think it's impacted my experience. I think there is a line to be drawn. I'm aware this is commerce. I've always loved magazines, but I never mistook my magazine for Hegel or Kierkegaard or Marcus Aurelius. What interests me about magazines is the intersection of ideas and commerce, the way our magazine performs something subversive in the marketplace. Watching people experience Heeb at the newsstand, it's this triangular experience. They look at the image, then they look at the word Heeb, and then there's just this private moment. And that private moment is precious because it's not an, "Oooh, that's cool," and it's not an, "Ugh, that's awful." It's something like, "What the hell is that? Could this really be here, could this be happening?" So that's really of interest to me.
It's not my background. I thought I was going to be a philosophy professor, and I taught for five years at NYU. But marketing is very philosophical to me. The idea of how to trigger and convey what this very complicated, very nuanced publication—that we're constantly trying to create in text and imagery, trying to redefine Jewish experience and Jewish iconography—how that gets conveyed in a focused and meaningful way to someone who is strolling around Barnes & Noble or someone whose friend sends them a link to heebmagazine.com.
"Trying to redefine the Jewish experience": So the role the old Forward played for Jewish immigrants 100 years ago—for my great-grandparents—is the role Heeb is playing for Jewish 20-somethings—for me—today?
I hope. I would be really happy if that's what we were doing now. Sometimes the content in the English Forward and our pages overlap. I think what really distinguishes us is our voice, but the Forward has been great to us. When the Anti-Defamation League was picking on us, the Forward stood up for us.
Well, first, that's what the ADL does, and, second, you must have been counting on the ADL's objections on some level. You named the thing "Heeb," the ADL complained, and then suddenly everyone was writing articles on this little, not-yet-launched magazine.
I think if Jen had made a schlocky magazine that would have gotten old very quickly. I almost wish the name wasn't Heeb, but it does express something wrought with tension and thoroughly out and postmodern and reflective of our generation. But it does get tedious when people keep asking us questions about the name of the magazine when frankly, there's more to get riled up about.
Weren't you counting on more response from the ADL—which you got—with the Passion photo spread, pegged to the Mel Gibson movie, you did in the last issue?
I didn't think the ADL necessarily.
Yeah, where's the Catholic League when you need it?
I have a feeling that the two were in cahoots on this one. And this is a scoop: The Catholic League asked for a copy before release, so I know they were aware of this. I have a feeling that Abe Foxman at the ADL was displacing his anxiety about another offensive magazine—ahem, Cargo [which is edited by Ariel Foxman, the ADL chief's son]. The things that they pointed out were strange. I expected people to be up in arms and to demand retractions. But I thought we did a good job contextualizing that this was a reaction to Mel Gibson and not to Christianity. It truly was. It was grounded in a history that Gibson's movie lacked. I wanted to see how many people would be riled to see Jesus wearing the Talis, and that was the main objection by Susan Blond, our publicist who quit in protest.
When's the next issue?
Is there more controversy we can look forward to in that one?
It's our first theme issue. The theme is guilt.
Great. Just what we need more of.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.
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