Israeli Media Has a Strong New Kid on the Block - and It's Maariv That's Paying the Price

Eli Azur's weekend newspaper Sof Hashavua, launched at the end of 2012, already has some 15,000 subscribers - and a long line of former Maariv writing talent.

Radio stations usually use a sharp noise to censor obscenities, but in the ads for Eli Azur's weekend newspaper Sof Hashavua - which are played again and again on the radio stations he also owns - the sound is used to bleep out the name of a competitor: Maariv.

The Maariv daily isn't just another of Sof Hashavua's competitors. The vast majority of writers on Azur's newspaper, launched at the end of 2012, are former senior columnists at Maariv, including Ben Caspit, Yehuda Sharoni, Ron Maiberg, Natan Zahavi, and gossip columnist Leora. Azur was even in competition to buy out Maariv along with its printing presses but lost out to Shlomo Ben-Zvi, the publisher of the right-leaning daily Makor Rishon.

But now, just over half a year later, while Maariv wallows in losses and is forced to undertake more and more cutbacks in order to survive, it is Sof Hashavua that evinces stability. In the industry it's being said that to find out why Maariv continues going downhill despite massive cutbacks, one should actually look at Sof Hashavua, which manages to flourish.  One of the reasons for this is the migration of Maariv subscribers to the new newspaper.

Sof Hashavua, according to industry estimates, has already reached a circulation of over 15,000 newspapers to paid subscribers a week plus another several thousand sold at stands – a significant achievement for less than one year. Combined with ad revenues, which are thought to reach about NIS 500,000 a month, industry sources believe the paper is registering losses but meeting the business targets set out by Azur. Exact figures weren't forthcoming from Sof Hashavua, but sources there said more than 50,000 copies are printed each week and that it's breaking even financially.

The main reason the newspaper is relatively stable is Azur's ability to create synergies with his other media operations. Azur owns a printing house where he puts out the English-language Jerusalem Post, also under his ownership. In addition, the sales and customer service systems for Sof Hashavua are based on that newspaper's existing centers, and some of the content for Sof Hashavua comes from other media outlets that he owns, such as Israel Post and Forbes Israel (Azur recently lost his Forbes franchise, but the cooperation will continue).

Azur's largest spending probably goes toward paying for talent. The new newspaper has a very small full-time staff but most of the payroll is spent on featured writers and commentators. It is believed that although the pay Azur offers writers is relatively low in market terms - certainly in comparison with the high levels of pay once offered at Maariv - journalists have been left with little alternative but to keep writing for the paper.

"Azur can be appallingly efficient," says a media executive. "He invests lots of management resources into this paper to keep it economically feasible, and chooses to invest mainly for good writers. In the meantime it works and his newspaper produces stories and makes waves."

As opposed to the old-time newspapers, Sof Hashavua's model is much more adapted to the new press. The newspaper doesn't appear on weekdays and the edition, published only on weekends, hardly ever carries ongoing news. "The quality of content and the level of design and presentation might be debatable, but in the end the reader receives a product that he feels offers some sort of added value," explains one media executive.

Over the past few months Azur has transformed himself from the owner of a few niche media outlets, including newspapers in English and Russian, and radio stations and a free newspaper that don't carry much influence, into the publisher of a central newspaper with a growing presence. He is able to move his media stars between the radio stations and the newspaper, save on expenses, and is becoming an increasingly dominant force in Israeli media.

Ben Caspit's foothold

Azur deepened his hold in the printed media just as the industry was in a slump. The share of newspapers in the advertising pie fell from 50% in 2005 to 31% in 2012. At the same time new players were entering the arena: The Israel Hayom freebie and Calcalist, a financial newspaper.

According to Ifat Advertising Monitoring, the number of column inches supplied for advertising by the newspaper industry jumped from 19.2 million in 2006 to 28.3 million in 2012. This, along with declining advertising budgets, meant a dramatic drop in print advertising rates – by more than 50% on average since 2006 according to an analysis of Ifat's data.

If the overall pie continues to shrink, the only way a new media outlet can break in is by generating its revenues at the expense of existing entities. "There is no doubt that Sof Hashavua profited from the weakening of Maariv," says an advertising executive. "It receives the same budgets that once went to Maariv, and companies diverted budgets to it in order to help. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the large newspapers reduced the number of the pages. In addition, there were local newspaper chains that closed, and this freed up tens of millions of shekels a year in the market."

The senior content roles at the newspaper are filled by Doron Cohen, the former editor of Maariv's Sofshavua weekend magazine and its NRG website, who is responsible for the magazine section, alongside Golan Bar-Yosef who is responsible for the news end. But insiders say Ben Caspit is the most dominant personality concerning the newspaper's content. "He is the star of the newspaper and is involved in every decision," says a media executive.

"Caspit is no doubt the highest-ranking writer, but the editorial decisions are made by the editors," say insiders.

Moti Kimchi