English-speaking Jewish readers have more news sources, but not enough facts
In the intensifying competition over their time and perhaps even their money, it will not only be a question of who has the sexiest web design or wittiest and fastest bloggers.
For news junkies like me it feels like a birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas and Id al-Fitr all rolled into one. In the space of just four weeks, two brand-new websites dealing with "Israel, Palestine and the Jewish Future" have burst forth. Last month it was The Times of Israel published in Jerusalem and this week from New York it was Zion Square, the blog-platform launched under the aegis of The Daily Beast.
It is much too early to judge the merits of either online offering, as they will have to evolve and adapt rapidly before finding their true niche in the crowded market, but their emergence is already an extremely encouraging development in an era in which we are increasingly being told that journalism is threatened. To be honest though, from the point of view of the English-speaking Jewish reader, things have never been so good and we are positively spoilt for choice. The two newcomers are joining an ever-growing list of major publications, starting with the veteran Israeli websites, Haaretz, Ynet's English version and the Jerusalem Post. For a far-right take you can go to Arutz Sheva (INN ); on the opposite left pole we have +972. Yisrael Hayom's expanding English website gives you the official-Netanyahu version of the day. And there are constant rumors that the religious right-wing daily Makor Rishon is also about to launch an English website soon.
Meanwhile we have a constantly growing range of Jewish-American journalism, from the innovative reporting of The Forward to the elegant writing and original cultural observation of Tablet Magazine. The Algemeiner offers a robust pro-Israel product, Vosizneias does a decent job of collecting all the news from a Haredi perspective, while the radical-left has given us Tikkun Olam and Mondoweiss. And of course there are influential bloggers like The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and Shmuel Rosner's Domain, not to mention the fact that the international media continues to cover Israeli and Jewish affairs to a disproportionate degree. I have missed out some worthy names and publications, but there just isn't enough space.
While there are probably no more than seven million Jewish English-speakers worldwide, I don't think we have too many websites. For a start, the readership is wider than that, and many non-Jews are interested in these fields. Readers in Arab lands constantly look to Israeli and Western sources for a different perspective, and news and views that are routinely censored by their governments. And while the Iranian and Palestinian conflicts are far from resolution, this part of the world will continue to concern foreign-policy professionals and fascinate ordinary readers from around the world who want to remain well-informed.
While everyone in the business hopes to make money and remain economically viable, for most players this is hardly a commercial venture. That doesn't mean that most of the ventures will ultimately succumb to bankruptcy, though they might. Almost all the recently launched websites are reliant to some degree on philanthropy, and those funds will continue to be available as long as there those who believe it important that these voices be heard.
Every color and shade on the political and religious spectrum wants representation and to have its beliefs and versions well articulated. While that means that the angles from which events are covered will widely differ and many readers will distrust at least some of the sources, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Each of the news organizations represents authentic voices and communities in Israel and among American Jewry (we are still lacking a strong independent website that can articulate American ultra-Orthodoxy).
A multitude of narratives is the only way to bridge the gulf of understanding between the two biggest Jewish centers in history.
Instead of worrying about bias and ideological partisanship, we should be more concerned with professionalism. What counts in journalism is fairness, not objectivity, which is an impossible goal anyway. Since I prefer not to get my information from robots, I trust publications that are open with their political affiliations and opinions, left or right, much more than those who ascribe to being "level-headed" and "fair-minded." I may not agree with them, but I will certainly learn more from those who dare to stake out a position, than I will from someone who is always taking care not to offend either side.
The real problem with the new wave of Israeli and Jewish websites is lack of first-hand original reporting. Not that it is entirely absent, but among the op-eds and blogs, the aggregation of links to other websites and the armchair analyses, it is increasingly hard to find pieces written by journalists who are actually out there in the field.
I don't know whether it is the sheer amount of material that a website needs to continuously refresh its homepage, the small editorial staff, constant deadlines, different professional standards or the easy availability of information someone else has produced, but so many of the quotes you read do not come from a reporter's notebook or voice-recorder, but from copy-paste pastiche of another website. Many of these quotes are copied from site to site to site, and the reader is getting them fourth or fifth-hand.
To get as close as possible to primary sources and read the accounts of those who actually saw the events or analyses by writers who spoke to the main players, I find I can only rely on a very small number of these websites, chief among them good old Haaretz and a few others, generally long-established Israeli newspapers with Hebrew editions. There are fine commentators and bloggers, with deep experience of hands-on reporting at other venues, but too many other writers there suffer from lack of relevant knowledge and have been spoilt by the ample supply of free copy off the Internet.
In addition, too much of the writing is not about the real issues themselves, but about the way these issues are covered. There is an entire layer of reporters dealing in a critique of other reporters - instead of having the real debate, we are conducting a debate about the debate. Too many reporters and editors have forgotten that there are real people, living communities and bleeding conflicts outside. It may be more time and resource-consuming, but readers are not stupid.
In the intensifying competition over their time and perhaps even their money, it will not only be a question of who has the sexiest web design or wittiest and fastest bloggers. The ultimate winners will continue to be those who provide a real picture of what is happening out there.