There is a tale about the legendary Gustav Schocken, who was
publisher and editor in chief of Haaretz for almost half a century.
When a certain longtime Ha'aretz subscriber complained about the
paper's line on certain issues, Mr.
Schocken is said to have answered him: "You have obviously been
wasting your time and your money reading Ha'aretz. I strongly
advise you to reconsider your subscription." This anecdote may of
course be apocryphal. I, at any rate, who came to be Mr. Schocken's
successor, have never found any direct evidence to support
But it accurately reflects the character of the man.
It was the character of a publisher with an overwhelming sense of
commitment. A unique kind of businessman who could not compromise
with his customers, Gustav-Gershom Schocken was an intellectual
steeped in European culture and in Zionist ideals who became one of
the founding fathers of modem Israeli journalism, and indeed of
modem Israel. He played an important role in shaping the new
country's political norms and cultural values.
Fact or myth, generations of Ha' aretz writers and editors have
grown up on this anecdote. Ha' aretz is a paper that takes strong
stands on many issues. The duty it feels to endorse, to object, to
campaign, even on O(:casion to crusade, is a vital part of its
A Subscriber's Protest
More than 80 percent of Ha' aretz's 70,000 paying readers are
subscribers. Some 40 percent of them have been reading the paper
for more than seven years.
Many of them feel like shareholders rather than mere customers;
almost like members of the board, whose perfect right it is to give
us a hard time, to complain, to criticize, and sometimes to punish.
Canceling one's subscription is the traditional reaction of the
newspaper reader angered or offended by his paper. Sometimes these
cancelations are intended as an expression of protest, and turn out
to be temporary. But many others are serious.
Whether Mr. Schocken did or did not make that comment to that irate
reader, he did once respond publicly and in a similar vein to a
letter to the editor canceling a subscription for policy reasons.
The exchange took place in June 1988, during the early days of the
Palestinian uprising, the Intifada.
"I am not a masochist," the reader's letter began. "1 have had a
subscription to Ha' aretz for many years, and as a man of liberal
views, I enjoy the contents and the balanced information that the
newspaper provides its readers. But I was surprised to see on your
front page the picture of a baby from Gaza who lost an eye after
being injured by a rubber bullet. The page editor apparently
believes that his readers will find the sight of a pitiable baby
particularly interesting. I would like to stress the fact that I
have the most moderate views and that I am a believer in
negotiations as a means of solving the conflict in peaceful ways.
But I am not a masochist and, therefore, this picture has prompted
me to react. Consequently, I wish to end my subscription to your
newspaper (00') I also intend to instruct the advertising firm that
works for my company to refrain from advertising in your newspaper,
so as to help prevent an editor of this sort, as well as the
photographer, from making a living." The editor in chief, then
almost 80 years old, insisted on answering personally. Here are two
"We believe that we fulfilled our duty by publishing the photograph
of the nine-month-old baby from Gaza who was shot with a rubber
bullet by our troops (00') This is the most important issue at
stake now. In the upcoming elections, the Israeli voter will be
called upon to decide whether it is right to continue a policy that
produces such results." "Let me remind you that in the middle of
the 1948 War of Independence, a young Israeli writer published two
stories denouncing the abuse by Jewish soldiers of Arab civilians
and their property. Perhaps then, too, someone accused that writer
of being a masochist. Today, these two stories are considered
classics of modem Hebrew literature and their author has been
awarded the Israel Prize." But Mr. Schocken's reasoned arguments
failed to convince the reader. He did not renew his subscription
and his cosmetics company never resumed advertising in
Mr. Schocken's reaction sounds almost anachronistic. Today,
publishing a daily newspaper for ideological reasons seems an
impossible luxury. And, indeed, it is not easy to survive with a
broadsheet that requires at least 30 minutes to read, even
cursorily, in a country with 14 domestic TV channels and 33 foreign
and international channels; in a country where two households in 10
use a PC and modem; in a country where people generally drive to
work, since there is no subway system - and thus no time to read
the paper on the train. Add to that two strong and aggressively
competitive tabloids and you find that life is not a picnic.
Nevertheless, Ha' aretz and its steadily growing body of readers
strive to uphold the values and principles embodied by Gustav
Schocken and imbued in his newspaper. His son, Amos, the present
publisher, is as zealous as his father in maintaining these
It is for this reason that we keep trying to extend the limits of
the public's right to know. Often, the material that we fight to
publish is not entirely welcomed by our readers. That is the case
in our constant struggle with the military censorship. The gray
routine of these daily battles is not particularly glorious.
Granted, some of our victories were celebrated in the foreign press
- for instance, the publication of the names and faces of the heads
of the Mossad and the Secret Service. But who wants to know
everything about training accidents, or administrative arrests, or
arms sales abroad or even ancient anecdotes from the army's veiled
Many Israelis feel national security considerations should take
precedence over journalistic values. Even if most of our readers
have tolerated our adventures into these military zones, they never
really applauded us for it.
By the same token, many Ha' aretz readers who are involved in the
stock exchange do not especially admire our persistent support for
a capital gains tax on stock market profits.
The Intifada - A New Phase
But the longest and perhaps most dangerous confrontation between
Ha' aretz and its readers took place in the late 1980s, during the
Journalistic coverage of the Palestinian uprising was not an easy
task for the Israeli press. At first, the press, like the entire
establishment, underestimated the events and tended to see them as
just sporadic riots. We were among the first to discern - and to
say - that Israel had entered a new phase in its relations with the
Ha'aretz, as in previous periods in the country's history, was
evolving positions that were contrary to the drift of public
opinion in general, and contrary to the views of many of its own
readers. There were three major stages in our process of
understanding and accepting the new reality.
The first stage can perhaps be defined as linguistic, but it was
substantive nevertheless. We were the first to decide to use the
Palestinian term "Intifada" - uprising - in all Ha' aretz reports.
It took us almost half a year to make that decision, but even then
it was controversial. Reporters and columnists, as well as analysts
and politicians, were referring to the events in all kinds of ways:
"unrest," "disturbances," "breaches of the peace," "demonstration,"
"clashes," "riots," even "rebellion" - each writer and his own
semantics. The first who adopted the term "Intifada" was aHa' aretz
columnist in March 1988, four months after it broke out.
The second stage was to publish information from Palestinian
sources, especially referring to numbers of casualties, alongside
the official Israel Defense Forces (IOF) version. Often there were
wide discrepancies between the two versions. The army could not
supply accurate and reliable information on what had happened on
the Palestinian side. Intifada casualties were taken to Palestinian
hospitals and the families sometimes took possession of the bodies
before they were officially identified and counted. There were also
different definitions of the term "wounded" applied by each side.
According to the IDF's standards, people treated in local
infirmaries for inhaling tear gas or suffering simple fractures
were not counted at all.
Each side did its best to manipulate the numbers. Our editors and
reporters developed skills for getting the whole picture. They used
the perspectives of both sides and analyzed them together with
information from third parties, such as foreign media or
human-rights organizations. Yet, we were strongly criticized by
readers for our readiness to use Palestinian sources in our
The third phase came much later. Since the Intifada lasted in
different forms for more than three years, and faded gradually into
sporadic acts of violence, there was an ongoing debate as to
whether it had ended or not. The Israeli reader was getting fed up
with reports from the West Bank and Gaza, and the press itself
became tired and bored with reporting on these events.
Nevertheless, we at Ha' aretz took a strategic decision to continue
with daily reports of clashes, just as before.
Try to imagine these annoying reports appearing each day, with
their lists of Palestinian casualties and their detailed accounts
of how each violent incident took place. They kept on appearing in
Ha'aretz, when most of the Israeli press had effectively stopped
their day-to-day coverage of the Intifada, and reported only on
special events, and even then usually on their inside pages.
Some of the politicians accused us of not permitting the uprising
to die down by our relentless coverage of it. Some of our readers
complained that not only were we biased, we were getting monotonous
During the most intense Intifada years, from 1988-1990, we
experienced an ominously growing number of "content quitters."
Content quitters are readers who cancel their subscriptions because
of the content of the papernot for reasons of distribution, or
price, or for various personal reasons.
As a rule, some 18-24 percent of our quitters cite content. (This
figure does not include those who cite "price," but mean, in fact,
value for money which refers to content as well.) The most common
complaints among quitters are that the paper takes too much time to
read, or that the content is too heavy, or that there is not enough
material for the family, or that the stories are not juicy enough,
which means not enough celebrity stuff. A hard core of content
quitters object to the substance: that the paper is too leftist (on
security matters), or too conservative (on economic matters), or
antireligious, or pro-Arab - which implies a lack of
As the long-serving address for letters of complaints, I still
wonder what it is that drives a long-term subscriber to quit. I am
well aware of the fact that a certain number of our readers don't
really like us, but as there is now no other mainstream Hebrew
broadsheet, they reluctantly cling to us and hang on.
Then one morning, perhaps after 20 years, a veteran subscriber
suddenly lashes out and throws back his subscription in our faces.
The explosion can be caused by a single phrase in an article, or a
photograph, or even a headline. His letter will invariably begin
with two customary statements: "I have been a subscriber for 20 -
or 25 or 30 - years," and "This morning I was shocked to find...."
I always wonder where this reader was for all those years, since we
haven't changed much. I think about all the energy he must have
expended in order to tolerate us.
How many such readers do we lose for "ideological" reasons? We
started to run a survey on this specific question only in 1994. The
data we gather comes from analyzing those who have actually quit,
so we do not know how many are still "in the closet." The "poetical
quitters" account for only four percent of the total number of
quitters in "normal" times. But somehow these hundreds of
individuals a year are the white smoke rising from a dormant
volcano; you can never tell when it will erupt. I think it did
erupt in 1988.
We must achieve an annual growth of around five percent to keep our
share in the market. During the years of 1988 to 1990, we were
functioning against the backdrop of a steadily falling readership.
We lost some one-eighth of our subscribers. As no other reason was
evident, we attributed this fall-off to our policy towards the
The Intifada broke out in December 1987 and its active phase lasted
until the Gulf War at the beginning of 1991. There is a perfect
correlation between those dates and the trend we experienced, and
it accorded precisely with the direct reactions we were getting
from our readers. .
This made it very hard for us to maintain our editorial policy. For
nearly three years, almost every morning, we would ask ourselves if
we were not risking the very existence of the newspaper by our
stubbornness. But it was against our nature to shift our ground. We
could never let the paper lose its soul by trying to please
The only action we took was to improve and update and develop our
product. In recent years we have greatly expanded our family pages,
our arts and leisure sections and our sports coverage. We have
launched a weekly book review supplement that has become the best
in the country and our weekly Internet magazine is the leader in
its field. If we cannot make all our readers love us, we can try to
make them stay with us because, by quitting, they will lose a
Without Official Clearance
Our most recent confrontation has been not only with our readers,
but with most of our colleagues as well, and it is more bitter than
any dispute we have ever had. For the past four years we
deliberately ignored an understanding between the military and the
Israeli media, whereby stories that involve IDF fatalities were not
to be published before the IDF spokesperson had given clearance to
This was not military censorship, as some observers wrongly
assumed, but an authentic expression of the army's solidarity with
the families of soldiers in the field. The army has always seen it
its sacred duty to personally notify stricken families of their
bereavement. Once all the notifications had been delivered, the
army would release an official account of the incident, adding that
all the families concerned had been notified. All the other
families whose sons were serving in the same area could then
This humane practice would regularly cause delays in the reporting
of major events in which soldiers were killed. The silence of the
Israeli media became impossible to sustain in the face of
on-the-spot, real-time coverage by international news media - on
the air and on the Web. Israeli media consumers began to turn to
these foreign providers rather than to their own domestic media to
find out what was happening. Newspapers were the most seriously
compromised. Many major stories were not cleared by deadline, and
we were prevented from publishing them for another entire day - or
two days if the event in question took place before the weekend.
Often, the clearance to print arrived soon after deadline, which
meant that we came out in the morning without the major story, but
it was being broadcast by then on domestic radio and
At Ha' aretz, we decided to report such stories without waiting for
the official clearance. We never published the names of the dead
soldiers before official notification, nor provided any information
that might identify them.
Nevertheless, we were bitterly criticized for creating an
atmosphere of unbearable tension for the families of soldiers who
knew that their loved ones were serving in that particular area. Do
not forget that almost everybody, including ourselves, has someone
dear in the service.
Our competitors continued to cover these stories with bold
headlines shouting vague and sometimes false information like:
"Heavy artillery fire across the Lebanon border," while the truth
was that three IDF soldiers had been killed in an ambush which then
led to an Israeli artillery barrage in that sector. Our competitors
accused us of trying to profit from our exclusivity while we
actually wanted them to join us in publishing the stories.
Ha' aretz' s policy on this matter became a matter of public
controversy. The association of bereaved families protested against
us. The defense establishment attacked us. Politicians criticized
us. We were warned that the upshot might be special legislation
forbidding Israeli media from publishing such stories before IDF
clearance. Some of our readers described our position as
prejudicing their right not to know.
Publish and Be Damned
If anything in the editor's job was literally a nighhnare, this was
it. It is hard to describe the difficulty of confronting the
system, and the whole society, in late night decisions to go ahead
and publish. Yet this policy of ours eventually forced the army to
improve its system of notifying the families.
Whereas previously it took an average of 12 hours, we have recently
reached a new understanding under which the media will
involuntarily embargo a story for no more than eight hours. Given
that all major dailies go to bed around midnight and hit the
streets at six a.m., this means that we can report freely on events
with casualties until only two hours before deadlirie.
These two hours of self-restraint still leave a certain gap between
us at Ha' aretz and the international news services. But we are an
Israeli paper, operating within the norms of Israeli society.
Ten years ago, there were three country-wide Hebrew broadsheets in
Israel. Two of them, owned by political movements, have since
closed down because of lack of readers and bad management. They
were ideological newspapers, committed to ideas but not paying
enough attention to the requirements of the changing markets. We
have no intention of going that way.
In fact, we have enlarged our share of the market, even during the
current period of stagnation and even some regression in newspaper
sales in Israel.
In 1996, we were read by 6 percent of the population; in 1997, by
Our circulation has grown by some 45 percent in the last eight
years. We remain influential and sometimes we can take the credit
for changing norms and attitudes.
Now we must carry on with our lion tamer's task, deploying
commihnent and integrity as assets, giving our readers the quality
product they deserve, but, when necessary, standing up to
In our Israel jubilee issue, we ran a piece entitled "Fifty Reasons
to Live in Israel (Despite Everything)." One of our readers reacted
by sending us a note saying: "There is one more reason, one you did
not mention - and that is Ha' aretz."