Haaretz English at 25: Producing a Newspaper During Wars, Elections and Pandemics

Newsrooms run on adrenaline, but producing an English newspaper in Israel has its own unique challenges, not least producing a paper when under bombardment

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יממה בעיתון הארץ
The Haaretz offices in south Tel Aviv, where the English edition is produced six evenings a week.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Liz Steinberg
Liz Steinberg
Liz Steinberg
Liz Steinberg

Working on a newspaper in Israel creates unique challenges. When there’s a war and our families are hiding in bomb shelters, for instance, we are still responsible for producing Haaretz English, even if it is from deep underground.

During the 2021 flare-up between Israel and Gaza, the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv were particularly heavy compared to previous wars. On the first evening, Hamas subjected central Israel to hours of nearly nonstop bombardments. That night, the newspaper was produced in the Haaretz archives in the building’s basement.

Other nights, Hamas would warn the Israeli public that a rocket onslaught was due to begin at, say, 9 P.M. While our printing house generally doesn’t need to receive finished pages before 11 P.M., we scrambled to finish the newspaper before the Hamas deadline, for fear of unknown disruptions. Many of the threats turned out to be hollow, but the newspaper was finished hours early to ensure the continuity of publication.

Welcome to the challenges of producing Haaretz English. Putting out a daily paper, most of which is in translation, often brings to mind the quote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: We do everything Haaretz Hebrew does, except backwards and in high heels.

Which is to say, Haaretz English also pulls together the day’s top news, investigations and features from Haaretz’s team of reporters, which are then sent through content editing and copy editing, and matched with appropriate photographs or illustrations. However, somewhere before the articles can be laid out on the page and final touches such as headlines, pull quotes and photo captions added, most of those articles go through two extra layers: translation from Hebrew to English, and then another round of copy editing.

And yes, Haaretz English and Haaretz Hebrew are both sent to the press together at 11 P.M.

Newsrooms in general foster an environment of excitement, but producing an English newspaper in Israel has its own quirks. The media has often romanticized the news business, but ultimately the process of making a newspaper boils down to ever so many logistical steps.

That said, plenty of the newsroom drama does indeed stem from Israel being Israel.

This manifests itself in many ways. For one, Israel’s acrimonious political climate has filtered into the newsroom. In 2020, in the middle of Israel’s second coronavirus lockdown, a mentally unstable supporter of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the office and threatened journalist Gidi Weitz before sabotaging the building’s electrical board, causing a flood in Haaretz’s server room.

Copies of Haaretz coming off the press north of Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The response in the newsroom was a rising sense of panic amid predictions that the flood would both cause an electrical fire and take down the servers, possibly within minutes. Extra editors and translators logged in from home that Saturday on their day off in order to make an entire newspaper by 7 P.M.

Ultimately, the servers survived, there was no fire and we all felt a bit silly about the initial doomsday forecasts. As night editor, I had an extra four hours to sit back and enjoy my time in a newsroom that was neither flooded nor on fire. However, the implications of that event became increasingly clear in the days that followed. The assault and sabotage drove home the truth that we, too, were a target in Israel’s environment of political incitement targeting the left. Security precautions were tightened inside the office. Walking to and from the building, we had the feeling we had to watch our backs.

A witness to history

Newsroom employees are witnesses to the relentless march of history. While reporters are in the field where the action is happening, the editors and translators are vigilant bystanders chronicling those events. Haaretz English has witnessed quite a bit of history over its 25 years.

There was the slow suspense as Israel prepared for the Gaza disengagement in the summer of 2005. There was the sense of shock when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell into a coma following a stroke in January 2006. There was the sense of despair as Israel hurtled into a series of wars, generally after a few days of warning signs and buildup. There was the sudden shock of every terror attack (including the horrors of the second intifada), always starting with an understated initial report – maybe someone heard shots or an explosion. Editors quickly learn to recognize that an initial report is far from the whole story; this is the very definition of breaking news.

Some cognitive dissonance and emotional distance are necessary for working at a newspaper. All too often, the news isn’t very pleasant, but a news editor doesn’t have the luxury of looking away. Take the horrific tragedy at Mount Meron in April 2021, when 45 men and boys were killed in a crush during the annual Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage. As the names and photos of the victims started coming in, I recall the feeling of horror at how very young so many of them were.

We did the victims justice with a dignified front page that conveyed the magnitude of the horror and loss – and, yes, by placing blame even before the bodies were buried. Because there were plenty of people to blame, and these deaths could have been avoided. Letting you, the reader, know that is part of how we give the deceased their dignity.

And this, ultimately, is how we express our feelings in the newsroom: We convey the magnitude of the news to our readers with big headlines and striking images, embellished by dramatic layout design.

We have our more standard designs for “normal days,” of which there are many – tit-for-tat between Israel and the Palestinians; diplomatic twists with Iran; wrangling within the governing coalition; the COVID pandemic – it’s all par for the course at this point.

What does make us scream, in headline terms? Well, we were outraged when Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Elor Azaria was convicted only of manslaughter in 2017 after he shot a prone Palestinian assailant; we were absolutely shocked by the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020; and we were ecstatic when Joe Biden defeated then-U.S. President Donald Trump later that year.

What drove us to go even farther and design the most bombastic front page we could imagine? When Naftali Bennett formed a coalition and unseated Netanyahu from his decade as prime minister.

The Haaretz offices in 2019, with the English desk at the front.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

With the election of Trump in 2016, followed by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, interspersed with four rounds of Israeli elections over the course of three years, the pace of history accelerated into a fever pitch – big news days became more and more frequent, yet also highly repetitive.

From a newsroom perspective, it was exhausting. We are still in that era as Israel prepares for yet another election, and the United States approaches midterm elections.

For editors, the newspaper is assembled with adrenaline. How do you keep the excitement when the biggest news becomes both cyclic? Never fear. For better or worse, life in Israel is always full of surprises. They may not be surprises we’re happy to be living through, but they sure make for good news.

Liz Steinberg is editor of the print edition of Haaretz English and has worked in the newsroom in different capacities since 2004.

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