Differentiation is the best way to deal with the changing media landscape as the world moves from print to digital, says Aluf Benn, editor in chief of Israel’s Haaretz. He recently paid a visit to Kathimerini’s offices in Athens, where we discussed the future of journalism at a time when our newspapers – which are both in partnership with the New York Times – face similar challenges. People are changing their media consumption habits from print and big screens to small screens and mobile devices, Benn says, but, still, he predicts that weekend editions will “survive” the digital challenge, as he does not see new technology substituting the more relaxed experience of reading long pieces on the page.
We also talked about domestic politics and the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while on the Greek-Israeli relationship he noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive stance has brought Greece and Israel even closer together. In that context, Benn noted the growing people-to-people connection, and highlighted the fact that both countries “are facing the Islamic world across our borders.”
How do you see the future of journalism in Israel and elsewhere?
It is no different in Israel than it is in the rest of the world. People are changing their reading or media consumption habits from print and big screens, to small screens, to mobile devices. The challenge here is to be able to keep people interested and willing to pay for it. That entails retooling ourselves in the way we tell the story and at the company level changing the cost structure. We see we rely more on freelancers and bloggers, and people who have part-time jobs with us as reviewers and often another day job at a university, teaching the stuff they write about in the paper.
And what about the prospects of the reporters themselves?
The past, present and future of journalism, they all depended on keeping the core group of reporters on covering beats. Doing investigative pieces and writing analyses in the good old way. You can outsource opinion, you can outsource reviews, photography and many of the other things that seem important to readers but are peripheral to the core mission of journalism. But you must keep the ability to report on the ground, have reporters fully committed to the paper, to the news site, the TV channel, etc.
Electronic vs print?
The habits of the population are changing and, as more and more of us adapt to American lifestyle of working long hours and waking up early to get the kids to school, the old habit of reading your morning paper with your coffee before you leave is [increasingly] a thing of the past. There are not enough people to keep that alive. Most of the news that is reported in the morning paper has already been reported on news sites the previous evening.
What about the weekend papers?
Magazine reading and weekend reading? I do not see that disappearing. There is no substitute to that. Most people are not happy reading a 4,000-word piece or a long interview on the screen. I love it, and I do it, but most people have more time on the weekend to read longer pieces, to spend more time with the newspaper. The problem with digital is that you do not have any advertising there because of the competition from the global conglomerates like Google and Facebook. None of us, not even all the newspapers together, can compete with them. It is not a bad deal economically, because digital subscription’s marginal cost is zero. The thing is, you need more and more of this to keep the same size of newsroom. The challenge is to balance out more reliance on part-timers with keeping the core group of reporting on the ground and analysis writing fully committed. And, of course, selling as many digital subscriptions as you can. The problem is not that people are not interested in consuming the content anymore. Indeed, there is interest in the content. The question is: How do you monetize it and keep your readers engaged?
How do you get them to pay when they can find something similar for free?
By differentiation. By offering something that doesn’t otherwise exist. This is the best thing, if you are able to build a community around yourself, so people who pay for you and your content also feel they have a stake in something that is bigger than them. Obviously that is easier for a differentiated media like Haaretz than for the mass media, which is losing money. Another way is to turn newspapers and news channels into not-for-profit organizations. The biggest newspaper in Israel today is Israel Hayom, which is not-for-profit and is paid for by an American billionaire supporter of Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu]. You have the Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos, who can definitely afford it and write it off as a deduction. But this is turning from a community voice to the voice of one person. Still, the Washington Post is better than it was in the final years of the [Katharine] Graham dynasty, when it was losing readers and stories.
Is there a future in Israel without Netanyahu?
Apparently, yes, as long as they have not found the solution for indefinite life. But, seriously, for the time being, he is the only politician the Israelis by and large want to see as their prime minister. Even those who oppose Netanyahu do not see anyone else as a serious contender. Having said that, the political system, and the right wing in particular, behave as if the criminal investigation will pile up and force Netanyahu out of office. They are preparing for Netanyahu’s sentencing. For example, the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, said he is not running for another term as mayor, although he would win easily, but rather for a Likud seat in the Knesset.
How close are Greek-Israeli relations?
We see that the aggressiveness of Turkey under Erdogan has brought Greece and Israel together. This has survived three different Greek governments, and we are also seeing the great response on the people-to-people level, with Israelis flowing to Greece for vacations, buying real estate, traveling around the country. For several years now Greece has been the number one travel destination for Israelis, and the volume is growing. We are getting to know each other better and better.
Does Israel see Greece and Cyprus as an economic and political gateway to European Union?
And also culturally in a way, because we are facing the Islamic world across our borders. That drew our countries together after too many years of disconnect, which had more to do with the more leftist tendency of public life that meant siding more with the Palestinians. Like the Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in Britain, which are less staunch supporters of Israel. It is kind of a problem for Israel, which tended to be more bipartisan, and today in the more polarized world Israel has become the pet issue of the conservatives.