Departure of Jerusalem Post’s top editor comes after years of turmoil at newspaper
(Photo: Istock)

Avi Mayer left the English-language Israeli newspaper last week, less than a year after he was appointed editor-in-chief despite scant experience in journalism

By Arno Rosenfeld
December 18, 2023

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

When Elli Wohlgelernter worked as a news reporter at The Jerusalem Post in the 1990s, he barely knew the names of the people who worked in the advertising department. “There was no contact with the business side,” he recalled. “It didn’t affect your thinking or reporting or anything.”

That began to change after Israeli businessman Eli Azur purchased the venerated English-language publication in 2004, according to six current and former Jerusalem Post employees.

One of those employees, who was hired after Azur’s purchase, said they learned while working on an article that the main subject had paid to be profiled and demanded changes be made to the copy. That kind of pay-to-play arrangement, which the Post denied in general terms, violates a key tenet of journalistic ethics.

Wohlgelernter, who had left the Post in 2003 to work at other news outlets, said that when he returned as night editor in 2016, he was uncomfortable with the fact that such sponsored content was not always labeled to differentiate it for readers from journalism free of influence by advertisers.

“You feel dirty,” Wohlgelernter said in an interview. “You gotta take a shower, that’s the feeling.”

Inbar Ashkenazi, the Post’s publisher, declined to answer specific questions about these and other practices but said in an emailed statement that the “newspaper has always followed strict rules of journalistic ethics.”

But the current and former employees say that the Post, a 93-year-old institution in Israel and across the Jewish world, has during the two decades of Azur’s ownership embraced sponsored content and lucrative conferences at the expense of ethical norms and traditional journalism. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that being identified could damage their careers or because their current employers prohibit them from speaking to the press.

Those tensions boiled over Wednesday when Avi Mayer left as editor of the Post. Mayer, whose background was in public relations, had been hired in April, and several of the current and former employees say he struggled to lead the newsroom. But they say mounting commercial pressure from Azur and Ashkenazi put Mayer in an impossible position.

“You could put Marty Baron in The Jerusalem Post newsroom right now and he would have the exact same problem,” said one former employee, referring to the celebrated former top editor of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. “Management is looking for something that is just not journalism.”

In a note to the staff, the publisher said Mayer and the Post had “mutually decided to part ways.”

Tumult at the top

Mayer, 39, was a controversial choice to lead the Post. His primary experience doing journalism was at his college newspaper. After that, his interaction with the press had been as a spokesperson — for the Israeli military, the Jewish Agency for Israel and, most recently, the American Jewish Committee.

And he had become one of Israel’s biggest online boosters, sharing quips and clap-backs with his more than 200,000 followers on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter). He retained a similar tone on social media while editor, using rhetoric unusual for the leader of a mainstream newspaper: “Good luck being unemployed,” he said to one university student who had blamed Israel for the Oct. 7 attack, while calling for another student to be fired.

He promoted a message from a government spokesperson encouraging Palestinians in Gaza to become Israeli informants and described a video showing razor blades embedded in posters of kidnapped Israelis, meant to cut anyone who removes them, as “hilarious.”

Some also criticized the quality of the Post’s journalism under Mayer. In early December, the newspaper published an article claiming that Al Jazeera had aired a photo of a doll and said it was a dead Palestinian baby. The article did not include any evidence and appeared to be based on social media posts.

The newspaper later deleted the article after other news outlets identified the baby in the Al Jazeera footage and Mayer apologized, saying it was published while he and other editors were offline for Shabbat.

Rachel Benaim-Abudarham, a former journalist and media consultant, said that the incident underlined recent problems with the Post. “Avi is the one taking the rap for this, but there are a whole host of people involved,” she said on Instagram.

Scrutiny on ownership 

The Post is generally viewed as a center-right outlet, but media watchers and those close to the newspaper say there was not an ideological agenda behind installing Mayer as editor. Nor were the challenges around his tenure political.

“The major concern of The Jerusalem Post’s owner is not making journalism at all,” said Shuki Tausig, editor of The Seventh Eye, an Israeli magazine that covers the media. Speaking of Azur, he added: “He sees it as a hot dog factory or a barbershop or whatever — it’s a business that needs to make money.” 

Some say that Azur and Ashkenazi may have been looking for someone to present a good public face for the newspaper — Mayer’s charm has made him a hit at conferences and in television interviews — without pushing back on the blurred lines between journalism and advertising as fiercely as a veteran editor would.

“Management wanted him only as a ‘yes man’ who would have no problem with the ethical issues,” a former employee said.

Mayer said in a statement that although he was never told why he was selected for the job, he had “every reason to believe that it was because of the management’s belief in my ability to capably run the newspaper and represent it respectably.”

“I believe very strongly in maintaining journalistic integrity and upholding journalistic ethics and I both acted in accordance with that position and made the position consistently known to both management and staff throughout my tenure at the helm of The Jerusalem Post,” Mayer said. He added that he was contractually barred from discussing specific company policies.

(Zvika Klein, an experienced reporter appointed deputy editor-in-chief in August, was named interim editor this week. Klein declined to comment on Mayer or the Post.)

Several employees, again speaking on the condition of anonymity out due to a fear of retaliation by Post management, said that Yaakov Katz, the editor before Mayer, frequently pushed back on management’s efforts to expand the amount of sponsored content in the Post and eliminate or obscure disclosures that they were advertisements.

In a brief statement, Katz said: “In line with my journalistic values, ethics and principles all sponsored content was labeled as such during my tenure as editor in chief.”

One former employee said that Katz was “the last person able to push back against management on journalistic ethics, and when it became impossible, he left.”

Content ‘in collaboration’ with advertisers

The Jerusalem Post’s expansion into sponsored content has often made it hard to distinguish between news articles and advertisements. Its disclosure for paid articles comes in a brief italicized line at the bottom of these posts: “This article was written in a cooperation with” and the advertiser’s name.

But everything else about these articles — the headlines, bylines, font and formatting — appears identical to articles on the website that are not advertisements, and nowhere does this disclaimer about “cooperation” refer to these sponsored posts as advertisements. These articles, many written by a reporter who also writes non-sponsored articles for the Post, are interspersed with normal news articles throughout its website.

Haaretz, one of the Post’s top competitors, also publishes sponsored content. But its paid-for articles live on its website under a “commercial content” heading, and each features a tag stating that it is “promoted content.” The authors are all listed as “partnered” with the advertiser, and the font and layout are also different than those used in news coverage.

The Forward publishes sponsored content in a special section with distinct design choices like bright blue rather than black headlines and a disclaimer that states the content was “paid for by the advertiser” and that “editorial staff were not involved in its production.”

“It’s important to us that the reader know where the article is coming from and whether it’s being paid for by an advertiser,” said Rachel Fishman Feddersen, the Forward’s publisher.

The Post, which has long hosted an annual diplomatic conference in Jerusalem, has recently expanded to events in London; New York; Toronto; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Marrakech, Morocco. It ran eight conferences this year alone.

“They put out conferences like they’re their only business,” said another former employee. “The question is: Are you guys putting out a newspaper, or are you putting out a program and it just so happens your favorite program’s company happens to have a daily newspaper?”

Ashkenazi also declined to answer questions about the Post’s conference business, including whether individuals could pay for speaking slots and whether sponsors were guaranteed favorable coverage.

“The correctness of all the insinuations and accusations in your application is denied,” Ashkenazi wrote in her brief response to a list of questions. “The newspaper will make sure to exhaust its full rights in connection with any false publication, including the filing of a libel claim.”

Fading relevance — and readership

It is unclear what may have precipitated Mayer’s departure this week. But the Post has struggled to compete with its rivals in the English-language Israeli media since the Hamas terror attack on Israel Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza.

Mayer posted a photo of himself editing the newspaper from the basement of the Post offices during a rocket barrage the day after the attack, and has been a fixture on cable television in the months since.

Online traffic to the Post more than doubled in October, compared to the previous month, according to SimilarWeb, a third-party data analytics company. But a prime competitor, The Times of Israel, had its pageviews soar more than 650% the same month.

Meanwhile, Haaretz charted a 579% increase, while i24 and Ynet both grew more than 300%, SimilarWeb shows.

Two of the Post’s best-known reporters — Lahav Harkov, who covered diplomatic affairs, and Khaled Abu Toameh, who reported on Palestinian affairs — both left the paper in August.

Wohlgelernter, the former night editor, said the newspaper slowly eliminated roles covering specific topics like education and municipalities in favor of junior roles focused on writing for the website that paid the equivalent of $10 per hour.

“Of course they aren’t going to get clicks during a war,” he said. “Who’s going to bother reading that?”

Katz was forced to lay off more than a dozen newsroom staff during his six years as editor, according to the former employees, and to leave some vacancies unfilled. Wohlgelernter, who left last year to work as a copy editor for a think tank and is now mostly retired, said the newspaper has not had a news editor since 2019.

One former employee said there had since been significant pressure on the newsroom to use content from Azur’s other Israeli media properties, including Maariv, a major Hebrew-language newspaper, and Walla, an online news website. Tausig, with The Seventh Eye, said Maariv, once Israel’s leading daily newspaper, had been reduced to a staff of roughly 10 journalists under Azur.

All this has greatly diminished the Post’s role in Israel media, Tausig added. He noted that Mayer’s departure has received scant attention in the country, where media personalities are major public figures, though of course it also comes during intense coverage of the war.

“The resignation or firing of the chief editor of a big media outlet is supposed to be news and it’s like a non-event,” he said. “The Jerusalem Post is not so important, to put it lightly.”

Arno Rosenfeld is enterprise reporter at the Forward, where he covers antisemitism, philanthropy, sexual misconduct and American Jewish politics. You can reach him at arno@forward.com and follow him on Twitter @arnorosenfeld.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

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