When Yated Neeman, the newspaper of the Degel Hatorah party, began to publish a weekly supplement in 1985, the newspaper of the rival Agudat Israel, Hamodia, responded by declaring that supplements were not consonant with the newspaper's policy. In other words, Hamodia does not make a habit of imitating the general press.
When Hamodia understood that it could not exist without supplements, it began to issue one very similar to that of Yated, but called it a "tosefet" (an addition). This was because "mussaf" (the Hebrew word for supplement) is the name of a prayer, and this word should not be used.
Since then, many "additions" have gone through the printing presses. Anyone buying Hamodia last Friday received not one addition, but four. Aside from the weekly addition, there is also a sacred addition. It deals with matters of religion and halakha (Jewish law), it contains not a single advertisement and it is designed for readers who don't touch an ordinary newspaper on Shabbat, but are happy to read articles about Judaism and Hasidism. Two magazines are Hamodia Hatzair (Young Modia) and an addition "for the end of the tax year." On the Hamodia page on the "portal for advertising directors" Web site, the newspaper boasts about a momentum of expansion, and the introduction of "the special supplements."
One of the famous jokes about Hamodia used to be that the people at the mass-circulation daily Maariv have powers of prophecy, because they are able to publish today the news that Hamodia will publish tomorrow. In recent decades, the organ of the Hasidic Agudat Israel party was considered a symbol of remaining behind the times. But that has been changing. Until a few years ago, Hamodia had numerous black-and-white pages; today there is color on every page, and pictures have increased substantially. A senior employee of Hamodia says that an effort is made not to publish news late, even if that means shortening other news items in order to make room.
In spite of the momentum of development, it is important to remember that Hamodia is still the most conservative newspaper in the country, in terms of language, content and design. The old-fashioned graphics, including very small headlines, and the conservative font, have not changed. Nor has the custom of publishing news about the parliamentary questions, statements and pronouncements of MK Yaakov Litzman and deputy minister Shmuel Halpert, as though they were newsworthy.
Like every broadsheet newspaper, Hamodia has deliberated in recent years over the question of going over to tabloid format. But leading Torah scholars claimed that the traditional format is of importance and prohibited the change, says the senior employee.
The competing daily, Yated Neeman, which caters to the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic Haredi) public, has always seen itself as belonging to the previous leader of Degel Hatorah, Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach, more than to Degel Hatorah, and it served as an important weapon in Rabbi Schach's many wars. Apparently, the newspaper is having difficulty recovering from the vacuum left by the rabbi's death. In recent years, Yated has not made any changes, and far-reaching development plans prepared at the newspaper are not being launched.
The newspaper suffers, among other things, from the fact that control over it is divided among various editors, who are identified with various rabbis, as well as from legal battles with Yated Neeman in the United States (which appears in English). At the Degel Hatorah convention held last week, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Avraham Ravitz attacked the house organ, and received wide support from the audience. "In terms of ideological influence, Yated Neeman has no competitor," one of the newspaper's reporters consoled himself.
The coming thing in the Haredi press, says Eli Paley, the publisher of the Haredi weekly Mishpacha, is the financial supplements. Mishpacha has already considered publishing such a supplement, but Hamodia beat the paper out. It can be safely assumed that next year Mishpacha will nevertheless publish a financial supplement. A Haredi journalist says that an ultra-Orthodox class of businessmen and directors of non-profit associations is gradually being created, and they are interested in such material.
Financial advertisers, mainly banks and credit card companies, have also begun for the first time to take an interest in the Haredi market.
Quiet on the weekend
The conditions under which the ultra-Orthodox media operate are particularly convenient. The natural growth is so rapid that there are enough readers for everyone. According to the TGI (Target Group Index) exposure survey, 70 percent of the readers of Yated Neeman and 61 percent of the readers of Mishpacha are under the age of 34. The income of the Haredi press therefore seems assured for decades. Still, this is a very crowded and competitive market. According to the TGI survey, which is the accepted index for the reading of newspapers, the chart for weekend reading was led mid-year by Mishpacha, with slightly over 30 percent exposure, as compared to 25 percent for Hamodia, 24 percent for Yated Neeman and 19 percent for the weekly Bakehila. In other words, the independent weeklies take up half of the market sector of the Haredi press on weekends. The entire market is estimated in the survey at 250,000 readers over the age of 18. It is important to note that all this activity is taking place at present outside the Internet. Not one of the newspapers surveyed here has a Web site.
For years, the Haredi public has been asking whether and when the first independent Haredi daily will be published. At Mishpacha and Bakehila they are considering the idea, but for now, they have not embarked on the adventure. Publicist Dudi Silberschlag, one of the owners of Bakehila, says that turning the paper into a weekly requires an investment of $2.5 million for the first year.
There is strong competition between Mishpacha and Bakehila. Mishpacha offers a very comprehensive package of sections for the entire family, including news, a magazine with articles, a supplement for children and a supplement for the family. For this package, over 20,000 Haredi families pay a high price of NIS 14.50. The formula for the success of Mishpacha also includes solid journalism, not at all belligerent, and many human-interest stories, such as the flooding of the synagogues in New Orleans.
The public doesn't want knife-wielding and attacks," explains the associate editor of Mishpacha, Yossi Elituv. "It wants quiet on the weekend." The latest innovation of Mishpacha is "Kulmus" (Pen), a supplement of articles on Jewish subjects, which is included in the paper once a month. In this supplement there are no ads, and therefore it is all costs, without income. How does it justify the investment? The main problem of the Haredi weeklies is their legitimacy as compared to the dailies, which are considered the mouthpieces of the leading Torah scholars. Bamishpacha says that "Kulmus" has granted the paper respectability.
Pictures to order
The Haredi weekly Bakehila made the change three years ago from a free handout to a newspaper that is sold, but it is very cheap, NIS 5, and its three parts are printed on cheap paper. It offers razor-sharp writers: political commentator Yaakov Rivlin, and columnists Kobi Arieli and Zvika Yaakobson. In several ways, Bakehila is the successor of the first independent Haredi weekly, Yom Hashishi (Friday). Like Yom Hashishi, it deals extensively with politics, and it is relatively outspoken. Its weakness is an absence of supplements for the family and for children. For years they have been talking about publishing such supplements, but it has not happened yet.
The editorial of Bakehila is written by Dudi Silberschlag, and this is the most daring columns in Haredi journalism. Silberschlag often mocks the weak points of the Haredim themselves. One of his last columns discussed the Haredi media, and to be more precise, the custom of the Haredi newspapers, including Bakehila, of publishing many pages with pictures of rabbis at social events. These pages serve as a substitute for television for the Haredi public. In the past they published mainly pictures of admors, leading Hasidic rabbis, says Silberschlag. "Now the Lithuanians are also following the custom, and sending pictures. It's amazing. It's simply unbelievable."
In an article that he published recently, Silberschlag describes the phenomenon as "idol worship." He says that when he founded Bakehila, he was adamantly opposed to opening a "picture arena," because he considered it "cheapening the dignity" of the rabbis. But he gave in, he says, to the demand of the public and of his partners at the newspaper. The pages of pictures, he says, "have given rise to destructive after effects," for example, rabbis "who buy their dignity with money."
Another problem: "Various pressures, including some involving money." Translation: The followers of the rabbis pay for the publication of pictures of their rabbis and for giving prominence to the pictures. "Gabbaim (sextons) and servants," says Silberschlag, "fight for their place around the rabbinic leaders in the eye of the camera. With today's technology, there is also censorship that easily erases those who are not wanted in the picture, and promotes those whom the editor or the gabbai wish to honor."
Silberschlag admits that Bakehila will not stop publishing the pictures, but calls for some refinement and restraint. He expresses a fear that in coming generations, whoever looks at the Haredi newspapers "will think that the rabbis attended social events all day long, instead of studying Torah."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now