At a time when media pundits are calling daily newspapers “print dinosaurs,” Las Vegas casino mogul and Zionist philanthropist Sheldon Adelson tweaked the “experts” by investing millions of dollars in the creation of Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), a free Hebrew-language tabloid newspaper that was launched on July 30, 2007.
Written off by the dominant local newspapers – including Yediot Aharonot, Maariv and Haaretz – as nothing more than a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Adelson hired an all-star staff of respected editors, journalists and columnists, who created an alternative voice for the Israeli public.
By the end of 2008, Yisrael Hayom had not only succeeded in luring readers away from the aforementioned Israeli dailies, the paper announced a plan to increase circulation by offering free home delivery. A year later, Yisrael Hayom announced that circulation had surpassed 250,000 copies and a weekend edition would be launched to compete with the major dailies.
By early February 2010, more than 300,000 copies of the weekend edition of Yisrael Hayom were being printed and delivered across the country. With Yisrael Hayom’s circulation and advertising revenues climbing faster than anyone anticipated, at least two Israeli newspaper owners lobbied Knesset members to pass a law that would ban foreign ownership of any major Israeli media entity. The proposed law, aimed at undermining Adelson, stands almost no chance being passed.
Veteran Israeli journalist Boaz Bismuth, who has written for both Maariv and Yediot Aharonot in addition to serving as Israel’s ambassador to Mauritania (2004-2008), was recruited by Yisrael Hayom Senior Editor Amos Regev to serve as the paper’s foreign editor. In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press, Bismuth spoke of the keys to Yisrael Hayom’s unprecedented success.
The Jewish Press: What was the lure of joining Yisrael Hayom, which was considered anything but a sure thing in the highly volatile Israeli newspaper market?
Bismuth: First of all, I had a unique opportunity to return to my beloved profession. Uniquely, I saw that the paper was able to easily recruit respected journalistic soldiers such as Dan Margalit (Maariv, Channel 10). So I look at myself as a lucky editor who joined the paper on September 16, 2008. That was the day when people packed their bags at Lehman Brothers in the midst of the economic crash, while I became part of something new and different. We became a symbol of sorts for the newspaper industry, which was and still is having problems.
What was different about the Israeli newspaper marketplace that allowed Yisrael Hayom to put down firm roots?
From day one, the object was to create a free paper that was a fast read and interesting, though we did not want a paper that would be read and thrown away in five minutes. Immediately, we saw that readers appreciated the paper. When people in Tel Aviv, the key to the newspaper market in Israel because of the population that lives and works in the metro region, were changing their reading habits by taking the time to read the paper in a coffee shop, at home or at work, we knew that the paper was having an impact.
The editors of Haaretz, Maariv and Yediot openly criticized Sheldon Adelson for allegedly creating a paper with an agenda – namely, supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How do you respond to this criticism?
The criticism leveled against Yisrael Hayom is hypocritical and cynical. Every newspaper has an agenda. Does one really think Adelson created the paper as a philanthropic venture? No one in the local newspaper industry is a philanthropist. Do the editors of the other papers or readers truly believe Adelson has the time for influencing daily editorial policy at the paper? If he does, he’s Superman.
I can tell you from having worked at major Israeli newspapers in the past, Yisrael Hayom is an extremely professional operation. Every evening, the editors choose from a variety of articles and editorials to publish. This is the business of true professionals. You don’t think the paper publishes stories that are critical of the Netanyahu government? Of course it does. I’m proud to be a part of this enterprise.
So the claim that Yisrael Hayom is imposing its editorial will on readers is journalistic sour grapes?
We have a created a new economic model for newspapers that has spurred a revolution in the marketplace. It’s a model that functions well and people like the paper. If we are imposing our will on the public, then how come there is an additional waiting list of nearly 50,000 people who want daily home delivery? I’m revealing this as a scoop. Circulation is already over 250,000 copies during the week. Thanks to my opponents’ crying and their criticism, I can see how well I’m doing my job at the paper.
But that hasn’t stopped people associated with Yediot and Maariv from trying to get Knesset members to pass a law banning foreign ownership of newspapers, which was obviously aimed at Adelson.
When, where do we put the limit? It’s an outrageous, anti-democratic law. Ironically, it’s OK for Knesset members and other members of the Israeli business community to accept investments and donations from Jews in the Diaspora. It’s OK for Diaspora Jews to purchase shares in Bank Leumi, or a controlling interest in Israel Discount Bank. But to invest and participate in the market of public opinion in Israel it’s not OK?
Trust me, if Yisrael Hayom were a flop, none of this would have ever been discussed. The other papers feel threatened. Yediot was considered a monopoly for years. Maariv has been in financial trouble for a while. Ironically, when Adelson was originally in negotiations to buy Maariv, the owners made him out to be the Vilna Gaon. Now they make him out to be like some Saudi sheikh.
Is some of the opposition due to ideological differences?
Yisrael Hayom is not a “stylish” left-wing newspaper. The difference is that we promote the fact that we are proud to be Israeli. And, thank God, we have Zionists abroad who take an interest and want to invest in the Israeli economy.
Steve K. Walz