When will the free fall of the Israeli media end?

As "Ma’ariv" teeters, journalism expert Rafi Mann tells of crisis in Israeli media industry.

Ma'ariv R370 (photo credit: Reuters/Nir Elias)
Ma'ariv R370
(photo credit: Reuters/Nir Elias)
Ma’ariv narrowly averted closure this weekend when Shlomo Ben-Zvi, the publisher of Makor Rishon, bought it in a last-minute deal. Channel 10 has lost over NIS 1 billion since it went on the air in 2002 and may fold by February unless it finds a way to pay some of its debt. Other Israeli newspapers have also let employees go recently.
What is happening to Israeli media and when will the free fall end? Rafi Mann, a journalism expert who lectures at the Ariel University Center of Samaria and the Hebrew University, and is a commentator at Ha’ayin Hashvi’it (“The Seventh Eye”), an online journalism review, has some answers.
In an interview on Sunday, held at the same time that Ma’ariv employees were to stage a protest against expected layoffs outside their office in Tel Aviv, he said many of the travails the local media industry is going through are universal.
“The Israeli press has similar problems to that in the Western world,” Mann said. “The economic model for newspapers has been shrinking over the past 20 years. Mostly because of the Internet; not only, though it is the most important factor.”
The biggest blow for print journalism has been the loss of ad revenue. Advertisers were once wary of the Internet but now it is their preferred way of reaching the public, Mann said. As a result, annual revenue from newspaper ads in the US dropped by $40 billion between 2000 and 2010. “It’s still a $20b. market, but it used to be three times as big,” he said.
Revenue from online ads has not come near to making up for the drop, leaving newspapers high and dry.
Of course, the Internet has also taken away readers, not just advertisers.
“Younger people prefer to get their news from news websites, which are free,” he said.
Global trends aside, a few local peculiarities have brought the industry in Israel to its knees, namely, Israel HaYom, the freebie paper that is the pet project of Jewish- American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Since it first began being handed out gratis at street corners and train stations five years ago, it has become the most widely read daily in the country.
Mann said its advent was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it gave the Right –which is underrepresented in the media – a voice. On the other, the apparently huge losses Adelson has been willing to incur have made it impossible for others to compete.
How much Adelson sinks into the paper is not known.
Ben-Zvi, the investor who bought Ma’ariv and used to print a daily with Adelson before their partnership ended acrimoniously, has stated in a court deposition that he estimates the American casino mogul is losing $3 million a month.
“It cannot be profitable,” Ben- Zvi is on the record as saying.
While the finances of Israel HaYom are unknown, the effect it has on an already saturated and declining industry is clear.
Mann said Adelson could not have given a better gift to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom he staunchly supports.
“If Adelson would have given a direct donation to Netanyahu it might be a matter for investigation,” he said.
What does the future hold for Israeli journalism? Mann said he does not know but it is probably not a bright one.
“It is hard to focus because of changes in technology,” he said. “It’s not like the way it used to be when television took 15 years to sink in. The changes are so rapid.”
Mann said his students who hope to find jobs in the industry after they graduate are worried.
“Nowadays people work in journalism until they become specialists and then go on to work in public relations or something else,” he said.