Newspapers are a Business

The line taken by Haaretz editorials is repugnant to many who could be readers of the paper, but who will not go near it at the present time. As the customer base of Haaretz shrinks from day to day, can it survive.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 14, 2012.)

Newspapers are a business, and like all businesses if a newspaper consistently loses money it will eventually close.

Like all businesses, newspapers operate within a changing environment, and their survival depends on their ability to adjust or “reinvent” themselves as changes occur. When, for one reason or another, they do not succeed in making that adjustment they go out of business. Whether the newspaper industry is destined to disappear in the age of television and the internet has been a subject of debate for the past few years. Some of America’s well known newspapers – The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer – have closed. Many others are on the brink of bankruptcy. Is that fate in store for some of Israel’s newspapers?

There is one thing that distinguishes newspapers from most other products. Newspapers have an editorial policy that its readers may like or dislike. In addition to the editorials, there are the op-ed pages, and they usually reflect the views of the editor or owner. Sometimes these views even creep into news pages. In an age when the Internet provides the news that most people feel they need, it is a newspaper’s editorial policy and its commentators that may draw readers to the paper or, alternately, may cause readers to avoid a particular paper. This means that a newspaper which is losing readers to the Internet may, nevertheless, keep readers or even attract readers because of its editorial policy, or else may be losing readers who dislike its editorial policy. A newspaper’s editor or owner who sticks to his ideological guns may have the courage of his convictions, but may also be responsible for aggravating the paper’s economic situation. A newspaper may sink with its ideological flags flying high.

Nowadays, public opinion in most western countries is divided between right and left, or conservative and liberal. This is particularly true in Israel. Readers tend to favor newspapers which are more or less aligned with their political views, and they shy away from those newspapers whose views they oppose. In Israel, where the division of political opinion is more or less even, one would expect that Israeli newspapers would be more or less evenly divided in their political views, some appealing to the left and others to the right. However, strangely enough, for years most of the newspapers have followed a leftist line.

This is true for Yedioth Aharonoth and Haaretz, and became true also for Maariv, whose owners – for some unaccountable reason – decided to swing left a few years ago and abandon a rightist clientele which had remained loyal to the paper for many years. Here were three newspapers competing for the same block of customers. The demise of Maariv was inevitable. Who was going to appeal to the readers who tended to sympathize with the right? Into this vacuum stepped Yisrael Hayom, a freesheet, like Sweden’s Metro International, using a business model based solely on revenue from advertisers, and became the most widely read paper in Israel.

Its success is very much like that of the Fox news television channel in the U.S., which caters to the conservative segment of American viewers, and quickly passed CNN in viewer rating and profitability. “[He] found a niche – that is, half the American people,” said Charles Krauthammer about Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox. The same can be said about Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Yisrael Hayom – he found a niche that is half the people of Israel.

Haaretz is a special case. Its niche is presumably the intellectual echelon of Israeli society. Many of them may be leaning to the left, but certainly not all of them. The line taken by Haaretz editorials, continuously flagellating the government, and the point of view of most of its op-ed pieces, which lambast, without let-up, not only the government, but Israel itself and the IDF, is repugnant to many who were in the past, or could again be in the future, readers of the paper, but who will not go near it at the present time. As the customer base of Haaretz shrinks from day to day, can it survive?

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