Bloodbath in the Press

Israel's newspapers industry hasn't seen this much action in decades.

For years papers have been declining as readers scorn the press for Internet. Suddenly, no less than four new newspapers were launched inside a year. All are part of the global "metro" trend: free papers distributed in bus and train stations, designed to pass the travel time while presenting the major events of the day.
In Israel, the metro market is in its infancy. The business models under consideration are distribution at gas and train stations. This is how Shlomo Ben-Zvi's newspaper Israeli has worked for more than a year. Sheldon Adelson's new attempt, Israel Today (Yisrael Hayom), will be distributed to mailboxes, and the two new papers from Arnon Mozes and the David Wiessman-Eli Azur team will be passed out at various point of sale, such as supermarkets.

Why are so many new papers starting now? One might assume that if rich, powerful businessmen are entering the business, there must be a gold mine in them thar freebies. But is that so?

Not really. What they want is mainly influence. Newspapers are not particularly profitable, nor are they a major growth industry. Nobody gets into the business for the money.

For years newspaper readership has been declining, abroad and here. The rise of Internet, the proliferation of radio and television channels, and social and cultural changes have radically changed the face of the printed press.

The papers must adapt. Some newspapers adapt business model and direction, some prosper, some fail.

In the process, opportunities arise. As habits change, so will distribution opportunities - as well as content and prices.

This is what has brought us the freebie paper and its alternative distribution channels - gas and train stations, supermarkets and mailboxes.

In some cases, this is only an offensive strategy to break into a new market and pick up market share. But in other cases, like that of Yedioth Ahronoth, it is a defensive strategy.

How will this affect people who make a living from newspapers? For journalists, this is wonderful. After years of cutbacks, we're getting offers. That is good. For publishers, it's a headache. Their workers are demanding raises. they'll have to invest resources in improving and upgrading their products. But all this is only in the short run.

In the long run, questions hover over the newspaper business. Today's newspapers can't keep their readership if the new freebies manage to flourish.

The significance is that after a bloody fight over a few years, the newspaper business will shrink again, in terms of the number of papers and jobs for journalists.

Only the best and the brightest will survive. That's how it is with capitalism. There may be free papers, but there are no free lunches.