Behind the Lines: This is a business

Like doctors or social workers, journalists do have a special responsibility and set of ethics that transcends mere professional and financial rules.

By
July 26, 2007 19:13
Behind the Lines: This is a business

journalist 88. (photo credit: )

 
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My favorite recurring piece of wisdom from The Sopranos is the line Tony says every two or three chapters when he tries to restore some order to his fractious crew: "This is a business." Sometimes I wish we could take that sentence and put it in big bold letters above the masthead of every newspaper. It's a fact of life that we tend so often to overlook. As journalists we like to think of ourselves as filling a special mission for the benefit of society, the nation and mankind as a whole, answering to a more exalted set of ideals than the rest of the money-grubbing plebs. But the reality is that just as we wouldn't be able to carry on writing and reporting without a monthly paycheck to feed our families, the owners and shareholders of newspapers have every right to expect a decent return on their investment. Not that a newspaper is a regular business. Like doctors or social workers, journalists do have a special responsibility and set of ethics that transcends mere professional and financial rules. Nor is the bottom line on the balance sheet the only consideration motivating most press barons. Not for nothing are many investors and tycoons wary of newspapers, keeping well away from involvement in a tricky market. If profit is the sole motivator, then real estate, hi-tech, the money markets and just about every other field of investment offer better chances of making a killing. And besides, a newspaper can get you in trouble with politicians and potential business partners enraged with something one of your journalists might have found out on them. As a result, few newspaper owners are in it just for the money. They do it because they believe their newspaper is filling a crucial role in informing the public and adding a unique voice to the national debate. Some of them enjoy the social standing and notoriety that comes with an asset that isn't just another building project; others want the influence and access for other personal or business purposes. And there are, of course, those who are born into newspaper dynasties and have inherited a sense of responsibility. None of these factors can be translated into financial figures and, as a result, newspapers often do things that defy business logic. Controversial reports and opinions are published even though they will almost certainly cause readers to cancel subscriptions and chase away advertisers. Money-losing newspapers are often kept alive by their owners long after other businesses would have been shut down. But even the rare owners whose vast personal fortunes and diverse business empires allow them to own titles that will never turn a profit cannot totally disregard the forces of the market. The most idealistic owner, unafraid of angering the rich and powerful and prepared to give his (it is almost always a man) journalists full editorial freedom, has to combine altruistic motives with some kind of coherent business plan. The most civic-minded media families have been forced to sell out or close down. Sections and feature pages that fail to attract advertising are cancelled, and positions that constantly anger a large majority of the readership are untenable. Ultimately, a newspaper that cannot attract a sufficient number of readers and advertisers to remain financially viable will become irrelevant, even if it does have a benefactor prepared to continue bankrolling it. Decades ago, the Israeli media was at least partly dominated by daily newspapers belonging to the various political parties, but they gradually died out as a new generation of readers, even those who were party members, preferred the more diverse offerings of the privately-owned papers. Today the only party-owned papers are those of the haredi and Arab communities, with no influence on the mainstream. In the end, it's the personal and often daily call of every newspaper owner how to combine idealism and personal beliefs with sound business practices. These decisions range from subverting and corrupting journalistic ethics in the service of his bank account to risking bankruptcy over matters of principle. Serious news organizations keep the business and editorial sides of the operation as separate as possible; their interests by definition have to clash. At the top of the pyramid, the publisher's challenge is to maintain a correct balance between the two. NEXT WEEK, a new newspaper is to be launched that is about to totally disregard this balance. Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) is owned by Sheldon Adelson, the richest Jew in the world and, according to Forbes' billionaires list, the sixth richest man in the world with a fortune estimated at $27 billion. There is no financial logic in this venture; it plays no part in Adelson's empire which is built on mega-casinos and hotels in Las Vegas and the Far East. According to reports, he is planning to invest $180 million in the paper over the next few years, and there is absolutely no way that he will ever see this money again. Yisrael Hayom is to be a freesheet, a format that has proved profitable in a many countries, but save for the fact that the paper will be given away for free, it has nothing in common with the others. Freesheets make money by keeping costs at a minimum, recouping the income lost by not charging readers by employing a skeleton staff of journalists, often buying news content from agencies or other newspapers and saving on logistics by distributing through the metropolitan mass transportation system, hence their generic name, Metro papers. They have very little original content, no news agenda, never break real stories and are not quoted by other news outlets. Their sole aim is to capture the commuters' attention for a few minutes, enabling them to sell advertising space, which is the sole source of income. But Yisrael Hayom has recruited a substantial team of journalists, including reporters to cover all major and regional beats, commentators and critics. The paper, which will printed more than 300,000 copies, is to be distributed by a number of methods, but mainly to private mailboxes, which will necessitate employing hundreds of distributors around the country. In other words, editorial, printing and distribution costs will be similar to those of a regular newspaper, while income will be whatever the newcomer to the cutthroat advertising market can carve out for itself. Somewhere there must be a business plan, but it probably can only be read through rose-tinted spectacles. Adelson is nobody's fool; he obviously understands what he's getting into, and although he can afford to lose a couple of million, that's not the way he made his billions. So what's in it for him? In the past, there have been reports that Adelson wants to secure the elusive first license to open a casino here. That might be true, but I don't believe this will be a pro-gambling paper. Powerful political, religious and social concerns are all against opening a casino in the Holy Land and anyway, even if a gambling license were in his grasp, a casino here would be small beer compared to Adelson's palaces in Vegas and Macao. No, Adelson is not interested in Israel as a business prospect, he is genuinely concerned for the future of the nation and the hundreds of millions he gives to a wide range of philanthropic causes, while keeping a relatively low profile proves that. So why a newspaper? Some of Adelson's associates have talked about how he feels that the Israeli media is too closed and one-sided and that his paper will open up the debate. The mission statement released this week contained various meaningless promises: The new paper will be "clear and without prejudice" and embody qualities such as "trustworthiness," "transparency," "fairness" and "responsibility." All this is totally admirable, but I have yet to see a newspaper that promised any less. It hardly seems sufficient reason for Adelson to waste his time. Everything indicates that Adelson is much more focused and that his main motive is to create an influential media platform to back Binyamin Netanyahu's campaign to regain the country's leadership. The two are known to be very close, according to some accounts in daily contact. Yisrael Hayom's editor-in-chief, Amos Regev, is a staunch Bibi supporter, and Nathan Eshel, a central figure in its management, is a member of Netanyahu's small circle of advisers. The paper's political correspondents have already met with Netanyahu, in what might have been a standard briefing but would seem to be a bit more than that, and a senior Likud MK said recently, "Soon we're going to have our own paper." Yisrael Hayom's editors have privately denied the Netanyahu connection (none have agreed to be interviewed). At least one point in their favor in this has been the fact that in addition to the mainly unknown reporters recruited so far, they have also signed up a few prominent writers, such as veteran journalist Dan Margalit, who will be the star columnist; Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror, the military analyst; Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha'arei Mishpat Law College, as legal commentator; and former Haaretz Knesset correspondent Gidon Alon will be filling the same position. None of these respected figures will be expected to toe a party line or will agree to being censored in any way. That doesn't mean the entire staff will be allowed journalistic freedom; the big names could be just window-dressing for the real purpose. Of course there's nothing wrong with that. If Adelson believes Netanyahu is the only leader who can steer Israel through the perilous straits ahead, he is perfectly justified in financing a newspaper to back him, and it will be good for local journalism and democracy to have another powerful daily paper, especially one with a right-of-center agenda to create some balance. But there are still a number of important questions that need to be addressed. The most respected newspapers in the world have their own agendas and on the eve of elections endorse candidates. But while being identified with a certain position, they remain independent enough to question their preferred candidate and criticize his mistakes. Will Yisrael Hayom be capable of calling Netanyahu out when he makes inevitable mistakes as leader of the opposition and perhaps one day prime minister? And does the new paper have a long-term agenda? What will happen after Netanyahu sooner or later leaves politics? Will it simply close down, leaving hundreds of employees in the lurch, or will Adelson hold auditions for a new champion, with politicians waiting in line to receive his blessing? Neither alternative is very appealing. A real newspaper cannot remain beholden to a single candidate for any length of time. Will journalists who don't believe that Netanyahu is the best leader since Churchill be able to work for Yisrael Hayom while preserving their professional integrity? If Yisrael Hayom succeeds in reaching hundreds of thousands daily, Sheldon Adelson, a US citizen, will automatically become one of the most powerful figures in the country. Don't we have a right to know a bit more about him and his intentions before that happens? The irony of media-owners who refuse to give interviews is not a new one. Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, has never been interviewed, but at least Yediot has been around for more than six decades and is a known quantity. Adelson is about to buy himself a significant chunk of influence, perhaps even the position of kingmaker, at the very least the public should be told what he plans to do with it. anshel@ejemm.com

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