The Israeli media is in chaos, its major organs shedding jobs as if so many
leaves falling from trees. Haaretz (daily circulation: 65,000), the left-leaning
“New York Times” of Israel, and the most critical of Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu’s policies, has gone through labor turbulence as employees held a
one-day warning strike on October 3.
Another newspaper in grave financial
trouble is the country’s third largest, the 64-year-old Maariv with a daily
circulation of 160,000. The current proprietor, cash-strapped business tycoon
Nochi Dankner, agreed to sell the paper to rival publisher and West Bank settler
Shlomo Ben-Tzvi in September for 85 million shekels ($21 million), a move that
will see the struggling newspaper likely dismiss 1,600 of its 2,000 employees.
Maariv has lost half its readers in the past decade, a significant cause of its
Worried about large layoffs and losing severance pay,
hundreds of Maariv employees demonstrated in Tel Aviv in mid-September, even
burning tires and blocking roads. As of October 4, management had offered the
employees a chance to purchase the newspaper themselves.
protest at Haaretz in September was followed on October 3 by a one-day warning
strike, which brought both the newspaper and its Internet editions to a
standstill. Haaretz employees have taken as their battle cry: “There is no paper
without journalists.” The 94-year-old newspaper, Israel’s oldest, has been
having cash problems for years, leading owner Amos Schocken to sell off
percentages of the organization piecemeal.
Adding to the Israeli media’s
woes is the close to failing eight-year-old Channel 10, one of two private
television stations, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, having racked
up an $11 million debt. American businessman Ron Lauder appears ready to step in
to save the crippled channel, but that solution may be only
Nor has long-time circulation leader Yedioth Ahronoth escaped
the wave of media layoffs. The newspaper is about to take streamlining measures,
including the firing of dozens of journalists, some of them senior
correspondents and editors.
The chaos has many journalists concerned
about whether they will be able to hold on to their jobs for much longer, a
concern that was alien to the profession for decades when the local media was
sacrosanct and largely free of labor difficulties.
Things have indeed
changed. The chaos is reaching a crescendo now in no small part due to the
digital revolution that has resulted in readers, in particular the younger ones,
migrating to online news sites.
The other factor has been the surprise
success of free mass tabloid Israel Hayom
(Israel Today), funded by American
Jewish billionaire and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, with a daily circulation of
375,000. Despite Adelson’s mild denials that the newspaper’s ambition is to
reelect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Hayom
right-wing and pro-Netanyahu.
Speaking in 2009, Adelson said, “I started
the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and
the views. That’s all. It is not ‘Bibi-ton.’” (This is a reference to the term
used to suggest that Netanyahu and Israel Hayom
are inextricably linked, based
on Netanyahu’s nickname “Bibi” and the Hebrew word iton for newspaper.)
Employing a seemingly suicidal business model, Israel Hayom
has done what its
predecessors could only have dreamed of doing. Until 2007, when the newspaper
was founded, free publications distributed outside supermarkets, at train
stations and on street corners were routinely thrown in the trash unread. But
has claimed in the past year the largest circulation of any Israeli
newspaper, a remarkable accomplishment.
Adelson, worth $7 billion, has
injected $70 million into the free tabloid.
The sight of distributors
dressed in red overalls handing out Israel Hayom
has become a familiar part of
the landscape. Selling ads on the cheap, digging deeply into Adelson’s pockets,
the newspaper’s employees tear away at the economic viability of the other
newspaper giants. To those giants, Israel Hayom
offers no apologies. “The
readers prefer us and we thank them,” Israel Hayom
officials said in a statement
To Steve Leibowitz, head of the Israel Broadcasting
Authority’s English news department, what hurt Maariv
and what will hurt Yedioth
, largest circulation newspaper until Israel Hayom
came along, is the
professionalism that Adelson’s newspaper displays. “It has a surprisingly lot to
read,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff in it.
It has some top-notch journalists on board.”
Once disparaged as too
unprofessional to look at, free newspapers, if done professionally, as Israel
is, and backed by super wealthy patrons seeking political influence, could
become a new business model for print newspapers both in Israel and elsewhere in
The smaller Israeli print newspapers – in languages other than
Hebrew – are also feeling the pinch. But with smaller staffs, they feel less
urgency to make the massive staff cuts of the larger newspapers to keep balance
sheets in line.
One such editor told his reporting staff recently, “We
have to pay you smaller salaries today than you would like, but at least we are
not dismissing very many of you. Wait five years – when digital websites,
including ours, start to make money, and we will be able to give you
Some commentators, however, feel that print newspapers will
simply fade away in the relatively near future. “Trends suggest that print
newspapers won’t be around in 50 years,” Prof. Yoel Cohen, of the School of
Communication at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of
Ariel, tells The Report.
A recent survey of Israelis from the ages of 25
to 34 asked if they could manage without newspapers. An astonishingly high
figure – 71 percent – said yes.
Though Israel Hayom
appears the main
culprit in unhinging the local print media, the digital age is undoubtedly
playing its part. Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of Political Communication at the
IDC in Herzliya, tells The Report
, “There’s no inherent advantage of having a
paper edition now that is not updated frequently, that is inconvenient, that you
have to go out and buy or you have to get it outside your house in the early
hours of the morning. Once you go online, you get a far broader set of newspaper
choices that you can look at 24/7 and that’s what people, especially young
people, want these days.”
Adds the IBA’s Steve Leibowitz, “Internet sites
are going to become the norm. I’m quite happy to read online. There’s no reason
to buy a newspaper. My son will be online and look at four news sites. He won’t
open a print newspaper.”
Cohen has a caveat, however, with regard to the
economic viability of the news websites: they may not be as financially sound as
they appear. “While advertising – which has provided some 90 percent of the
earnings of Israeli newspapers – has moved online as advertisers seek out
younger target audiences,” says Cohen, “much of the advertising revenue is spent
at non-news websites.” Newspapers who move online could have a fight on their
hands for sponsors.
Long before the Internet, long before Israel Hayom
local readers got their news largely from the morning newspaper Haaretz
afternoon newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth
, and the 9 p.m. television
news delivered by the state-owned station Channel 1. During the 1950s and 1960s,
reigned supreme in circulation, until surpassed by Yedioth Ahronoth
the 1970s. By the 1990s, as elsewhere in the Western world, the Internet began
to cut into print subscriptions and advertising among the local media.
the crisis within the Israeli media gathers steam, a new impassioned debate
focuses on whether the government should act to preserve media diversity or
Netanyahu says for him the question of whether to allow the
government to intervene in order to save media jobs is perplexing, recently
telling the Israeli economic newspaper Globes
, “On the one hand, I’m told leave
the media alone, and on the other hand, I’m told intervene to save this outlet
or another.” Although so many news organizations are in dire straits, a country
about to launch austerity measures causing hardship to other industries is
unlikely to step in where the newspaper moguls have failed.