The Tel Aviv local newspaper Ha’ir has gone through many incarnations in its 26 years. Since its founding, in October 1980, twelve editors have sat at its helm; every two years or so, on average, another editor stepped down after a tenure that was all too brief, given our expectations of them as ideological leaders and cultural symbols.
This frenzied rate of editorial turnover meant frequent changes of vision, leading in turn to changes in style and content. Every entering editor, as soon as he finished sending the members of the previous staff on their way, carried out a reshuffling that undid the reshuffling of two years earlier. As a rule, these reforms did little to increase circulation, but they did subject loyal readers to prolonged periods of adjustment.
Despite it all, Ha’ir managed to retain its place among the pack of Israeli locals as a newspaper with a strong and independent personality. Its major, enduring achievement lies in the fact that from day one, Ha’ir was fully identified with Tel Aviv. Ha’ir created a city in the conceptual sense of an entire world of urban culture—perhaps real, perhaps fantasy—without municipal boundaries, without a sewage system, almost without material substance. There were city papers—and there was Ha’ir.
Ha’ir. "The City." Not Ha’ir-Tel Aviv. The assumption was that there was only one city—and Ha’ir was its paper. Everyone knew which city it was; there was no need to mention it by name. Some said that Ha’ir saw itself as an omnipotent entity—not as a paper that belonged to the city but a paper that the city belonged to.
Despite the paper’s bumpy development—the ups and downs in quality; rapid turnover of senior staff members; writers’ names that changed so often they became invisible—the editors made it a point through the years to preserve the legendary bond between themselves and the city. Whether out of awareness of the crucial need for this or out of a healthy instinct, the various editors understood that if the myth were to be broken, and the readers left with nothing more than open drainage canals and a parking ticket on the windshield, the charm would fade. And so the paper developed several immortal sections along with a few legendary critics, star writers, and gifted artists, who, apart from their direct contribution, preserved the tradition and created continuity between editors—a continuity that became the backbone of the paper.
In this sense, the inability of Ha’ir to serve as a long-term home for its writers (for financial reasons, among others) was its greatest weakness. Compounding this were the unfortunate departures of Dudu Geva and Eli Mohar, prominent artists who began to find their voice in Ha’ir from its first day and who were closely identified with it (though Geva occasionally strayed to other pastures). The new Ha’ir is a paper whose band of writers and editors changes even before the readers have gotten used to them. And this was an ironclad rule in the old print media: A paper that does not maintain a warm, ongoing connection with its audience is a paper that’s easy to give up.
The subsidiary that operates the chain of locals belonging to Haaretz was originally called Itonut Mekomit (local press) and later branded as the Schocken chain. From an administrative point of view, Ha’ir was always one of the chain's papers, and its performance—for better or for worse—affected the company’s bottom line. Unlike the editors, the managers owed their allegiance to the company, but they always made it a point, most probably under instructions from the publisher, to leave the cultivation of Ha'ir's identity and the determination of its content in the hands of the editorial board. To its readers, Ha’ir stood on its own.
Over the years, the editors’ influence lessened and the business echelon became more involved in shaping the paper’s character. The managers struggled in a tough market dominated by the local supplements of Yediot Aharonot, which were distributed with the parent newspaper and, as such, automatically enjoyed wide circulation. In the spirit of the times, the administrative staff expanded, and the line between creating content and marketing it became increasingly blurred.
Managers were zigzagging too, navigating between selling with low readership and free distribution with high costs. The ruling of the anti-trust commissioner permitting Yedioth Ahronoth to distribute its locals as supplements of its national newspaper and the shrinking of print classifieds as a result of the success of free online ads brought the tradition of cutbacks to the point where the thinning of the writing and editorial staffs was felt in the finished product. The pace of editorial turnover accelerated, in the almost mystical hope that a savior would somehow arrive.
And here the managers took a bold—and possibly disastrous—step. For the first time since the founding of the chain, all of its editorial boards were brought together under one brand. The decision itself already broke a basic rule, according to which the executive board can go to the extreme of branding the chain (as a marketing tool) as long as it maintains the independence and special character of each paper.
Branding is an aggressive tool—not new or particularly revolutionary—that is suited to certain products, generally simple ones, and that manages to achieve gains in the field of hard marketing. A strong brand can sell weak products, at least in the short term. At times, the brand is a sticker on a pair of glasses that triples their price, and at other times it’s a strong trademark that people relate to emotionally, which can boost sales on old-fashioned products, as in the case of Strauss-Elite’s cow brand. Brand consultant Open is proud of the way it turned a few untidy kiosks into the well-oiled convenience store chain AM:PM.
But a newspaper isn’t a snack, and a newspaper chain isn’t a network of food stands. We can understand (and appreciate) the logic behind having a uniform layout for all branches of AM:PM so that customers can walk into any of the outlets and immediately feel at home and head for the right shelf. But the same logic does not apply to the reader of a local paper in the north (or south) of the country. Everyone needs his or her own paper—even if it’s untidy and not especially groundbreaking—and there is no need to merge that paper with the other ones in the chain.
By sacrificing Ha’ir on the branding altar, and christening the new creation Ha’ir-Tel Aviv, the paper was dragged down to the level of a branch in a drugstore chain. Added to this was a demeaning ad campaign with the slogan: “Every city (ir) has its Ha’ir.” In other words, we have branches in Safed and Holon, in Tel Aviv and Kiryat Motzkin. Ha’ir, the heart and soul of Israeli urban media, with its feet planted firmly in “the scene,” its head in the heavens, and its heart in the cities of the world, became a genetically engineered “content-snack.” It was a campaign that reduced “local flavor” to its lowest form, in which some infantile, secret local slang word is the communal glue that holds us together. “The fajan (fat guy) is stuffing his face with an eshtanur (Iraqi pita, or lafa outside of Jerusalem) at the mifletzet (the famous Jerusalem ‘monster slide’).” Wow, those Jerusalemites sure do talk cool… And now they’re dragging “Tel Aviv-ness” down to the level of some neighborhood song—and even that’s got a code phrase: “Driver, are you going to the dogs (a play on words referring to the Dog Beach, a strip of shoreline where dogs can run unleashed)?” What do they want from me? Give it a rest!
Ha’ir’s Tel Aviv franchise was redesigned and rebuilt with all the professional talent and muscle the branding firms and ad agencies could muster. Its new motto might as well be “much ado about nothing”: the paper is over-designed and over-produced, with watered-down content. Supposedly an answer to the threat of TV, “underground” sites, and fringe magazines—but in reality a letdown.
Ha’ir also underwent a face transplant. The branders casually transgressed the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not tamper with a logo, even if it’s ugly!” All the wrinkles were smoothed out in the redesign; everything is sophisticated, masterful, aloof, with generous use of layout devices: impressive at first in its stylistic professionalism, but quickly tiresome in its fussiness. On the surface of it, a good use of the new design tools and cutting-edge magazine styles, but in reality a mechanical display: a shell that will be hard-pressed to fill itself with content.
From a paper of editors and writers, Ha’ir in its new incarnation has become a paper of producers, a collection of copywriters’ creations. The new product contains the seven deadly sins of over-produced content: listing (under Restaurants: Location, The Brains Behind…, Longevity, Notable Neighbors, Portion Counter, etc.); mapping (“The Deconstruction of Avi Bitter”; “A Guide to the ‘Good-Government Gang’”); numbering (Katzav 14, Daniel Friedmann 15); instant polls and annoying questions (“If you could live on land, sea or air, which would you choose?”); ranking (Ha’ir’s People Meter, complete with index and segmentation); teasers (“Want to Know What Guerilla Farming Is? Turn to the next page”); and cutesiness (countless examples can be seen). The new creation looks like the hero of George Langelaan’s The Fly: the DNA of an entertainment channel combined with the sweat of israblog and the bodily fluids of Melabes.
It’s a mistake to assume that print journalism today is in need of gimmicks. On the contrary, in our chaotic world it should be creating islands of simple clarity—that hold our interest nonetheless. There’s no need to engage in a pathetic battle against Web browsing or channel surfing. If someone is already holding a newspaper in their hand, let them read it in peace and take in something. Let the real content do the talking. Bring back the good stories, the learned opinions.
Postmodernism is chasing after its own tail. In the absence of an agreed-upon set of values, its proponents are inventing arbitrary, idiotic, meaningless value systems; in short, they are making fools of themselves. It may not be too late to shout: enough of the unimportant information you’re flooding us with! We’re already slogging through the ocean of garbage on the Net. Enough of cheapening the reading experience! Enough of thinking that we’re morons!
In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that Ha’ir is not alone. Maariv’s “Weekend” supplement is suffering from the same malady. And my own home paper, Time Out, has got a slight cough. It’s another wave of global media influenza, but there is a safe and effective immunization, and it’s within our grasp.
As for the old Ha’ir—may it rest in peace—it may be that its time has come and it has accomplished its purpose. But I fear that it was sent to the grave too soon. On the optimistic side, there is still a slim hope that this is just another “zigzag” on the winding road of the flagship urban weekly – one of those periodic, trendy attack of nerves that will one day be exposed in all its foolishness.
This article was first published on issue 67 of The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here