'Metro' to join series of new, free dailies, amid questions of ownership and influence

By NOACH LAWRENCE
August 4, 2007 22:59

 
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A new free afternoon Hebrew daily newspaper named Metro is to premiere this week, trying to carve out a place in a Hebrew journalism world dominated by the paid morning papers Yediot Aharonot, Ma'ariv and Haaretz. "While Yediot Aharonot is writing about what happened yesterday, we are writing about what happened today," said one source high up at Metro. "If there is a murder or a political agreement in the morning, we will be the first who can write about it." Metro will go to press at noon and distribute issues between 2 and 5 p.m, he said. The paper joins several new free Hebrew dailies in a trend that has many praising Israeli journalism's opening to new voices, while wondering how long such papers can survive, what sway they may ultimately hold in society, and what the implications are of new and old voices alike being bankrolled by one or two major owners per paper. Metro is owned by Dudi Weissman, who also controls the Blue Square supermarket giant and the Dor Alon energy firm, and Eli Azur, who also owns The Jerusalem Post. Content from Post staffers will appear in Metro. Last Monday saw the launch of Yisrael Hayom, a free daily financed by Sheldon Adelson, the American Jewish casino mogul who is close to Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, sources said. Another free daily is due soon from Arnon Mozes, publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily. Yediot Aharonot officials declined to comment for this article. The first mass Israel freesheet, Yisraeli, launched in 2006 and now has a daily circulation of about 180,000. "Ownership has a clear impact on what you're writing in your newspaper," said Prof. Eli Pollak, chairman of Israel's Media Watch, a watchdog group. An owner's political connections, financial interests and ideological sympathies often trickle down to - or worse, are forced on - the entire paper, Pollak said. Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, cited a 1999 study that found that Ma'ariv often gave greater coverage to products from companies owned by Ma'ariv's parent company. In contrast, the study found that Yediot Aharonot frequently devoted less coverage to firms owned by its parent company. In the starkest example, Yediot Aharonot gave 30 percent more coverage to products from the Hed Artzi record label than to those from its own parent company's label, NMC records. Ma'ariv, which owns Hed Artzi, gave it 100% more coverage than it did to NMC. Lehman-Wilzig suggested as a possible explanation that while the Mozes family, which has owned Yediot Aharonot for 60 years, has a "culture of journalism," the Nimrodi family bought Ma'ariv "after being businessmen in the general economy" and so may not feel "that news is a different kind of economic property." Thus, the Nimrodis might be more likely to "use it as any other [asset] - to make as much money as possible," Lehman-Wilzig said. Because "the reader will never know what lies behind editorial choices," Lehman-Wilzig said, a "huge opportunity" existed "among conglomerates to push products under full camouflage of objective news." Metro, too, may potentially exhibit this phenomenon, Lehman-Wilzig said. "The danger here is not that they [Dor Alon, Weissman's energy group] are going to get cheaper ads," he said. "A reader will see an ad and understand it's an ad. The danger is if there are more news items about Alon, and readers say: 'Alon must be doing great stuff, because they're in the paper every day!'" Freesheets, by leaning on advertisement money rather than on sales to readers, can pose an additional problem. "When you have a good advertiser, you're not going to go ahead and criticize him," Pollak said. Experts described another concern: a convergence not only of news and economic interest, but also of news and political agenda. "It's not that the editor is going to distort the news," Pollak said. But owner influence may "affect the topics you choose, the page on which you put them, the headline you give them and the pictures you present." Pollak said the Adelson-Netanyahu connection might become a "real problem" as Yisrael Hayom sought a market foothold. He expressed particular concern for the fact that Netanyahu had called for Israel to legalize gambling, and that Adelson, who made his fortune in casinos, had pushed for the same thing. Like all newspapers, Metro could be prone to this fault as well, Pollak added. "They all have political connections," he said of newspaper owners. Still, some media experts, while conceding that owner and advertiser influence may be inextricably part of modern journalism, rejoice that new sets of influences may broaden the national debate. "I welcome the possibility of opening Israel up to a free press, where you have more than one opinion," said Yisrael Medad, who also works at Israel's Media Watch, as vice-chairman. Lehman-Wilzig agrees. "From a democratic perspective, it's good that different voices are being heard. There's no doubt that the more opinions can be heard, the better the situation can be." He cited the decline from "12 or 14 dailies when the country started out" to significantly fewer daily papers today. At present, Yediot Aharonot alone accounts for about half of all Hebrew dailies' sales. Ma'ariv and Haaretz together represent almost all the rest of the market, with market shares of about 25% and 15%, respectively. Medad said that while many Israeli papers viewed Middle East politics through the "prism" of actions that Israel could take, such as relinquishing territory, few viewed events in the region through the lens of "internal developments" in the Arab world, such as "what's happening in Jordan and Syria" and clashes "between Sunnis and Shi'ities... that have nothing to do with whether Israel keeps this or that territory." Free dailies are most often distributed in bus and train stations. Yisrael Hayom has adopted the additional, unusual tactic of distributing directly to private mailboxes, sources said. Metro has a circulation target of 250,000 copies per day. Yisrael Hayom and Mozes's paper will each aim to print 300,000 issues daily, sources have said. If the three new freesheets reach those goals, they and Yisraeli combined would lead the circulation of free newspapers to more than one million issues per day. These numbers would significantly surpass those of the paid dailies, whose combined circulation was 750,000 in 2006. Lehman-Wilzig said it was unlikely that all three new free dailies would still exist in a year. "Haaretz and Yediot will definitely be around," but since "Ma'ariv has been hemorrhaging money for several years," the new papers "certainly won't help Ma'ariv," he added. "Whether Ma'ariv will fall, I have my doubts, but it will probably [sell]... for a lot less." "The only danger is if the free papers significantly weaken the financial security of a paper like Haaretz or Ma'ariv. If one of those two voices goes, especially Haaretz, it would be a severe loss to Israeli democracy," he said. Lehman-Wilzig discussed the only limit on the free papers' lifespan: "The people who own them have deep pockets. How deep are they willing to go?" As the free papers battle not only the established papers but also each other, Metro officials said their afternoon release schedule, shared only by the financial daily Globes, provided them a niche. "We are not competing with anyone," one Metro official said. The source also cited the journalistic benefits of afternoon distribution. "We bring all the news from midnight until midday to the readers," he said. Other than Globes, "there is no other afternoon newspaper in Israel right now," so "we think it's a good idea to make one," he said. The source conceded that the Internet had largely made afternoon papers obsolete, outdoing their attempts to be up-to-the-minute. However, he added, "Don't forget that not everyone can see the Internet at work." Similar marketing concerns were the original reason why Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv started off as afternoon papers - and then changed to their present morning publication times. Originally, Yediot Aharonot, founded in 1939, and Ma'ariv, begun in 1948, were distributed in the evening while party newspapers, such as Davar and Al-Hamishmar, published in the morning, Medad said. Again, this system offered journalistic as well as marketing benefits. "People bought two newspapers," Medad said. "They got their party news in the morning, and in the afternoon bought a paper to see what else was happening." In the mid-'70s, as Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv sensed the weakening of the party papers - of which only the Haredi papers continue to publish daily - they saw that "the market was opening" and "wanted to compete," Medad said. Lehman-Wilzig, however, doubted that afternoon journalism could make a large-scale comeback. "Most people want a morning newspaper," he said. "Because there are so many... it's a smart move... if you have a new paper, to put it in the niche of the afternoon." He also wondered how much power the free papers ultimately could wield. "It's hard to be influential," he said, "when one is given a maximum of 250-word bite-size articles," and when "people who are reading it" are "just sitting on the train with noise around [them]," able to "concentrate on short news items but not on any kind of serious commentary." Sources at Metro and Yisrael Hayom remain tight-lipped about these and other challenges, with Yisrael Hayom officials going so far as to require that its reporters refrain from speaking publicly about the paper.•

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