‘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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.