For sale: one big, small-town paper

The Jerusalem Post is a venerable institution that has been cash starved by its owner Conrad Black. Now he wants to sell it.

The media tycoon Conrad Black is carrying on with his drive to sell, sell, sell by putting up for auction
The Jerusalem Post - one of his smaller, but best-known, newspapers which has a worldwide following among English-speaking Jews. Hollinger International, owner of
The Daily Telegraph, is believed to be seeking at least $80m (£56m) for the daily paper, which Mr Black has controlled for more than a decade, with mixed results.

The media tycoon Conrad Black is carrying on with his drive to sell, sell, sell by putting up for auction The Jerusalem Post - one of his smaller, but best-known, newspapers which has a worldwide following among English-speaking Jews. Hollinger International, owner of The Daily Telegraph, is believed to be seeking at least $80m (£56m) for the daily paper, which Mr Black has controlled for more than a decade, with mixed results.

A month ago, Mr Black sold most of his Canadian newspapers and magazines to Canada's third-largest TV network, CanWest Global Communications, raising £1.6bn. It seems he is still selling - this time, by trying to divest his group of a renowned small-town newspaper but with a big name.

The Jerusalem Post was founded in Jerusalem in 1931 during the British mandatory rule of Palestine, 17 years before the creation of Israel, and was initially known as the Palestine Post. Like most institutions of the day, it was directly effected by the violence that came with the founding of the state. During the 1948 war between the Jews and the Arabs, its offices were blown up.

For years, the paper was a supporter of Israel's Labour party, and was part-owned by a corporation close to the trade union movement. But when Hollinger bought it in 1989, it immediately veered sharply to the right. One co-editor resigned after the publisher installed by Hollinger blocked an article criticising the then premier, Yitzhak Shamir, and there were mass dismissals cutting the staff numbers in half. Twenty-nine journalists, including some of its most seasoned and talented staff, walked out.

By 1992, the paper was under the editorship of David Bar-Illan, a former concert pianist turned journalist and right-wing ideologue. Four years later, he became the official spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu, another stalwart of the hard right who was then prime minister. The job then passed to Jeff Barak for three years, a more moderate figure who last month returned to the editor's chair.

Sources say the Hollinger years have been marred by corporate miserliness, labour disputes - the owners were unrelentingly hostile to trade unions - and feuds over the paper's political direction. "I think they destroyed the paper," said Esther Hecht, a senior editor and union official who worked at the Post for 17 years before being fired in January. "They said they were not interested in quality, but the only quality that interested them was the size of their bank account."

The newspaper now has a tiny editorial staff - only 60 people, of whom around 25 are reporters. Salaries are low and the hours are long. The results are at times surprisingly good, given the resources. But Israel is both a feverish, fast-moving international news centre, and a newspaper-addicted society, and the paper has also sometimes struggled to keep pace, resorting to the use of news agency copy, even for regional stories. "The philosophy has been that the best kind of newsdesk is one consisting of one person and a pile of agency stories," said another former staffer yesterday.

Conrad Black is said to play no direct role, leaving supervision of the paper to his side-kick David Radler, who chairs the Post's board. Stories of editorial stinginess are multifold. Staff were recently stunned by an announcement that they would no longer receive free copies of the paper, but should take out subscriptions, docked from their wages.

Perhaps the most notorious example of meanness came on 17 January 1991, the first day of the Gulf War. US cruise missiles began to pound Baghdad at 2am local time. This news - with all its shattering implications for the Middle East, and especially Israel - was withheld from readers of the Post the following morning. The publishers were unwilling to pay the printers overtime to produce a late edition, with the sensational breaking news.

Ideological battles over the papers soul have bubbled away in recent years, even though the paper has - by Israeli standards - become more centrist, and includes a Palestinian among its columnists Nine months ago the editor, David Makovsky and vice-president Hirsh Goodman left in a dispute which was, among other reasons, over the right-wing line pursued by the publisher, Tom Rose - and, in particular, the latter's decision to reinstate the tub-thumping David Bar-Illan on the editorial board and to run a front-page column by him. Sources say that reporters who were seen as "lefties" were frowned on by management and - in at least one case - fired.

Run on a shoestring, the paper claims some 25,000 readers in Israel during the week, and 50,000 at the weekend. The readership embraces immigrants from the US and Britain, the older generation of central European Israelis who never mastered Hebrew, tourists, diplomats, foreign businessmen and the large international press corps. In the last two years, the Post has faced competition from a daily English language edition of the highly respected liberal Ha'aretz newspaper, sold as an insert into the International Herald Tribune. Sources say, however, that its readership has remained stable.

For all the Post's problems, it has several appetising assets. It owns a profitable printing plant in Jerusalem and has a highly rated website (Jpost.com), which is receiving 7.2 million page impressions a month, - mostly from the US. The stable also includes the respected Jerusalem Report magazine.

Will this be enough to lure a buyer in the age of proliferating media? Morgan Stanley, the investment bankers, conducting the auction in New York have reportedly received several nibbles - apparently including Michael Sinclair, publisher of the London Jewish News. His offer - which was rejected - will not have pleased Mr Black. It is said to have been $20m, a quarter of what the magnate seeks.

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