Jpost at 90: Inside an Israeli newsroom on Election Day

Ninety years after The Jerusalem Post newspaper was launched, how would its founder view coverage of Election Day 2022?

 ‘THE JERUSALEM POST’ newsroom: active and interesting.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘THE JERUSALEM POST’ newsroom: active and interesting.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It’s November 1, 2022 – Election Day – at The Jerusalem Post. What would its founding editor, Gershon Harry Agron, think if he were catapulted into the newspaper’s plush newsroom in the Jerusalem Post Building on 206 Jaffa St. to witness how Israel’s top English-language newspaper covers the latest election, nine decades after he published its first issue on December 1, 1932?

Agron (who shortened his name from Agronsky) was born on December 27, 1893, in what was then Russia (now Ukraine). He moved to Philadelphia with his family in 1906. After serving in the Jewish Legion in World War I, he settled in Mandatory Palestine in 1920. After stints as a journalist in Jerusalem and New York, he launched The Palestine Post in a building on Hasolel Street (today named Havatzelet Street) in downtown Jerusalem. 

He served as its editor-in-chief for a record 23 years, until 1955, when he was elected mayor of Jerusalem. Agron died in office in 1965 after contracting pneumonia – coincidentally, on November 1.

Throughout Agron’s stewardship, the paper – which changed its name to The Jerusalem Post in 1950 – was affiliated with Mapai, which in 1968 merged with other political parties to become the Labor Party.

IMAGINE THAT Agron gets past the security guard at the entrance to 206 Jaffa St., takes the elevator up to the second floor, knocks on the door and walks into the newly furbished offices of the newspaper. (The staff moved from the sixth floor to the second floor in October.)

 EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Yaakov Katz in his office. Behind him – a portrait of founder Gershon Agron. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Yaakov Katz in his office. Behind him – a portrait of founder Gershon Agron. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

He is welcomed by the current editor-in-chief, Yaakov Katz, who still has the wooden chair Agron sat in and a portrait of Agron in his corner office overlooking Jaffa Street. Katz shows Agron the new conference room opposite his office and the open-plan newsroom, with computers centered around what is known as the Breaking News Desk – where young men and women constantly update the newspaper’s website, JPost.com. It is, Katz boasts, the most popular English-language Israeli news website in the world.

“Call me Gershon,” Agron tells Katz. “Where are you from?”

“My family’s from Chicago,” Katz says.

“What’s going on right now?” Agron asks, looking around and feeling the palpable excitement surrounding the Breaking News Desk.

“Well, Gershon, it’s Election Day,” Katz explains. “Actually, it’s the fifth election we’ve had in under four years, so we can only hope there’s a clear winner this time.”

“Who’s running?” Agron inquires.

“It appears to be a close race between the right-wing bloc, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the son of Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, and the center-left bloc, led by Yair Lapid, the son of Tommy Lapid.”

“What about Mapai?” Agron asks, referring to the party with which the Post was affiliated under his editorship.

“Mapai is now called Labor and will do well to make the threshold,” Katz replies. “The party leader is Merav Michaeli, the granddaughter of Nehemia Michaeli, the last secretary of Mapam.”

 TAMAR URIEL-BEERI, managing editor, JPost.com. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) TAMAR URIEL-BEERI, managing editor, JPost.com. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Tamar Uriel-Beeri on working in an Israeli newsroom on Election Day

Katz introduces Agron to Tamar Uriel-Beeri, the energetic managing editor of JPost.com, who made aliyah from Cresskill, New Jersey, and sits in the office adjacent to his.

“Who’s winning?” Agron asks.

“My personal motto has been, ‘Once I know, you’ll know,’ and there’s no day that motto applies more to than Election Day.”

Tamar Uriel-Beeri

My personal motto has been, ‘Once I know, you’ll know,’ and there’s no day that motto applies more to than Election Day,” Uriel-Beeri says. “As this can be quite stressful and my team of breaking news editors are up to their ears in election news, televisions playing from every angle, I tend to notice that it gets a bit tense. 

“Since elections are unfortunately quite common here, it’s easy to form habits. My personal favorite one happens every Election Day at 9:55 p.m. At 10 p.m., all the voting polls close their doors, and the television channels air their exit poll results. This is the zenith of news urgency, so the minutes beforehand are the shakiest. 

“So at 9:55 p.m. every Election Day, five minutes before those exit polls are out, I come into the open workspace of the Breaking News Desk, quickly verify one more time that each person knows what they’re doing, then get my whole team up on their feet to join me for a quick two-minute stretching session. It releases tension, gets everyone laughing a little, and leaves us with smiles on our faces, ready to provide the world with the biggest news coming out of Israel.”

 BREAKING NEWS Desk manager Michael Starr. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) BREAKING NEWS Desk manager Michael Starr. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Michael Starr: Election Day morning is the calm before storm

DESK MANAGER Michael Starr, who came to Israel from Victoria, Canada, says Election Day started off quite calmly in the newsroom that Tuesday morning.

“Things were a little bit slow in the beginning, news-wise. For a few hours, it was mostly politicians casting their votes, and there were calm waters. The name of the game on the web desk is speed. We need to get everything up and before everyone else, but of course there’s also accuracy and items of interest to draw people’s attention. That means we need to verify everything very quickly, as well as make things interesting.

“At the very beginning, I opened up a live blog, which is a new system we are trying out. When something happens, I write a short blog post such as ‘7 a.m., polls open,’ which allows us to give a play-by-play account as things go on, and later insert full articles. I think that people found that very interesting, and these posts were tremendously popular.”

Starr points out that above the news desk is a screen with the number of hits for each article, allowing editors to constantly adjust the website based on which articles readers find interesting.

“It started picking up at some point when it became clear that more people had voted at certain times than in previous elections, and this high motivation to vote was of interest to people of all political persuasions. One of the things that struck me was the last-minute pitches of the politicians, the so-called ‘gevalt’ appeals.”

 AARON REICH, assistant managing editor, JPost.com. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) AARON REICH, assistant managing editor, JPost.com. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Aaron Reich: When the polls close, the real work begins

Aaron Reich, the assistant managing editor of JPost.com who made aliyah from New York, gives a glimpse of what it’s like to work in the newsroom on Election Day: “It’s nothing short of excitement. Throughout the day, we monitor all the news about the votes, what voters say and what politicians say. Who is doing a last-minute get-out-the-vote ‘gevalt’ campaign, etcetera.

“But it isn’t just about the comments, it’s also about the pictures. We need to scour our own photographer’s shots and the other wire photo services to make sure we have all the many pictures of people and politicians alike taking part in this now all-too-frequent exercise in democracy.

“Then when the polls close later in the day, things get crazy. The exit poll numbers start coming in, and it’s a race to get everything up as fast as possible. The comments from politicians soon follow, and statements put out on social media about the outcomes. Then the party leaders address their supporters and stage grand photo-ops, all while everyone still puzzles one big question: Just who exactly won?”

Zvika Klein: Barred from voting by a flight delay

Every reporter was assigned to cover a political party. Jewish World analyst, Chicago-born Zvika Klein, who was assigned to cover the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, had just attended the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Chicago and was hoping to get back to Israel in time for the election. He takes up the story:

“All of the speakers and participants of the conference from Israel, including new Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog, were on the same flight – a night flight from Chicago to Tel Aviv that would bring us back to Israel in time to vote – Tuesday afternoon. However, this direct United Airlines flight was delayed a few times until it finally left – 15 hours late. 

“We then understood that there was no way we’d be able to make it back in time to vote, but I also had to let the desk know that I wouldn’t be covering the RZP as I was planning to do, on election night. In addition, as an Israeli, I couldn’t imagine going on a flight without knowing what the results of the election were, as the polls closed less than one hour after we took off.

“When we were finally boarding the flight, I told one of the stewards that it would be nice if they wanted to give all the passengers free Wi-Fi, since we were all eager to find out what the results of the election were going to be. We also were all depressed that we couldn’t vote. ‘That’s a good idea,’ he said. 

After taking off, the head steward announced that anyone who purchased a Wi-Fi package would be reimbursed. “Even though they said that streaming wouldn’t work on this Wi-Fi connection, I was able to connect to different Israeli news channels simultaneously and watch the dramatic results of this election. 

“I then realized that I could actually work and started writing an analysis about the surge of seats that the RZP received in this election. It was amazing that I was very high up in altitude, but I was able to function almost normally. 

“I was able to download a PDF with the party’s platform and agenda, look through archived articles and quotes of the party leaders, and also watch what was going on in the RZP event in Israel. In addition, I texted a bunch of people I know who are members of the party and was able to have them send me quotes via WhatsApp voice and text.

“I think that the editors who received my articles from the airplane were surprised, since I told them that I would be signing off for the entire flight. And then, as happens in any media outlet: When they realized that I was online, they asked me for another article. The thing is – I must have been sleeping by then!”

 NIGHT EDITOR Sarah Ben-Nun. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) NIGHT EDITOR Sarah Ben-Nun. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Sarah Ben-Nun: Betting on seats as the exit polls come in

NIGHT EDITOR Sarah Ben-Nun, who is from New York, began her shift at 3 p.m.

“The atmosphere was excited, anticipatory. Everyone was gearing up for the exit polls at 10 p.m. We all participated in a bet to guess how many seats each party would get, and that was very exciting. We each put 10 shekels in. I bet, too, but I didn’t win.

“Because we knew that the majority of news pages were going to be about elections, there was a lot that we couldn’t actually send to print until very late. So after sending two news pages, we sat and waited for the exit polls at 10 p.m. Our deadline to send the whole paper was 12:30; it’s usually around 11 and it was extended for Election Day because we wanted to make sure we had the most accurate headline, even though we still didn’t have final results, which take a day or two.

“The initial polls came in at 10, and I gave reporters a 10:30 deadline and told them to be in touch with me if there were any updates. We had a reporter covering every party. Then it was time to start laying out the front page and come up with the headline. We had a headline that said Netanyahu was poised to win, and Yaakov [Katz] improved it, making the addition that Ben-Gvir was soaring.”

Eliav Breuer: A failed bet with the editor-in-chief

When the polls closed, political correspondent Eliav Breuer, who covered the nearby Likud headquarters at the International Convention Center Jerusalem (Binyenei Ha’uma), had a bet with the editor-in-chief. Breuer was born in the US to Canadian parents, made aliyah at the age of eight and served as a squadron commander in the IDF’s elite Egoz Unit.

“As a political correspondent, I felt obligated to point out that the exit polls in the previous election did not reflect the final result. At 10 p.m. I tried to exude calm as the newsroom burst into frenzied activity,” he says. 

“The exit polls predicted that Balad would not pass the electoral threshold and that the Netanyahu bloc would win 61 or 62 seats. However, in the previous election, Ra’am also appeared below the threshold at first, but eventually passed it. Knowing this, I challenged Yaakov [Katz] to a bet that the eventual result would be 60-60. I  joked that if I was correct, I should receive a raise. The rest, of course, is history. I could not have been more wrong!”

Ori Lewis: A close-to-perfect prediction on the election outcome

Ori Lewis, a veteran Post staffer who hails from London and works on the night desk, was one of the three who got closest to guessing the outcome in his bet.

“I guess I got closest to the number of seats each party won after playing around with it because in the beginning, I realized my guess added up to more than the 120 seats in the Knesset, and so I changed it. I think in general there was probably a feeling of ‘We’ve been here before, and we’re going through it yet again.’ We had a later deadline, which is good, so we tried to get stuff out as soon as we could.

“I think our headline really encapsulates the result as it transpired later on. Yaakov oversaw the whole thing, and I think we all went home feeling that we’d done a decent job. We all pitched in and we did fairly well.”

In the end, we now know, the Netanyahu bloc won 64 seats, sweeping it to victory in the fateful election. The banner headline on the front page of the November 2 issue of The Jerusalem Post read, “Netanyahu poised to win as Ben-Gvir soars,” on top of a giant photograph by the paper’s star photographer, Marc Israel Sellem, of Netanyahu beaming after voting at a Jerusalem polling station.

One can almost hear the voice of Gershon Agron telling Yaakov Katz at the end of his virtual visit: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!” (The more things change, the more they stay the same). Although outward appearances, work methods, technology and staff may change constantly at The Jerusalem Post (and things are certainly far more sophisticated, efficient and speedy than they ever were), the fundamental principles remain the same: It’s still a newspaper of record, credibility and importance – and one of which we can all be proud. ■

The writer was Post editor-in-chief from 2011-2016.