When veteran, highly accomplished journalists Dan Margalit and Mordechai Gilat were summarily fired from the newspaper Israel Hayom two weeks ago, the move was widely interpreted as a political housecleaning by its new editor in chief, Boaz Bismuth.
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But more recently it’s emerged that the firings are part of bigger changes at the giveaway daily, which is backed by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson and generally regarded as the house organ of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. As it turns out, Bismuth was not only named editor to tighten up Israel Hayom’s political line, but to stem the losses and improve operations.
When Israel Hayom was born in 2007, it shook up the Israeli newspaper industry, taking circulation and advertising from rivals even as it piled up huge losses. But more recently Israel Hayom has seen its circulation steadily decline. In the last several weeks only 450,000 copies of its weekend edition have been printed, 100,000 fewer than at its peak.
Margalit and Gilat were not the only journalists to lose their jobs at the newspaper. About 10 others, many of them highly paid, were also axed and others are expected to follow.
About the time Bismuth took over as editor, a team of U.S. consultants was brought in to make recommendations to improve operations, and from that was born a strategic plan devised by management to stem the paper’s losses.
Among the steps planned is to merge the group’s digital platforms, which include nrg, the new 360 site and Israel Hayom’s own platform. Other cost-cutting measures, which had only been partially implemented in the past, are now being put fully into effect. Management is also determined to boost revenues and has raised advertising rates several times.
Bismuth also has more ambitious editorial plans than his predecessor Amos Regev did. Under the old regime Israel Hayom didn’t try to create exclusive content on breaking stories. Bismuth is pressing reporters to get scoops and is highlighting them on the front page.
He is also following the advice of the U.S. consulting team and making the newspaper’s website more dynamic. Breaking stories and scoops now go up on the site before they appear in the newspaper.
For readers, however, the biggest change of all is how Israel Hayom presents itself. It is quietly trying to jettison the image of Netanyahu’s newspaper and become a newspaper of the center-right, which encompasses views that range from Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett to Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.
One example of the new coverage was last Friday’s newspaper, whose front page featured at article on Bennett’s proposal to require an 80-vote Knesset majority to divide Jerusalem in any future political agreement. Another featured an article by Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked, also of Habayit Hayehudi, including a large photo.
Photos of Sara Netanyahu attending events or traveling with her husband abroad, once a staple of the paper, have largely disappeared from its pages. But articles that present the prime minster in a bad light still don’t get published.
How does Netanyahu feel about the changes and do they signal cooling relations with Adelson? No one knows, but there are hints that the prime minister has a low opinion of Israel Hayom’s ability to influence public opinion, even though it distributes more copies than any other Israeli daily.
In any event, the newspaper’s ability to stem losses without drastic cutbacks is limited. It already accounts for a quarter of all ad linage in the country’s newspapers, which doesn’t leave room to grow, and the 700 million-shekel ($197 million) market for newspaper ads is shrinking.