'Obsessive': Israel's Burgeoning Indie Media Is Carving a Niche for Itself

Technology has made it cheap enough for independent news outlets to operate without compromising on their activism ■ New study shows how 'obsessive' behavior makes militant journalism possible

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Confrontation between a photographer and a police officer at a demonstration in Tel Aviv, October 10, 2020.
Confrontation between a photographer and a police officer at a demonstration in Tel Aviv, October 10, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Nati Tucker
Nati Tucker

For almost 10 minutes, Or-ly Barlev interviewed Yossi, a former film director, while he was lying under a tow truck whose engine was running. It was during the peak of the afternoon heat, but Yossi refused to move even as the vehicle spat out poisonous emissions. Barlev was interviewing Yossi to hear his story about how he and his friends had become the “new homeless” engaging in anti-government protests.

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The interview was happening as demonstrators gathered in front of the Knesset and lawmakers were readying for a vote to ban protests in front of the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Yossi had slid under the truck to prevent police from towing away a car equipped with loudspeakers to amplify their message.

Almost none of the mainstream media reported on the event, but there was one journalist there – Barlev, whose live broadcasts of street protests have attracted large audiences over the past few months. They can reach about 7,000 viewers at any one time and a single broadcast on average amasses a total audience of 300,000.

“Right in front of my eyes, I see injustice and rampant corruption, and I can’t stay quiet,” said Barlev, who has been a social activist since the mass protests in the summer of 2011. “My way of stopping the terrible things that happen here is the keyboard, mouse and camera.”

Or-ly Barlev video on the anti-Netanyahu protests

Barlev’s success can be measured in economic terms. After years of covering the costs of her social activism and journalistic work, in 2015 she decided to solicit contributions from the public. For the next few years, the response was very modest. Her weekly alternative news program and coverage of protests in front of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s home attracted no more than tens of thousands of viewers.

She renewed her call at the start of 2019, and this time a group of supporters organized to provide her with 10,000 shekels ($2,950) a month. Today, as the protests in front of the prime minister’s residence have grown, she is producing longer, live segments and her monthly revenue is approaching 80,000 shekels.

“I realized that if so many people could be mobilized, I’m not alone in this. With revenue like this, I need to be developing an alternative media. I’m now working on setting up a media outlet that will be called Public Network [Rishut Ha’tzibur],” Barlev said.

Barlev is just one example of the growing power of independent journalistic organizations. Another example of one that has enjoyed soaring viewership – and, of course, soaring revenues – is DemocraTV.

Our aim is to shine a light on the dark corners of Israeli society and to defend and strengthen Israeli democracy

Yaya Fink, Darkenu, CEO

With Lucy Aharish, a well-known television journalist, serving as anchor, DemocraTV operates under the aegis of the civil society NGO Darkenu. Its funding comes from the entrepreneur Kobi Richter. “Our aim is to shine a light on the dark corners of Israeli society and to defend and strengthen Israeli democracy,” said Yaya Fink, Darkenu’s CEO.

Lucy Aharish on DemocraTV talking about Netanyahu's corruption cases

Enthusiastic public

The public has responded. After a pilot run of a few months, DemocraTV is generating 4 million shekels of revenue annually from small contributions made by private individuals.

Side by side with these new initiatives, older independent media organizations have been thriving as well. “The Hottest Place in Hell” brings in about 1.2 million shekels annually from contributions. Another called Sicha Mekomit together with its +972 Magazine English-language site has raised 2.36 million shekels in donations, mainly from foundations and big contributors. A joint venture of Shakuf, a nonprofit media organization and Ha’ayin Hashvi’it, an investigative journalism site, collects about 2.4 million shekels a year.

Several concurrent phenomena have contributed to the rise of independent journalism. The first is technology, which enables anyone to easily create content and upload it to a website and distribute it over social networks. The other is the social and political changes that have increased the appetite for alternative information, in many cases because people distrust the mainstream media.

The website of 'The Hottest Place in Hell,' October 29, 2020.
The website of 'The Hottest Place in Hell,' October 29, 2020.Credit: Screenshot

Still, the exact definition of “independent media” remains elusive. Does it include any outlet not controlled by an established publisher? In principle, independent media doesn’t rely on advertising, a rich backer or an interested party.

But media outlets that meet these criteria often don’t want to be confined to the “independent” niche, which is considered marginal and lacking in influence. Take, for instance, Biranit Goren, who edits the Zman Yisrael website, which was launched last year based on the Times of Israel’s English news content. The publication is often counted as part of the independent media – but would rather not be labelled as such.

“We aspire one day to be a big, influential media outlet, to deal with the big public issues of the day and have our say,” Goren said. “The Zman group employs 80 people. It’s not a small media organization.”

Zman Yisrael is funded by Seth Klarman, an American hedge fund billionaire, although the extent of his funding isn’t known. Sources at the site said he doesn’t involve himself in any way in editorial matters.

The problem of defining independent media has been taken up by two Israeli researchers, Prof. Zvi Reich and Dr. Avshalom Ginosar. In a recent article they published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Journalism Practice, they defined the new genre of journalism as “obsessive-activist,” stressing that they see the obsessive aspect as a positive

The website of Seventh Eye, or Ha’ayin Hashvi’it in Hebrew, October 29, 2020.
The website of Seventh Eye, or Ha’ayin Hashvi’it in Hebrew, October 29, 2020.Credit: Screenshot

Reich teaches at Ben-Gurion University and before that was a journalist himself at Yedioth Ahronoth. Ginosar is on the faculty of the Jezreel Valley Academic College. The two interviewed people who acquired expertise in a particular area and eventually identified with one or several cause, such as the occupation or the concentration of economic power. The interview shed light on a phenomenon that has not been studied by academic researchers.

Several models exist for the new genre of journalism, according to the depth of their personal involvement in the story.

The lowest level is one where journalists observe and document facts. Then come journalists that also provide commentary, then investigators. The study classifies journalists who present solutions-based coverage and journalist who covers stories from their personal point of view in the next category.

Finally, there are those who are social activists, whose reporting is driven by a desire to bring about change, and acts as a platform to advance an agenda. The highest level of involvement is the “obsessive” journalist, who adopts a particular issue and reports on it repeatedly and expresses a strong position.

The website of +972 Magazine, October 29, 2020.
The website of +972 Magazine, October 29, 2020.Credit: Screenshot

Four characteristics

Reich and Ginosar identified four characteristics of an obsessive journalist. The first is a sense of justice, fitting his or her agenda along those lines. The second is that they work in mainstream media and follow traditional rules. The third is a deep expertise in their area of reporting. The fourth is that many of them become public figures by virtue of their reporting.

The boundaries of obsessive journalism are not clear. Some of those interviewed by the researchers said they lobby and assist the groups they are writing about and see both functions as part of their goal of facilitating change. Within that framework, Ginosar told TheMarker in an interview, there is a new phenomenon of “activist journalism.”

“The difference is that such a project is usually done by outsiders, who use the media to advance their agenda. In Israel, this is happening, for example, with the Balfour demonstrators. Some are professional journalists, and some have many years of journalistic experience, and know how to work as journalists,” he said.

“A journalist gets from his publisher in essence a license to publish stories," Reich added. "The easiest license to give journalists is a general one, to be a neutral reporter and bring both sides of the story. The minute you tell a journalist to write a personal opinion, and certainly to become an obsessive journalist, you expand his license, and his ability complicates things for you.”

Press photographers shoot a protester sitting in a street in Jerusalem, October 24, 2020.
Press photographers shoot a protester sitting in a street in Jerusalem, October 24, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Despite the obsessive journalist’s deep involvement in a cause or causes, this does not mean they violate ethical guidelines.

“The use of the term ‘ethical’ here is wrong,” said Ginosar. “We have determined that they are meeting the highest ethical standards. They see the role of the journalist as advancing an agenda and they use legitimate tools to do that inside ethical guidelines they have set for themselves.”

Barlev is a little put off by the concept of “obsessive” and the negative connotations it holds. Nevertheless, she agrees with the general outlines of Reich’s and Ginosar’s model. She accepts the implicit assumption in their model that there’s no contradiction between journalism and social activism.

“I engage in journalistic work with all the information I publish. I cross-reference information, I want to see documents. It’s not a contradiction that I’m taking part in a social struggle,” she said.

Or-ly Barlev.
Or-ly Barlev.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Reich relates the rise of obsessive journalism to wider changes in society. “Today there’s a lack of balance between those hiding the truth and those searching for it,” he said.

Many more people get up in the morning to obscure what is happening in the world than to reveal it.

Prof. Zvi Reich

“Many more people get up in the morning to obscure what is happening in the world than to reveal it. The spin industry, public relations, social-media editors – there are more and more people like these and fewer and fewer journalists.”

Negative reaction

Nevertheless, Ginosar and Reich don’t believe that obsessive journalism has become the mainstay of the industry; they say it can’t be. “The journalists we interviewed said that their editors often reacted negatively to their stories: ‘Not again? How much can you do?’” said Reich. “Repetition is hard. A newspaper needs to have a clear agenda and reputation to enable it.”

Indeed, their interviews were with journalists working for the mainstream media, where the obsessive models exist but only to a small degree. This is where the independent media comes into the picture. Anyone who follows it can easily identify the causes of a media outlet or the journalists working for it.

Ha’ayin Hashvi’it, for example, stresses the failures of the mainstream media. Shakuf specializes in government transparency, Sicha Mekomit is focused on the occupation while the Hottest Place in Hell concentrates on social injustice.

The independent media play an important role in obsessive journalism and leads to social change

Dr. Avshalom Ginosar

“When you go to the margins, there are media outlets like ‘The Hottest Place in Hell’, where most writers meet these parameters," Ginosar said. "That’s really obsessive writing on issues that don’t get much coverage in the mainstream media, for instance foreign workers. The independent media play an important role in obsessive journalism and leads to social change.”

Tomer Avital, Tel Aviv, August 19, 2020.
Tomer Avital, Tel Aviv, August 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shakuf is identified by the public mainly by its editor, Tomer Avital, who rose to fame when the Knesset withdrew his press credentials on the grounds that he wasn’t a journalist and appeared as a contestant on the reality show “Married at First Sight.”

Avital is founder and editor of Shakuf and relies solely on donations from readers to finance it. He calls them his publishers. But behind the scenes, the central figure in the undertaking in terms of donations is Nir Ben-Zvi, a former high-tech executive identified on the Shakuf website as cofounder and CEO. Ben-Zvi was the one behind the recent decision to merge management and operations – but not editorial – with Ha’ayin Hashvi’it.

Ben-Zvi had a promising future in high-tech. Two weeks after he left the army’s famed 8200 intelligence unit, he was already working at the cybersecurity startup WatchDox. He filled a series of top management jobs until the company was sold in 2015 to the Canadian company Blackberry.

“I did well from the exit and the bonuses given by Blackberry, who wanted the senior management to stay, but it wasn’t a life-changing amount of money,” he recalled. He left after two years and decided that tech was no longer for him.

“I looked for something in the social justice world, especially in journalism because it is something I had known very well as a hobby,” Ben-Zvi said. “I’m a media freak. I read everything from Haaretz-TheMarker to Makor Rishon, from beginning to end. Since high school I’ve been following Ha’ayin Hashvi’it to learn what’s going on behind the scenes in the media.”

The website of Shakuf, October 29, 2020.
The website of Shakuf, October 29, 2020.Credit: Screenshot

Those were the days when Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 were exploding around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, again exposing the link between politics and money. Ben-Zvi hooked up with Avital to form Shakuf in July 2018.

The business model relies on public donations. “Our first condition is that the money comes from the public by fixed [bank] transfers of up to 1,000 shekels a month – no advertising or advertisers," Ben-Zvi said. “When you have advertisers and you attack them, they boycott you. Some media outlets stay strong, but others knuckle under. We didn’t want to be part of that.”

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