‘There are two things people remain faithful to,” a journalism lecturer once told my class at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The first is their newspaper and the second is their toothpaste.

Once you’re used to a certain paper and a certain brand of toothpaste, you stick with them.”

That was many, many years ago. We were discussing the image of Maariv – then the country’s most widely circulated daily, today a name splashed on the banners of staff as they protest the mass dismissals that seem to be an inevitable part of the sale of the paper and the very real threat to their compensation and pensions.

Perhaps tastes do change or, for all I know, the bad smell that’s proverbially getting up my nose is coming from people who didn’t so much switch their toothpaste as stop using it altogether, just as they abandoned their morning reading habits.

It is extremely sobering to hear predictions that your labor of love could die out before you reach pension age. Maariv is not alone in facing a radical change, if not extinction; Haaretz, too, is bracing for massive layoffs.

And the fact that Channel 10 is also fighting the threat that someone will pull the plug while the Israel Broadcasting Authority is struggling with cuts and a reform that refuses to be born suggests that it’s not only the print media that is suffering a crisis.

Of course, working in Israel it’s clear that one thing we don’t lack is news. Maariv’s struggle, for example, is not a front-page story when a soldier is killed in an attack on the southern border; Syria, to the North, is in a state of civil war; the leader of a nearly nuclear Iran is invited (yet again) to address the UN; Islamists threaten targets in global jihad; and anti-Semitic motifs – against circumcision, kashrut and even wearing kippot – make a fashionable comeback in Europe.

The very idea of a “front-page story” is hard to kill. A newspaper, as opposed to a blog or website, is defined by what it chooses to put on its first page. It inherently recognizes that not all news is equally important.

There are headlines. And behind headlines should be items of substance.

Sadly, a free press and free enterprise don’t always coexist peacefully: In democratic countries, it is not the politicians who dictate content but businessmen and industrialists with their own interests who can often have a word about what does (and equally seriously what doesn’t) get published.

In this sense, the talk of a threat to democracy with Maariv’s likely transfer from the control of Nochi Dankner to Shlomo Ben-Tzvi seems overkill – Ben- Tzvi, who already owns the weekly Makor Rishon, is a businessman whose interests are known as are his political leanings. There is less to fear from that, than, say, the huge commercial ties that lie behind Yediot Aharonot’s empire. If a paper openly supports one party over another, it is a sign of democracy, not a failing, as long as the reader knows to interpret the stories with that affiliation in mind. Sheldon Adelson has as much right to promote a pro-Netanyahu line in his Israel HaYom freebie as Yediot and Haaretz have to put the prime minister down. In fact, there is something inherently democratic in having a decent free paper; woe betide the society in which only the rich have access to verified sources of news.

Incidentally, the Jerusalem Association of Journalists is establishing a practical school of journalism together with Hadassah College because it feels there will always be a need for trained members of the profession, even in these rapidly changing times. Journalistic instincts are something you’re either born with or you’re not, but there are still many tricks of the trade – or vocation – that can be learned and there is no end to ethical dilemmas and legal issues that need to be addressed. As frightening as the thought that the independent press might fail is the idea that a younger generation won’t know what true journalism involves.

(Hint: It does not mean being first to post a story on Facebook without checking a single fact or speaking to any independent source.) Obviously, the advent of the Internet heralded a change in the profession, from which there can be no going back. The question is: How do we go ahead? It is a question vigorously disputed in newsrooms and publishers’ offices. There is no one answer: In general, the journalists don’t like being behind pay-walls while owners, who need to find a way of bringing in money (which pays the journalists’ wages, as well as their own salaries), have fewer problems with the idea of people paying for content.

At the root of the matter lies the prickly fact that newspapers are not highly profitable businesses: just as journalists go into the job for fame rather than fortune, so the owners need to keep in mind that this is more a sacred cow than a cash cow.

The Jerusalem Post is adapting by entering new niche markets, for example, with publications teaching English to the general public as well as the ultra-Orthodox community (via the newly launched Kosher English magazine) and teaching Hebrew to English- and French-speakers (the Ivrit monthly).

Part of the solution lies in realizing the possible benefits offered in the era of the World Wide Web (such as worldwide audiences and advertisers). There are also technological possibilities to combine news, visuals and archive material that didn’t exist when I sat in that Hebrew University classroom debating the future of the profession (at a time when it was never called an “industry”).

Will journalism disappear? I doubt it. We can reinvent journalism but not the news. There will always be a need for a credible source of information and not just the recycled stories that trend on Facebook. There is a sense of accountability and responsibility that comes with the job, and there is also a depth to proper reporting that cannot be replicated in a 40-character Tweet.

Television didn’t kill radio; YouTube hasn’t put an end to the movie industry. People need newspapers – whether in electronic form or in the print version.

Even today, there is a certain magic to producing a paper that actually smells of ink. I call it “the personal touch.” The Jerusalem Post is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year; The International Jerusalem Post, which I edit, turned 53 this month. Judging by the letters and e-mails I receive, nothing beats the feel of a newspaper that can be picked up and put down and can be read over coffee in the kitchen, in an armchair in the living room, or in that little room where you can read in private. For religious Jewish readers, too, print papers retain the advantage of being accessible on Shabbat when they don’t use computers or electronic equipment.

In just over a year, The International Jerusalem Post shared the joy of someone we dubbed our “Reader of the Century” – a doctor in Stanford, California, celebrating his 100th birthday; and of a boy in Britain who told us he was keeping a copy of the paper from the week of his bar mitzva; and a family in Australia that keeps editions to mark the births of their children.

We might be living in the age of the Internet, but there is obviously a place in people’s lives, and homes, for something tangible and trusted.

The writer is editor of
The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com

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