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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Downfall of a Great Newspaper

Israel’s 'most respected newspaper' is a case study in the collapse of modern journalism.
haaretz collapsing

Predictably, the severe cutbacks have shifted the work previously done by a well-staffed newsroom to a skeleton crew of remaining editors and reporters. The increased emphasis on the newspaper’s website, which with its faster news cycle requires a larger volume of stories, has only compounded the problem. “Today there are fewer and fewer writers and editors writing and editing more and more articles,” says one former writer. “You’re burning the candle at both ends, and the inevitable result is a serious drop in standards.”

Another employee spoke to us at length and described the drop in standards that resulted from the cuts. “There are cuts in manpower, in the amount of time editors and writers can dedicate to each item, and in the number of edits an article goes through before publication. You can feel the decline in quality. Management understood that the product would be inferior, despite the fact that they also knew that if you wanted people to pay for it, they’d need to offer a better product. The situation is bad any way you look at it. Things were getting worse for more than a year and a half before they [the management] responded. There was a drop in advertising income, and they failed to conduct prompt negotiations with employees. Because of this, they were forced to make sudden and brutal cuts… As a result, there were a lot of blunders at the paper and they’re getting a lot of criticism. People at the paper are exhausted. Right now, they’re basically going along to get along, in order to survive.”

Alongside the financial crisis and the wide-ranging cuts in staff and salaries, many Haaretz employees believe there is an additional reason for the paper’s decline in quality: A strategic decision by editor-in-chief Aluf Benn to refocus the elite paper to reach a much wider audience in order to maximize traffic, and the attendant advertizing income. “Aluf Benn’s managerial strategy,” says another source inside Haaretz, “is that the paper, and the website in particular, should publish stories that are as bold and provocative as possible. Everyone knows that publications like Yediot Aharonot or YNet [Yediot’s online edition] do this, but in the past Haaretz had different norms.” In the source’s view, the publication of the controversial Amira Hass piece was a deliberate attempt to draw traffic through sensational reporting.

To back up his claim, the source cites a letter Haaretz sent to advertisers as part of its marketing for the new version of its Musaf Haaretz weekend supplement, which was leaked to the media. The letter includes the following passage:

Life has started moving more quickly, we have no spare time, and if I’m going to read a newspaper over the weekend, give me something livelier, that I don’t need to work too hard for, something fun to read. So we made a decision. To create a new Saturday supplement. To make a drastic change. To take into account changing consumption habits, and to reinvent the wheel.

This may sound reasonable on its own; but when expressed in the form of increasingly alienating politics, one may begin to question the business logic behind it. Perhaps the most glaring example of the crisis of confidence surrounded the “apartheid poll” affair.

On October 23, 2012, an article by Haaretz’s notoriously scandal-prone columnist, Gideon Levy, was published as the main story on the front page of the newspaper with the outrage-provoking headline, “Most Israelis Support Apartheid Regime in Israel.” Yet a careful look at the survey on which the article was based revealed that neither the headline nor Levy’s analysis were supported in any way by the poll’s actual data. Following public criticism, Haaretz was forced to publish an apology five days later, as well as a correction, in small letters tucked away at the bottom of a page, that read:

Clarification: The wording of the main headline, “Most Israelis Support Apartheid Regime in Israel” (Haaretz, Oct. 23), did not precisely reflect the findings of the Dialog poll. The question to which a majority of respondents answered in the negative did not relate to any current state of affairs, but to a hypothetical future one: “If Israel were to annex the territories of Judea and Samaria [i.e., the West Bank], would you support granting 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote in Knesset elections?”

In fact, Levy’s article almost entirely misrepresented the actual results of the poll, according to independent analysts. According to numerous polls conducted over the past decade, most Israelis in fact support the creation of two states for two peoples and preserving the voting rights of Arab citizens of Israel.

Erez Tadmor

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