Israeli Media Face Crises, Cry Foul

The evolving global media climate – from news websites, to social media, to free metro daily newspapers – is having as much impact in Israel as elsewhere, with the country’s traditional media all suffering or, in some cases, potentially closing. Plus, the country’s small size and language limit the boundaries in which these media perform.

At the same time, the intensive interest in Israel for the news bodes well for existing media that can adapt and new media outlets with rational cost structures.

Most of Israel’s mainstream media are as old as or younger than the country, which will turn sixty-five in six months. Only Ha’aretz (“The Land”), a leading newspaper with a left-wing bent, predates the establishment of the Israeli state. The Jerusalem Post also predates Israel, but its impact is far larger outside Israel than within because it is published in English.

In the days of the British Mandate and for years afterward, the leading newspapers in Israel were owned by or affiliated with political parties, religious movements, or ethnic communities. A “free press” in Israel meant viewing eight to ten daily newspapers at a newsstand, each declaiming its view of the news and denouncing the others.

Other than Ha’aretz the two other leading dailies of the past sixty years have been Yedioth Ahronoth (which means “Latest News”), and Ma’ariv (“Evening” – even though it shifted to morning publication years ago). Yedioth, product of a private entrepreneur, Arnon Mozes, is now the country’s biggest media entity, a sprawling empire that includes weekly newspapers in all the country’s major cities, the biggest news website (Ynet.co.il – Hebrew, and an English sibling, ynetnews.com), magazines, book publishing, and equity positions in TV and cable companies. Yedioth’s weekend edition on Friday sells about 600,000 copies – remarkable reach in a country with fewer than 2 million households.

Yedioth took an innovative step about ten years ago when it established Ynet as a freestanding entity not reliant on the newspaper or its staff to provide it with content. The investment, surely in the many millions of dollars, has paid off. Ynet is both a journalistic and financial force, with its own partnerships with media new and old.

Ma’ariv, spun off from Yedioth by disgruntled editors a few years after its founding, today is a shell of its former self, gutted by poor management and journalistic decisions that took it down-market (“yellow” in Israeli parlance). It has been sold to the publisher of a weekly right-wing newspaper with an Orthodox Jewish orientation, and many of its current employees, and possibly even its name, will be jettisoned.

For years, Ha’aretz stood above the fray as its powerful local weekly newspapers subsidized its national daily newspaper, whose circulation is about 25% of Yedioth’s. Despite its smaller circulation, Ha’aretz had tremendous political clout as the paper of the country’s cultural, political, and intellectual elite. Recently, however, even Ha’aretz has felt the economic pinch of the new media, as its advertising and revenues have dropped. Ha’aretz employees concerned about layoffs and cutbacks prevented the paper from being printed in a one-day strike recently.

READ  Pakistan Youth Defy Fear Watching Cricket

Along with the newspaper industry’s woes, at least one of the country’s two private TV channels is facing imminent closure, as well, because of financial problems. The state-run radio broadcasting authority also is struggling to maintain its position.

Mainstream Israeli commentators citing their own companies’ struggles, have been bemoaning the potential death of the country’s “free press” and the potential impact media closures would have on Israel’s democratic nature.

Yet news in Israel is available from dozens of local sources in Hebrew; most Israelis can read or get by in English, with Russian, Arabic, and even French widely understood, as well, meaning both local media in “foreign” languages and global media are easily accessed.

And the country, known as “Start-Up Nation,” has spawned many new media entities in Hebrew, English, and other languages. Some of the newspaper industry’s problems, in fact, have been attributed to a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom (Israel Today), which was started four years ago by US businessman Sheldon Adelson, a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backer of Mitt Romney. Israel Hayom last year eclipsed Yedioth as the country’s biggest daily and its political impact is growing, as well.

Further, the immediacy of online news from  numerous websites – some of them owned by the major media companies – is a powerful force in news-obsessed Israel, where public buses play the hourly radio news, front-line soldiers often phone home with news from Israel’s borders, and terror attacks are known country-wide within minutes via cell phone networks.

Like many other Israeli industries, which have been dominated for decades either by government-owned, or near-monopoly megaliths, Israeli media will need to be nimble, lean, and adaptive to survive the new environment. The departure of a single – or even multiple – old-line media entities will not present a risk to Israeli democracy as much as will demagogic politicians, religious intolerance, and ethnic and religious disharmony among the country’s fractious residents.

Alan D. Abbey is Director of Media and Internet Services at Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, Israel, and Adjunct Professor of Journalism in the College of Letters and Sciences at National University of San Diego, CA. He is a veteran journalist with more than thirty years of experience at media in the US and in Israel. He is the author of “Journey of Hope: The Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut.” Follow him on Twitter @alanabbey and on Facebook.