The Israeli newspaper industry is in a state of flux, with half of the mainstream nationals in severe economic crisis.
At the once-mighty Ma’ariv, things have got so bad that readership of the daily edition has halved in the past decade, the operation is for sale, and job losses are inevitable. Furthermore, there is reportedly too little money to pay severance.
If no bid for Ma’ariv proves realistic, it will close. Otherwise it will be sold and probably kept running as a low-budget and perhaps web-only shadow of its former self. It could also be flogged as scrap to different buyers, one of which is interested in its subscriber base, another in its printing press.
At the broadsheet Haaretz, economic woes mean that closure is a distinct possibility and widespread job losses seem certain. Employees are furious and, earlier this month, for the first time in decades, the newspaper did not print because the staff was on strike.
Haaretz’s misery may well be accentuated by the sale of Ma’ariv. The Haaretz Group provides printing services for Israel’s biggest newspaper by circulation, Israel Hayom, in a contract which accounts for an estimated 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the group’s revenue. If Ma’ariv’s printing press is going cheap, Israel Hayom is expected to buy it and dump the Haaretz Group’s services.
Politically, the crises at the avowedly-left Haaretz and the centre-right Ma’ariv are highly significant. The Israeli media is built on aggressive investigative journalism and views itself as a check on government. But of the two mainstream publications that look certain to survive the next few months, Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom, only one keeps up that tradition.
In contrast to the centre-left Yedioth, Israel Hayom is so staunchly loyal to the government led by the right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it is derisively referred to as “Bibi Hayom” and the “Bibiton,” a play on “iton,” the Hebrew word for “newspaper”. In fact, it is widely believed that its owner Sheldon Adelson, the US casino mogul, set it up in 2007 just to get his close friend Mr Netanyahu elected.
The new Times of Israel website is politically uncommitted, but is not generating large amounts of investigative reporting or reaching the Hebrew-speaking mainstream.
What is more, Ma’ariv’s best chance of survival appears to be a bid by British-born ultra-nationalist settler Shlomo Ben-Zvi, who is expected to take Ma’ariv from centre-right significantly further right.
Mr Netanyahu’s critics on television, as in print, are facing hard times. Closure looms at the fiercely investigative Channel 10. The government is refusing to agree to what the channel considers a manageable programme for debt repayment to the state for overdue licence fees. Some politicians have claimed that Mr Netanyahu is being inflexible on the station’s debts to punish it for airing biting investigations about him. If Mr Netanyahu wins the next election as seems likely, he could well find a media friendlier than any Israeli PM has known since the early days of the state.