As family businesses go, Amos Schocken has inherited a singular challenge. The 71-year-old Israeli is co-owner and publisher of Ha’aretz at a time when the global newspaper industry is in deep crisis. Separately, the broadsheet sits at the centre of frequent controversy as a standard-bearing leftwing voice of liberal conscience — or to its many critics, reckless Israel-bashing — when the country’s government and much of its society are solidly to the right.
“I didn’t create anything — I continued what my father did,” says the slim, bespectacled Mr Schocken in his understated manner. He is reflecting on his role at Ha’aretz (“The Land”) at the paper’s business headquarters, on the street named after his family in a gritty part of Tel Aviv. This, he explains, means “allowing the editorial to be without any outside pressures, letting them do professional work no matter if it creates unpleasantness or pressures or other kinds of things”.
Amos is the third Schocken family owner: his grandfather Salman made his fortune in department stores in Germany before escaping the Nazis to British Mandate Palestine. In 1935 he bought the newspaper and gave it to Gershom, Amos’s father, who acted as editor and publisher until handing it to his son in 1990.
Like other family owners of newspapers — the Sulzbergers, shareholders in the New York Times, or the Grahams and the Bancrofts, who sold their shares in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal respectively — the family members are torn between feelings of duty or noblesse oblige, and the hard realities of an industry where any profits are meagre and hard-won.
“You could say it’s interesting, certainly — and you could say I’m stuck with it,” Mr Schocken says with a sardonic smile. “The Sulzbergers are stuck with it too, maybe, and the Grahams decided they are not stuck with it.”
Ha’aretz, which does not report earnings, is “mildly profitable”, he says, free of bank debt, with cash in the bank, and able, perhaps, to pay a dividend to its shareholders this year for the first time since 2012.
In 2011 Ha’aretz became the first Israeli paper to introduce a pay wall for its digital edition, and has cut back aggressively on print subscriptions that were not profitable.
Mr Schocken owns an equal 20 per cent share of the business alongside his brother Hillel, an architect, and sister Racheli Edelman, who runs the family’s book publishing house. The remaining 40 per cent is split between DuMont Schauberg, the German publishing house, which bought into Ha’aretz when it was heavily in debt in 2006, and Leonid Nevzlin, the Russian-born Israeli businessman, who bought his stake in 2011. However, Mr Schocken tells the FT that Ha’aretz and DuMont Schauberg are looking for a new investor that would replace the German publishing house as shareholder. “Ha’aretz is their only asset outside Germany, and does not fit their strategy,” he says. DuMont Schauberg declined to comment.
According to Mr Schocken, the paper has slightly more than 26,000 Hebrew-language digital subscribers and about 18,000 on its English-language site. The company does not say what its print readership is, but in a spirited response last month to an assertion that the paper was losing readers, Mr Schocken said the paper had 95,204 paid print and digital subscribers in Hebrew.
However, Ha’aretz’s influence reaches far beyond these modest numbers. The paper and its business section, The Marker, are widely read in the Israeli elite — including by people who loathe its politics — and sets the agenda in many policy debates. Outside Israel, stories that appear online in Ha’aretz in the morning regularly work their way on to the agenda later in the day as talking points in Washington and Brussels.
Mr Schocken is a vigorous leftwing polemicist on Twitter — “I do this because I want to explain Ha’aretz . . . I don’t change people’s minds,” he says — but by his own account and colleagues’, stays out of editorial affairs, apart from the meetings that decide the paper’s unsigned page two leader column.
In a signed Ha’aretz piece in January, he called Israel an “apartheid regime” because of its open-ended occupation of Palestinian lands, and said it was leading to a situation in which both Zionism and the state would become “illegitimate”. In July, he defended a student’s portrait of Ayelet Shaked, the far-right justice minister, painted in the nude, that shocked and angered other Israelis, on freedom of expression grounds.
While he sits far to the left of most Israelis — including some Ha’aretz journalists — Mr Schocken describes himself, and his family’s paper, as Zionist.
“Ha’aretz is Zionism because Ha’aretz thinks the Jews need a place where they run the show, where they’re responsible for their destiny,” he says. “But as the declaration of [Israeli] independence said, Israel must offer full equality to non-Jews.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, the prominent US-Israeli journalist, said in August that Ha’aretz’s “cartoonish anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism can be grating”, a view shared by other critics of its editorial slant.
But if Mr Schocken is dismissed by detractors as a bleeding-heart liberal, he has been a tough businessman. From the late 1970s, when he was working as general manager under his father, Ha’aretz became the first Israeli paper to hire journalists on non-union contracts.
Critics have accused him of making unacceptable deals. For a few years Ha’aretz allowed Israel Hayom, the mass-circulation, pro-Benjamin Netanyahu, free newspaper published by rightwing US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, to print its paper — a formidable competitor for other newspapers — at the Ha’aretz plant. “It’s a business; we are like a shop — anyone can come in and buy,” Mr Schocken says, defending the move. “If you say no to Sheldon Adelson, he just flies in a printing plant.” Indeed, Israel Hayom ended the contract and now prints at its own plant.
Under Mr Schocken, Ha’aretz has also stood firm against advertisers ruffled by its coverage. When The Marker reported aggressively on the troubled IDB Group then owned by the tycoon Nochi Dankner, IDB’s businesses — including the mobile phone company Cellcom and insurance group Clal — stopped advertising in Ha’aretz. The paper led the way in crusading reporting on regulatory and competitive issues around the family-controlled conglomerates that play a major role in the Israeli economy — stories which helped to fuel mass social protests in 2011. But the wave of unrest also spooked advertisers and hurt Ha’aretz and its competitors alike.
In 2012, the company cut costs aggressively, reduced staff and page count, and combined sections. Friday-only subscriptions were introduced, and the paper began building a conference business. According to Mr Schocken, it “made a little money” in 2013 and has performed a “bit better” in each year since.
“We created a formula that can keep us alive and performing for the near future,” he says. “What we have not solved is the business model for the profitability of the printed press.”