The fate of Israel's print media

NEWSPAPERS THE world over are facing an uncertain future as news becomes commodified.

July 14, 2013 21:58
4 minute read.
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat presents award to Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam.

Sheldon Adelson with wife & Nir Barkat 370. (photo credit: Michal Fattal)

Unlike many left-leaning journalists, I’ve never had a problem with Israel Hayom, the free newspaper funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Despite its unabashed agenda of providing uncritical support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, I’ve always believed that anybody has the right to establish a newspaper to reflect whichever political ideology they choose to promote.

Newspaper readers, particularly in Israel, are not reliant on just one source of information only, and they are intelligent enough to see through slanted coverage.

Netanyahu’s less-than-spectacular election victory is proof that having the wholehearted backing of Israel Hayom is not enough to win over the hearts and minds of the nation. And as Mitch Romney found out in the US presidential elections, having recourse to casino owner Adelson’s deep pockets is also no guarantee of electoral success.

But Adelson’s money, in terms of his willingness to subsidize the loss-making free newspaper, does have an impact on Israeli society. Critics of the paper – they studiously refrain from calling it a newspaper – argue that its free distribution model and bargain-basement advertising rates endanger the existence of a free press in Israel.

There is no doubt that Israel Hayom, by the sheer virtue of its being free, has bitten heavily into the circulations of Israel’s mass market tabloids, Ma’ariv and Yediot Aharonot, but that does not mean that the sole blame for Ma’ariv’s precarious existence or the economic difficulties facing the once-mighty Yediot Aharonot should be placed at Israel Hayom’s door.

NEWSPAPERS THE world over are facing an uncertain future as news becomes commodified.

In Germany, they’ve even created a new compound noun: Zeitungssterben, meaning newspaper death, to describe the phenomenon of newspapers closing. Newspapers around the United States are either closing or laying off staff as advertising revenue has plummeted to 50 percent less than it was in 2006. The ubiquity of mobile devices and the possibilities the Internet provides for telling a story makes the print product, the bedrock of traditional journalism, very much a threatened species.

And yet people still like the feel of paper and the ability to quickly rustle through pages, particularly when traveling on trains and buses, or when sitting in a queue in the post office or doctor’s waiting room.

And this is why Israel Hayom has proved so successful in terms of readership. It provides the news in easy-to-read, chunk-size bits and demands very little effort on the part of the reader who, because they are getting a paper for free, don’t feel cheated by its lack of quality or depth.

In some countries, the free paper model can actually make money. A skeleton journalistic staff manages to put out a paper that turns a profit thanks to the advertising revenue it brings in. They’re not great newspapers but then, the really good newspapers tend to lose money as good journalism is expensive.

In fact, some of the greatest newspapers in the world are subsidized by their rich owners or charitable trusts, who see their stewardship of a great title as a way to promote a certain worldview. For example, the left-wing Guardian newspaper in the UK has only survived because of cross-subsidization from profitable companies within its parent group. If it were to exist on its own, it’s unlikely it would survive for even a month.

And so, if casino magnate Adelson wishes to divert what must be small change for him on Israel Hayom, just to provide political backing for his friend, then he is acting no differently than newspaper owners the world over.

BUT THIS right to put out a newspaper does not excuse the lack of understanding of the role of journalism as recently shown by Israel Hayom’s senior journalists and editors.

In an article promoted on the front page, senior Israel Hayom editor Gonen Ginat penned a column last week that highlighted the difference between real journalism and the self-righteous self-censorship often practiced by Israel Hayom.

Rather than acknowledge Yediot Aharonot’s journalistic achievement of revealing the existence of a second Prisoner X in Israel’s jails, a scoop any journalist with ink running through their veins would be proud of, Ginat chose instead to lambast Yediot Aharonot for exposing the failings of Israel’s security organizations.

Taking the competition between Israel Hayom and Yediot to a new low, the article first of all ran the strapline “the evil empire of Noni Moses” (Moses is Yediot’s owner), as if publishing a scoop was the worst sin a newspaper could commit. Ginat then went on to claim that publishing the revelation was irresponsible because the authorities should do whatever it takes to safeguard Israel’s security and it is not the task of pesky journalists to investigate what they’re up to.

I’m sure there are many people who agree with him, but for the sake of a vibrant democracy, these are not the kind of people who should be editing a newspaper. It is this slavish submission to authority that is the danger Israel Hayom poses to Israeli democracy, and not its business model.

The writer is a former editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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