Declining advertising and circulation revenues have forced newspapers to introduce paywalls on their websites, but some free news sites are funded by deep-pocketed sponsors seeking to push a political line or fill a niche abandoned by the traditional press. This process has burgeoned in Israel too over the past year.
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These sites don't have to figure out the hit to their advertising revenues if they introduced a user fee. An excellent example is the New York-based investigative journalism website ProPublica, which was established in 2006 by the Sandler Foundation. It employs dozens of journalists and has won two Pulitzer Prizes.
A relatively new site funded by charitable foundations, InsideClimate News, has won a Pulitzer for its reporting on a tar sands spill and oil pipeline safety. Other news sites around the world are funded by think tanks with agendas.
Over the past year in Israel similar news, opinion and investigative journalism sites have proliferated; they're also funded by wealthy foundations or a tycoon. One site, called 61, is funded by a nonprofit organization and aims to make sense of what it calls the "mass of political spin and deception flooding the media."
The Alaxon website, edited by former Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Dov Alfon and funded by a nonprofit organization, covers culture and science. Then there's Al-Monitor, a Middle East news site with an Israeli news section in Hebrew and English called Israel Pulse.
Many other sites both large and small operate on a similar model. Some have low annual budgets in the tens of thousands of dollars but pay decent salaries to their writers, most of them veterans of traditional news operations. The stories may not get the attention the mainstream media does, but the sites have a following.
The bane of moneyed interests
Al-Monitor was established by Jamal Daniel, a wealthy U.S. businessman with Syrian Christian roots. The site, in English and a number of Middle Eastern languages, aims to encourage a dialogue among people from mutually hostile countries in the Middle East.
Its Israel Pulse section was established in 2012 and is edited by Claudine Korall, a former Israeli who lives in France and runs a Geneva-based foundation that Daniel funds. Akiva Eldar and Mazal Mualem, both former Haaretz correspondents, are on its roster. "They can pay very well – much more than what's customary in the local press," a source said.
According to Korall, "We have an outstanding press in Israel, but some of it is losing its independence due to moneyed interests." Korall also referred to the free Israeli daily established by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a paper warm to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"What Sheldon Adelson is doing with Israel Hayom doesn't contribute to freedom of the press because the competition isn't fair," Korall said. "And there are people who are not Netanyahu supporters who have the right to have their opinions heard."
61 was actually established as a short-term venture for the run-up to the Knesset election in January. "It was supposed to be a very short project but it attracted a big following and we decided to continue with it," said Editor-in-Chief Yonatan Levy, a former journalist for Yedioth Ahronoth and Bamahane, the magazine of the Israel Defense Forces.
"The idea was that there was a lot of disinformation and political spin linked to the election, and the discourse was based on emotion and backed by very little examination of the data. We wanted to inject a little order into things so people could understand what was behind what they were feeling."
According to Levy, "We have a rather clear worldview, but it's not associated with a party. From our worldview, we choose the stories and the approach. For example, we presented seven alternatives to the [state] budget presented by Finance Minister Yair Lapid."
61 is funded by the Molad Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, which in turn is supported by private contributions and foundations. The website is modeled on similar sites in the United States that were founded by think tanks providing information supporting Barack Obama's election efforts.
Levy and his site's creative director are the only employees at 61, while the site's content is farmed out. "Our agenda isn't money and interests, but rather ideology, and that's okay," he said. Still, some of his site's articles have been picked up by traditional media outlets, he notes.
A voice from the right
Most new foundation-funded sites are left leaning, particularly on foreign and defense policy, but sites such as Mida are right of center. Founded by Ran Baratz, the director of the Tikvah Fund's political thought, economics and strategy program, Mida was established by the El Haprat nonprofit organization, which gets funding from the New York-based Tikvah Fund.
"Our approach was that there is a center-left press in Israel that is progressive on economics, while there's a right-wing religious press that also tends a great deal toward the left on economics," Baratz said. "I thought there was a public in the middle that was not economically socialist but was secular and right-wing. The precise definition would be a Republican in the American sense, with realist security positions."
Mida has a regular staff of six and an annual budget of $270,000. Some of the site's writers are former staffers of Shlomo Ben-Zvi's right-of-center newspaper Makor Rishon who left the financially ailing paper.
Baratz says Mida attracted 80,000 online views last month, but he can't foresee a time when the site could become self-sustaining through advertising or a user fee. "I'm realistic," he said. "In our time, it's hard to make money from content."
The Megafon news site is unusual in that it was founded by a group of 60 to 70 journalists; each invested about NIS 1,000. Editor-in-Chief Tuvi Pollak, a former Maariv journalist, was elected to his post for a two-year term. Megafon's journalists hope to eventually establish a paywall or generate revenues through advertising.
The site received a $15,000 contribution from the New Israel Fund for promotion, and marketing and other charitable funding is said to be on the way. Pollak says the site attracts about 150,000 unique viewers a month, who on average spend six or seven minutes there.