A lament for a religion-friendly City Section

nytcover_noborderAnyone who respects good religion coverage in the mainstream media has to shed a tear for the fast-disappearing City Section of the New York Times, which is down to eight pages today and will soon vanish both on paper and on line. The heart of the section, which circulates only in the New York area, are the Neighborhood Reports that cover events, people and places not normally covered in a big city newspaper. The longtime editor of the City Section, Connie Rosenblum, understands the importance faith plays in the life of New York and rarely publishes without a solid religion piece. Today's offering is a story about the Actors' Temple, in Manhattan's Theater District. Here are the first few graphs:

A RECENT Saturday morning service at the Actors' Temple, a synagogue on West 47th Street near Ninth Avenue, proceeded in the customary way, with the dozen, mostly older congregants attentively listening to the rabbi, Jill Hausman, who chanted Hebrew verses in a rich, clear soprano.

But after the service, the proceedings turned less traditional, with members of the congregation rearranging the seats into rows beside a piano. Some people left, others arrived, and true to the temple's name, they began rehearsal, librettos in hand, for a theatrical cantata on the history of the American Jew.

City Section stories, like this one, rarely go on for more than 500 words. They don't aspire to be comprehensive or reach well beyond the story at hand. But there is often a graph or two of history and context, like this interfaith star-studded observation:

Its fame may be eclipsed by the Actors' Chapel, a Roman Catholic church a few blocks away that was attended by Gregory Peck and Bob Hope, among others. But from the 1940s to the early 1960s, the temple, formally known as Congregation Ezrath Israel, flourished, drawing worshipers like Milton Berle, Joe Louis, Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winters, Jack Benny, Al Jolson and two of the Three Stooges.

The story is about the sagging fortunes of the temple, which is forever staving off threats of closure. "We're in survival mode," Daniel Feld, the temple president, is quoted as saying.

The Times founded the City Section as a stand alone Sunday supplement in 1993 as part of a realization that it could not be both a national newspaper and a local newspaper without having a special place for local coverage. It also realized that there was an untapped market of neighborhood advertisers who could not afford their national rates. The overhead was low since nearly all the writers worked on a freelance basis.

The formula worked for a long time but now the new newspaper realities have caught up with the City Section. Aside from Craig's List and local blogs, the Times itself has gone into competition with the City Section with its own neighborhood internet coverage, the Local. Judging from comments on this and other blogs, the City Section has a loyal readership that follows it religiously and will miss it. Perhaps Rabbi Hausman was offering a tribute to both her temple and the City Section when she said:

"It is such a wonderful place," she said of the temple, opening the ark to reveal 13 gilded scrolls. "An institution. It holds the energy of all those people who once worshiped here."

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