Popo beepers, and the WhatsApp insurgency

I first got a pager in 1995. I was 16, and there was little need for me to have one. Occasionally I’d get a page, 911 at the end if it was important, and then hustle to the nearest pay phone to make a call. If I was being honest, probably 9 out of 10 pages were from my dad. Fifteen years later, I got a pager again, but this time, owing to the efficiency of The Jerusalem Post, I have not one police pager but two; one for the center and the south, one for the center and the north.
(A page from the Central District about a pedestrian hit by a bus on Jabotinsky Street in Petach Tikvah. There were three such fatal instances in one week in January, avoid this street at all costs. Photo Credit: Ben Hartman)
The beepers exist to give reporters a heads up on exactly those cases that police want to get out and promote to the public, or ones that have already made their way to the press, or the public. Police will send out a page to inform the public and/or to try and tilt reporters towards their narrative. One can rest assured that if the chief of Israel police or the minister of public security make a statement police want to promote, it will go out on the beepers, as will almost any sizable drug or illegal firearms bust, serious car accident, or relatively minor cases of burglary or fraud that end with police catching a crook red-handed.
Missing persons alerts are put out with a kind request for reporters to print the details of the missing person, especially if it’s a soldier, as are drivers caught speeding at over 200km. Often on Saturday mornings there will be a round up on the number of drunk drivers arrested. On an almost daily basis, there will be a page about a construction worker seriously wounded in a fall from a building site, presumably because police believe there is an eager public waiting to read about construction accidents, or feel compelled to encourage greater workplace safety.
Needless to say, cases of police corruption or brutality don’t make their way onto the beepers or the police emails. The cops put out what they feel is in their interest or that of the public to report or explain, not what they feel is most interesting for reporters to pick up.
Over the past couple of years, “WhatsApp” groups for Israeli reporters have grown and multiplied, with parliamentarians, municipalities, government ministries and police districts sending out messages to reporters who cover their beats. Unlike the beepers, WhatsApp allows for a dialogue, giving reporters the ability to answer an avalanche of pages with snarky remarks and spamming of their own.
One morning two weeks ago, the Tel Aviv district spokeswoman on duty sent out almost 15 pages by noon, prompting one Israeli crime reporter who will remain nameless (but whose newspaper rhymes with “Shmaaretz”) to write back on the Tel Aviv District Police reporters WhatsApp group “Etti, why don’t you just send us all of “War and Peace” chapter by chapter, and kill the [crime] reporters off one by one that way.” The spokeswoman didn’t respond, but a series of WhatsApp messages rolled in from the rest of the reporters having a laugh at the expense of the over-eager officer on duty.
The “Rotternik” group was set up by Eliyahu Elivitz, a young “PR man and journalist” and contributor to the news aggregator Rotter.net, who said that in March 2011, he decided to set up a forum for a few dozen reporters so he wouldn’t miss stories. The forum now includes 25 different Whatsapp groups separated by districts and beats, with by his estimation, around 200 journalists taking part in one way or another. The forum is not a direct source for news stories, rather it funnels ones from official spokespersons and allows reporters to gain confirmation from one another on stories they heard about, or ask about ones that police or government ministries have not reported. The reports typically need secondary confirmation and the groups don’t operate on Shabbat, but nonetheless, if the system is perfected, it and the other WhatsApp groups operated in Israel could potentially make the beepers obsolete once and for all, just like they became in the late nineties for anyone who is not a surgeon, reporter, or street level drug dealer.

In a sense the beepers are already to some extent obsolete. If a story is big enough you’re going to hear about it or be there at the scene without police contacting you, though they will anyway, and will do so by phone, without relying on just the beeper to get the message to you. Regardless, as annoying as they are, beeping or vibrating on the bus and on the toilet, the dinner table and editorial meeting, just like in high school, it’s nice to have an accessory you don’t need as much as you’d like to think.