Shlomo Ben-Zvi's acquisition of Maariv is expected to rearrange the Israeli journalism industry and may even affect the country's political scene.
Maariv's announcement that the newspaper and most assets of the troubled media group are being sold to Ben-Zvi ends Nochi Dankner's 17-month ownership of the paper via the IDB group's Discount Investment Corp.
Ben-Zvi, whose Hirsch Media also owns the right-leaning Makor Rishon daily, will be getting his hands on the Maariv brand and the paper's estimated 50,000 paying subscribers. He is expected to merge Maariv's editorial operations with those of Makor Rishon. But with mergers, one partner is usually stronger, and in this case it's expected to be Makor Rishon.
Maariv said Ben-Zvi is due to offer jobs to 300 to 400 of its staff at the combined operation, most of them editorial staff. At the end of last year, Maariv had 377 editorial staff members. It had 1,327 marketing and distribution workers, 177 printing-plant employees and 136 administrative staff. About 1,600 to 1,700 employees are therefore expected to lose their jobs in the sale.
Maariv in its new incarnation will need to be lean on the model of Makor Rishon, which employs only about 200 people and does not own a printing plant. Ben-Zvi faces two possible options: Either upgrade Makor Rishon using the Maariv brand or reduce Maariv to the dimensions of Makor Rishon's operation.
In any event, the new product will have to be a lot leaner - the merged newspaper is certainly not expected to employ more than 500 people.
Strategically, Ben-Zvi has to decide whether to keep the paper to the right of Likud or make it more centrist, competing directly with Israel Hayom, which supports the Likud government. There is no love lost between Ben-Zvi and Israel Hayom's Sheldon Adelson; it's reasonable to assume that Ben-Zvi will go head-to-head with Adelson.
But making an ideological shift at a veteran newspaper like Maariv is no easy task. Many of its reporters and editors are unlikely to toe the line. Some may simply choose to leave.
The thinking is that the new Maariv can retain at least half of its readers - the ones who who are either not sensitive to the paper's editorial line or identify with Makor Rishon's right-leaning orientation. Makor Rishon is thought by people in the industry to be in decent shape financially, with most of its revenue coming from subscription fees rather than advertising.
Maariv moved to the right in recent years, perhaps endearing it to Makor Rishon's readers, but the divide between the two target audiences remains wide. Even if the new Maariv is more centrist than Makor Rishon, it is likely to lose readers to Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth.
Maariv in its new incarnation, however, could become a higher quality, more right-wing alternative to Israel Hayom. Yedioth could benefit from this: Israel Hayom, a key rival, would have to compete with a new power on the right as Yedioth remains alone in the political center.
Both Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon are printed by the Schocken group, which publishes Haaretz and TheMarker. Maariv's Bat Yam printing plant is not part of the sale to Ben-Zvi, so the new Maariv will have to find printing and distribution facilities elsewhere.
Israel Hayom has long sought to buy printing facilities. The sale of Maariv may provide Israel Hayom with an opportunity to acquire Maariv's printing presses and move them to a location of its own.
London native broadens his reach
Ben-Zvi is a 47-year-old London native from St. John's Wood.
At 14 he immigrated to Israel, studied at a yeshiva high school and then entered a hesder yeshiva - a religious seminary that combines studies with military service. He later studied math, philosophy and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and went into his family's real estate business.
Ben-Zvi lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and is married to the daughter of Conrad Morris, a leading British Jewish industrialist and developer. Some of the money for buying Maariv may be coming from Morris.
Ben-Zvi is identified with Likud's hawkish wing led by Moshe Feiglin. He was a Likud member until he went into the newspaper business. He had previously worked in real estate and high tech.
In some of his ventures he is a partner of American businessman Ronald Lauder - owner of Israel's Channel 10 and the president of the World Jewish Congress. Ben-Zvi once acquired a 20% stake in Channel 10 but sold it two years later.
With Lauder, he bought right-leaning Makor Rishon and the National Religious Party newspaper Hatzofeh. Ben-Zvi also acquired the West Bank settlement weekly Nekudah.
In 2006, he was a partner with Sheldon Adelson in a free paper called Yisraeli, but the money-losing paper closed and the two men traded recriminations. Adelson later founded Israel Hayom. (Amir Teig and Nati Tucker )
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