Much ado at Maariv

Israel's overcrowded media market has left many of the nation's newspapers, including daily paper Maariv, struggling

Maariv, one of Israel’s oldest mainstream newspapers, is floundering. Last week, reporters resorted to a “reverse strike” to keep the Hebrew-language paper’s presses running, working through the night to get a print edition out after publishers announced, in the wake of a $4.2 million loss last quarter, that they were cutting off funding to the paper in its current format.

Maariv has a website that features much of the same content as the print edition. But Oren Persico, a reporter at The Seventh Eye, a media monitor published by the Israel Democracy Institute, feels readers have a stronger connection with the newspaper in print. “The print edition is a symbol,” he said. “[They] wanted to say, ‘We’re still here,’ because a lot of readers of Maariv are expecting their paper in the morning. They aren’t expecting news on the website.”

Rotem Sella, a former financial journalist at Maariv, believes the situation has deteriorated into a three-way struggle between publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi, the journalists’ union, and the paper’s staff. For many of the reporters, “it would be very hard for them to find employment anywhere else. Probably impossible for them to find any work in the print or media industry,” Sella said. Several of Maariv’s competitors are struggling and few are hiring, so reporters “just want to keep their jobs. No matter what.”

The reverse strike came after management hauled the paper back from the brink of closure last November, firing nearly 80 percent of its workers in the process.

But Maariv isn’t alone in its struggle, which is indicative of a wider crisis in Israeli media: Print publications are battling to survive both the digital revolution and a cramped Hebrew-language market.

“The Israeli media market is small and limited in size because of the unique language,” explained Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Media Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research center. “There is not enough space in the advertising market and in the media market in general for too much competition.”

Maariv once had the luxury of being one of only four major Hebrew dailies, alongside leftwing mainstay Haaretz, financial paper Globes, and populist tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth. But since 2000, the number of papers has ballooned, and Shwartz Altshuler believes the rise of Israel Hayom—a free national newspaper owned by conservative American billionaire Sheldon Adelson—has dramatically altered the market.

“It has weakened the other print newspapers in Israel,” said Persico, of The Seventh Eye. Adelson’s tabloid is now not only the most widely read Hebrew paper, but also charges some of the lowest ad rates, undercutting its competitors and destabilizing the fragile ecosystem of Israeli print media. “It’s kind of tough to get people to pay for a tabloid newspaper when they can get it for free,” Persico added.

In fierce contests, the weakest competitor is usually the first to fall. And Maariv is undoubtedly vulnerable.

Founded in 1948 (the year Israel became a state) by a group of disgruntled Yedioth Ahronoth journalists, Maariv enjoyed two decades of mass popularity before sliding into decline. From the early ’90s, the newspaper was bought by a series of tycoons more interested in prestige and political influence than in making a profit. In fact, Maariv has changed hands three times in the past three years, and some argue that the paper’s content has suffered. The last owner of the paper tried to use it to promote his other businesses, said Haggai Matar, former head of the Maariv journalists union’s workers’ committee.

Shlomo Ben-Zvi’s takeover “was supposed to start a new process of healing for the paper, but it didn’t work,” Matar said. “Since then, we’ve gone through two more schemes of redundancies and layoffs.”

Union representatives and Maariv’s management were negotiating over proposed job cuts when news broke about scrapping the print edition. Staff were afraid that if the presses closed, the entire paper might go with it—hence the reverse strike.

Maariv will continue to appear in print for now. On Wednesday, journalists voted narrowly in favor of a management-proposed recovery plan—one that might result in further job and pay cuts.

Some expect Ben-Zvi to merge Maariv with his other newspaper: rightwing, religious daily Makor Rishon. The two papers already share writers, leading to embarrassment in February when both ran markedly different accounts of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo, written by the same reporter.

Shwartz Altshuler feels Israeli print media without Maariv is a gloomy prospect. “If you take one newspaper out of the market, it means something very bad for democracy, for pluralism, for the marketplace of ideas,” she said.

Matar is just as downbeat. “I think that there is room for this newspaper in Israeli society, and I think that it can contribute. The question is if we’ll get the chance to prove it to readers in the longer run.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , , ,