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Israel's newsstands are looking noticeably less varied these days, as a crisis in the Israeli press threatens several of the country's oldest publications. And that has a lot to do with the arrival of one free newspaper, a newspaper owned by a billionaire American casino owner famous for supporting right-wing causes in both Israel and the U.S. Sheera Frenkel has more.
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Outside the Tel Aviv offices of Maariv newspaper, dozens of journalists are on strike.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)
FRENKEL: They're calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wake up and realize he is destroying Israel's free press.
MATAN DRORI: Maariv is fighting for its life, like many other newspapers around the world. But there are some special circumstances in this country.
FRENKEL: That's Matan Drori, the foreign editor of Maariv. In a matter of weeks, the entire news organization - one of Israel's oldest - could be shut down or auctioned off to the highest bidder. It's not the only newspaper in Israel facing financial woes, but it may be the first to capitulate to them. Drori says all the problems in Israel's news industry can be traced back to one man.
DRORI: The main problem would be Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul from Las Vegas. He launched a newspaper a couple of years ago, a free newspaper called Israel Hayom, which translates to Israel Today.
FRENKEL: The paper is handed out for free along bus routes and metro lines. It's also placed, free of charge, in front of many buildings and homes across Israel. Since it launched in 2007, it has taken over nearly 40 percent of the market. Drori says it's a fierce competitor.
DRORI: It's a quality newspaper that does match with our content. In addition to that, he lowered the advertisement prices, which basically crashed the market. So Maariv and Haaretz, which is also a very prominent newspaper in Israel, are suffering severely, along with other media outlets.
FRENKEL: Earlier this month, Israel's only broadsheet left-wing daily, Haaretz, announced it wouldn't publish a newspaper for the first time in three decades. Maariv is currently being run by a court-appointed trustee who's been ordered to keep the paper afloat for several weeks until a decision is made on its future.
Didi Remez, a left-wing activist, says that in addition to flooding the market with a free, competitive alternative, Israel Hayom has managed to change the political landscape of the press here.
DIDI REMEZ: The big difference is the concept of objective reporting. I mean, newspapers have agendas, and those agendas are very, very clear in the news pages.
FRENKEL: In the U.S., Adelson's support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is well known. Earlier this year, he vowed to spend $100 million to help defeat President Barack Obama. In Israel, Adelson is a well-known advocate and supporter of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
REMEZ: Newspaper, in Hebrew, is iton. OK? And Netanyahu's nickname is Bibi. And so for a while now, Israel Hayom has been called - Adelson's Israel Hayom has been called the Bibi Iton, meaning the Netanyahu paper.
FRENKEL: Remez points to several examples of what he says is the close relationship between Israel Hayom and Netanyahu's office. According to a report in the Haaretz newspaper, a senior columnist at Israel Hayom receives an additional salary from the prime minister's office. And Netanyahu adviser Nathan Eshel left his job in the prime minister's office to work at Israel Hayom during its launch, only to rejoin Netanyahu's staff last year. A spokesperson for Israel Hayom refused to speak to NPR or to answer questions about the paper's ties to Adelson and Netanyahu.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu announced that he was calling early elections, sending Israel and its press into a frenzy of polling data and predictions about the next Israeli government. Perech Malka, a 43-year-old secretary from Tel Aviv, had just started her commute when she picked up a copy of Israel Hayom to learn that Netanyahu is way ahead in the polls.
PERECH MALKA: (Foreign language spoken)
FRENKEL: She says she knows it's Netanyahu's paper. And now that it's election season, she says, it will be the complete Bibi edition.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
MONTAGNE: And NPR's Peter Kenyon contributed to that report.
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