Hebrew media is imploding, but Israeli English press booming

TEL AVIV (JTA) — On Oct. 17, seven Israeli English news websites led with seven different stories.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

The Jerusalem Post had a piece on Egypt’s commitment to its treaty with Israel. Haaretz’s English site ran with a recently released Israeli document on Gaza. Ynet News, Yediot Achronot’s English site, led with threats to a retired Israeli security chief. Then there were the stories on the websites of the Times of Israel, Israel Hayom’s English edition, Israel National News, and +972, a popular news and commentary blog.

Twenty years ago, of these seven publications, only The Jerusalem Post existed. Two of the news outlets, Israel Hayom English and the Times of Israel, are less than three years old.

While Hebrew newspapers and TV channels are struggling, the Israeli English-language news market appears to be booming. But with the business of journalism under threat worldwide due to declining revenues, Israel’s English-language media face an uncertain future.

“We see an explosion of new media because online platforms are cheap and easy to use,” said Noam Sheizaf, CEO of +972. “We couldn’t have done +972 four years ago. Times of Israel would have been a much more expensive operation five years ago.”

The past few months have seen an implosion of the Hebrew press. Maariv, a tabloid founded in 1948 and for its first 20 years Israel’s largest circulation daily, recently was placed in the hands of a court-appointed trustee and could shut down within weeks, leaving 2,000 people jobless. Haaretz, Israel’s leading broadsheet, did not print on Oct. 4 due to a staff protest of 100 proposed layoffs. Israel’s Channel 10 TV is in deep debt to the government and faces possible closure.

Many in Israel blame Israel Hayom, a staunchly conservative, freely distributed paper funded by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, for aggravating the crisis in Hebrew media.

The tough environment “is exacerbated by the fact that in Israel we have the most generously funded free newspaper in the world,” said Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz, who before starting the site in February was editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. “That’s made life hard for all the publications in Israel.”

The boom in English-language media in Israel is due in part to the limited audience for Hebrew-language news: Israel has fewer than 8 million citizens, many of whom prefer the Arabic or Russian press to the Hebrew dailies. Editors of English publications here say Israeli media are looking for audiences overseas to sustain their operations, and there appears to be a limitless appetite around the world for news and opinion on Israel.

“There’s an audience for news coming out of the Jewish world,” said David Brinn, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. And because most news content is free online, people interested in Israel news will visit any number of news sites — so new publications do not necessarily threaten older ones, Brinn said.

Much of the growth of Israel’s English media has been online. Haaretz, Ynet News, Israel National News and Israel Hayom all translate their Hebrew reportage while weaving in some original English reports.

In May, Haaretz, the only one of the Hebrew papers to have an English print edition, put up a paywall on its popular English website, charging digital subscribers $100 annually for unlimited access. It’s still uncertain whether the strategy will pay off, though the paywall experiment will be expanding soon to the Haaretz Hebrew site, too.

“It’s unrealistic to rely solely on a print model to fund our journalistic operation,” said Charlotte Halle, editor of Haaretz’s English edition. “We wouldn’t be taking care of our journalistic future if we didn’t seek additional sources of income.”

Halle said the paper’s “authority, breadth of coverage, and dozens reporters and editors we have in the field” have helped attract thousands of digital subscribers.

The Jerusalem Post has pursued additional revenue opportunities by printing a range of publications beyond its daily newspaper. The Post has international, Christian and French editions — all produced, along with the daily, by just 60 employees. Most of the paper’s readers are online — the Post says it garners some 2 million hits per week.

The Times of Israel, which combines original reporting with articles that repackage information reported on Israeli TV, radio and news sites, would not disclose readership statistics. But Horovitz says the site is exceeding expectations and has garnered 40,000 “likes” on Facebook since its launch eight months ago.

Horovitz says the publication’s “nonpartisan agenda” stands in contrast to the right-leaning Jerusalem Post and left-leaning Haaretz. The news coverage seeks to strike an unbiased tone, he says, while hundreds of bloggers, all unpaid, opine on a range of topics — from Iran’s nuclear program to the morality of circumcision.

“We strive to tell it like it is,” Horovitz said. “People want to know what’s going on, and they don’t want to feel like it’s filtered through some political agenda.”

With such a crowded market in such challenging times for the news industry, Israel’s English-language journalists are not without trepidation about the future. “There will be some sort of reevaluation” of the Post print newspaper’s viability in a few years, Brinn said.

Beyond competing for the same readership, the publications must vie with an ever-expanding cyber universe that occasionally breaks stories before they do.

“Social media has served to democratize the media market in Israel,” said Avi Mayer, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s director of new media and a prolific tweeter of Israel news. “When people share information through Twitter, it is a personal experience.”

While many Israeli journalists have become active tweeters, +972’s Sheizaf is concerned that publications that are thriving now are resistant to change, which could hurt them in the future.

“People are not experimenting,” he said. “The readers are evolving and changing but the journalists, the stories they write, look like the stories written in the 19th century. We need to be a lot more creative.”

Click here for complete coverage on the 2012 elections from JTA.

Click to write a letter to the editor.