Literary Lesson: Authors, Poets Write the News

Letter from Jerusalem

By Daniel Estrin

Published June 10, 2009, issue of June 19, 2009.
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It was on an average Wednesday that a very serious Israeli newspaper conducted a very wild experiment. For one day, Haaretz editor-in-chief Dov Alfon sent most of his staff reporters home and sent 31 of Israel’s finest authors and poets to cover the day’s news.

This wasn’t a Sabbath supplement, a chance to balance the news with extra color. This was a near complete replacement of the newspaper itself. Save for the sports section and a few other articles, all the reporters’ notebooks were handed over to poets and novelists, both bestselling and up-and-coming. Their articles filled the pages, from the leading headline to the weather report.

“We really tried to give a real newspaper,” Alon said.

For the liberal, Hebrew language Israeli daily — the country’s oldest — it was a bold but signature move. From its founding in 1918, Haaretz has distinguished its brand by highlighting Israeli cultural, literary and artistic life with a vigor unmatched by its competitors. That, along with its dense in-depth political and business reporting (achieved with smaller type and far fewer photos than Israel’s other dailies) has won it an elite audience, albeit one far smaller than its competitors. Its weekday circulation of some 50,000 compares with 400,000 for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily, and 160,000 for Ma’ariv, the second largest.

But as the old cliché goes, they are the right readers. “The likelihood of Haaretz readership,” Israeli media analysts Dan Caspi and Yehiel Limor write, “rises with income, education, and age.” Its elite audience gives it an influence disproportionate to its circulation, as does its internationally read English language Internet edition, which features translations of many of the Hebrew stories. Its readership, along with the paper’s dovish political stances, has won it a reputation as Israel’s version of The New York Times.

It’s hard to imagine the Times doing anything like the June 10 experiment, though. For this edition of the paper, nearly all the rules taught in journalism school were thrown out the window. Writers used the first person and showed up in nearly every photograph alongside their interview subjects, including the likes of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres.

Among those articles were gems like the stock market summary, by author Avri Herling. It went like this: “Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points, Nasdaq added 0.9% to a level of 1,860 points…. The guy from the shakshuka [an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again….” The TV review by Eshkol Nevo opened with these words: “I didn’t watch TV yesterday.” And the weather report was a poem by Roni Somek, titled “Summer Sonnet.” (“Summer is the pencil/that is least sharp/in the seasons’ pencil case.”) News junkies might call this a postmodern farce, but considering that the stock market won’t be soaring anytime soon, and that “hot” is really the only weather forecast there is during Israeli summers, who’s to say these articles aren’t factual?

Alongside these cute reports were gripping journalistic accounts. David Grossman, one of Israel’s most famed novelists, spent a night at a children’s drug rehabilitation center in Jerusalem and wrote a cover page story about the tender exchanges between the patients, ending the article in the style of a celebrated author who’s treated like a prophet: “I lay in bed and thought wondrously how, amid the alienation and indifference of the harsh Israeli reality, such islands — stubborn little bubbles of care, tenderness and humanity — still exist.” Grossman’s pen transformed a run-of-the-mill feature into something epic.

So, too, did 79-year-old author Yoram Kaniuk, whose novel “Adam Resurrected” was recently adapted for a movie starring Jeff Goldblum and Ayelet Zurer. He went into the field to write about couples in the hospital cancer ward. The thing is, he’s a cancer patient, too. “A woman walking with a cane brings her partner a cup of coffee with a trembling hand. The looks they exchange are sexier than any performance by Madonna and cost a good deal less,” Kaniuk wrote. “I think about what would happen if I were to get better…how I would live without the human delicacy to which I am witness?”

“I got more telephone calls today than I have in years past,” Kaniuk said in a phone interview. “People were very moved, because I wrote it like a writer and not like a journalist. If you see something beautiful and touching, why not write it?” The masterful articles by Kaniuk and Grossman made it seem like there’s actually some hope to be reported in a country flooded with doomsday news bulletins.

The next day, Haaretz’s usual staff reporters were back on the job. Yossi Melman, Haaretz’s commentator on security and intelligence issues, emphasized that he liked the experiment, but said, “It would be very difficult to replace journalists with authors and run a newspaper. We are trained; we know how to do it. For them, you know, there is a tendency to elaborate.”

At the editor’s desk, Alfon sees things otherwise. “I think it is a humility lesson for journalists,” he said. He kept five writers in the newsroom in case of breaking news, but nothing big happened. So the authors’ accounts prevailed, gripping stories were printed and dozens of readers called in with praise.

“Thirty-one writers decided, what are the real events of the day?” he mused. “What is really important in their eyes? They wrote about it, and our priorities as journalists were suddenly shaken by this.”

Contact Daniel Estrin at feedback@forward.com


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