Israel’s media in crisis

Ari Shavit, a veteran analyst at Haaretz, confronts the crisis that Israel’s media face in a bold piece today.

As he writes,

Fundamentally, the crisis is global. In the United States and in Europe, the best and the strongest of media outlets are in danger. The Internet and the attention deficits of young people have caused the traditional press to lose paying readers at a murderous rate. Advertising is shrinking as a result. The business structure that allowed the existence of free, high-quality, privately funded media in the 20th century is no longer a valid model for the 21st century. One after the other, leading newspapers are closing, while the survivors are shriveling and becoming yellow and foolish.

In Israel, though,

the global crisis has a unique dimension. Two and a half years ago the Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched the free newspaper Israel Hayom, now distributed daily, with a circulation of about 250,000. In the short run, the appearance of this giant from Las Vegas in the local arena was good for the Haaretz Group, which cooperates in printing and distribution. However, from the point of view of the other two Hebrew dailies, Israel Hayom is an existential threat. Yedioth Ahronoth is bleeding and losing its hegemony. Maariv may fold in less than a year.

The result is all-out war. Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv are trying to silence Israel Hayom through a bill prohibiting foreign ownership of newspapers. Other bills are now in the pipeline.

The transparent attempt to strongarm the government into an artificial protection agreement is everything a media outlet should NOT be: anti-democratic, anti-progressive, xenophobic, anti-free speech. It illustrates the deep distress that these two media giants feel.

There’s more:

Meanwhile, in an amazing coincidence, the two newspapers are furiously assailing those perceived as Adelson’s proteges: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. Bibi’s immediate ouster is not only a political aspiration, but now also an essential business interest of the two veteran afternoon papers.

Political intervention on the part of Israeli media is not new, but this latest episode is not only extreme but maddeningly cheap and hypocritical. (The media are quick to criticize politicians for serving their friends’ business interests, yet here they are attacking the prime minister as an indirect attack on their own competitor.) One can only imagine how much eye-rolling is going on in the newsrooms of Yediot and Maariv as this process plays out.

As Shavit makes clear, though, this is about much more than petty politics.

In the long term, this struggle of the titans is dangerous. If Maariv closes, it will be a serious blow to the Israeli press. If Haaretz has difficulties later on, it would be a disaster in terms of culture and values. Israel will be a different country. Even a very weak Yedioth Ahronoth is a serious problem. In the end, Israel could find itself in a situation in which total domination by one media giant is exchanged for total domination by another media giant.

Unfortunately, Shavit jumps to an untenable conclusion.

The situation is clear: Israel’s media are failing, and market forces alone are not enough to save them. The only solution is artificial intervention. Just as the American government saved the banks, the Israeli government should save the newspapers. Nicolas Sarkozy already did so in France. He granted the print media extensive tax breaks, distributed free subscriptions to young people and increased public advertising. At a cost of 600 million euros, he managed to implement an emergency program to save the press without interfering in its content and without impairing its freedom. A similar plan is now needed in Israel.

I’m always wary when I see someone claim that “market forces alone are not enough to save” something. In this case, it’s not at all clear that the market WON’T, in fact, save newspapers. Just because we haven’t yet seen a broadly applicable, successful model for monetizing Internet news feeds doesn’t mean that one won’t be developed. It’s also not clear that we NEED the breadth and depth of coverage that made media expenses explode over the past two decades. Who’s to say that smaller, smarter news media can’t be viable and meaningful businesses?

What Shavit suggests carries with it a very small potential upside — the preservation of a bloated press — and a very large potential downside — the enormous waste of public funds. There’s far too little evidence to suggest that the step is necessary, or that it would even work. The forces that are driving down readership and advertising revenue wouldn’t magically disappear with a government bailout; the problem is not the lack of funds in the moguls’ bank accounts, but the lack of an exciting enough product and a workable business model for exploiting it.

Ironically, demanding government intervention in the private finances of the major daily newspapers (Shavit would only fund the big three, huh? Why not the Russian-language papers? Why not the sinking Jerusalem Post?), under the pretense that their demise would be a national disaster, is essentially the same argument being made by the owners of Yediot and Maariv that the government ought to legislate their competition away. Actually, Shavit’s proposal may even be a bigger chutzpah: at least Yediot and Maariv aren’t trying to pick the Treasury’s pockets!

Besides, must the newspaper REALLY go the way of the public theater and public symphony? Are headlines, photos and gossip columns REALLY essential elements of higher culture that require extraordinary measures to save? I don’t think so. I think that there ARE ways for news media to make a profit, and that they’ll figure them out soon. And if they don’t — well, how smart can all those veteran analysts have been, anyway?

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