Taking Stock / Look Who Bought the Post

Noni Mozes, Ofer Nimrodi, Eliezer Fishman and Amos Schocken woke up yesterday morning to find a new power at The Jerusalem Post, and you just wouldn't believe who it is.

They used to be a team, two sports writers at Hadashot, a defunct daily newspaper. But very quickly after leaving the pen-pushing industry, they discovered their true talent - business.

The first became one of the most successful soccer agents in the world. From time to time, the British press describes his wages and his mediation fees. His buddies back in Israel simply can't believe what they read. In the last season alone, he got $3.3 million from Manchester United for bringing them players. That is Pini Zahavi for you.

The second guy frequently pops up in the sports section, but he tries to keep out of the business pages. He rarely grants interviews and doesn't like to talk about his business, but don't be misled by that quiet demeanor. His network encompasses businessmen, bankers, politicians, sports agents. If there's a pie, he has a finger in it. In recent years his business has been growing like a weed, as he buys businesses, develops them and conquers market segments one after another.

He bought the printing outfit of another dead newspaper, Hamishmar, and spent millions of dollars investing in new print technology. He has a network of postbox newspapers, a Russian-language paper, two profitable radio stations, the Mirkaei Tikshoret billboard company, and then there's his crown jewel - Charlton, which buys and sells rights to broadcast international soccer games. It has the rights to the next two World Cup competitions.

Not big business, but a big name

He may have bought a newspaper, but Eli Azur isn't looking for headlines. He doesn't want the big publishers to view him as a threat. He's involved in the less sensational aspects of the news business; he isn't the flag-bearer of quality journalism; and he isn't concerned about the daily editorial. Eli Azur is in the business to make money - and fast.

Now that picture has changed. Hollinger, the giant publishing group, surprised the media world Tuesday by announcing that it had sold one of the best-known brands in Israel, and the world, The Jerusalem Post.

The JP isn't big business. In recent years, it generally lost money. But make no mistake, it's a brand that the international Jewish community knows well.

JP's financial results may have deteriorated, but the deal Azur struck looks intriguing. He and CanWest agreed to pay $13 million, not much compared with the prices bandied about in recent years. When JP's owner, Conrad Black, first put the paper on the block three years ago, his investment banker, Morgan Stanley, suggested a price of $110 million.

Everybody knew that was too much, but nobody thought the JP would go for a measly $13 million. The buyer is getting not only a debt-free corporation, but a brand name, subscribers and operations in North America, and also the print business, land in Jerusalem, and losses recognizable for tax purposes that amount to tens of millions of shekels. In the last four years, the paper has lost about $20 million.

Anyway, Israel's publishing industry went into shock. Everybody knows Eli Azur and what he's been up to, but nobody so much as dreamed that he'd get his hands on a brand name like that and, overnight, turn into a major player.

Now Israel's media barons are asking themselves: How did that happen? How did Azur, of all people, team up with CanWest and pull off this one?

There had been other suitors looking at the JP - billionaire Haim Saban and businessman Shlomo Ben Zvi, who owns 20 percent of Channel 10 and whose financial capacity - and ability to keep financing the television network's losses - is unclear.

Two weeks ago, Ben Zvi still seemed in the running, and even poised to buy the JP for $9 million. But Azur and friends upped their offer, at the last moment, and won the prize.

How did Azur finance the deal? What will he do with the paper? Why did Saban and Ben Zvi withdraw? We may learn the answers in the coming days, but from this moment on, Azur can't remain an anonymous businessman known only to sports aficionados and media entrepreneurs.

The lesson of the tale is clear: The world of journalism and publishing is changing, and the grip of the three big players is weakening. Internet, television, cable do nothing good for anybody in this industry.

The big papers may insist that he's a minnow, that his papers are low-quality, that the JP mainly loses money, but they may well be wrong. By buying the JP, Azur proved that he wants to and can elbow into the big players' field. He, nobody else, managed to ally with the Asper family of Canada, which owns CanWest.

Azur has been growing and expanding while the newspaper world contracts. His business models may be less refined than those of his distinguished colleagues, the big publishers. But they may be just as profitable - and perhaps more so.