Interview: Alan Abbey

[This item was originally posted to The Media Drop]

Today’s interview is Alan Abbey, Senior Features Writer at the Jerusalem Post. I happened to find Alan in the directory on LinkedIn, and he was extra gracious in getting back to me and in answering some of the questions below.

Alan has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon, and has been in the media world since 1977. He’s acted in various roles between Business Editor to Internet Division Director for a variety of publications, including those in Oregon, Vermont, the New York metropolitan area, and in Washington, D.C. I thought that an interview with someone not based in the U.S. would give a unique perspective and an opportunity to see what trends might be similar between North America and the Middle Eastern region. [ed: just to clarify, this Q&A took place via email]

TMD: Alan, I see you’ve been very involved in multiple areas of the Jerusalem Post. How did you get started at the publication?

AA: After two high-tech media jobs in Israel came and went quickly after the late 1990s Internet bubble burst, I joined the Jerusalem Post as Duty Editor, where I was responsible for the night news desk and daily production of the newspaper.

TMD: For about nine months, you were running the Electronic Publishing division of the paper, and were responsible for many developments during that time. What were some of the larger projects or creations you were able to be a part of?

AA: I ran the JPost Electronic Publishing Division for a year and a half, and was reponsible for bringing us into a new content management system, new design, site registration, email marketing campaigns, SMS messaging service, paid content packages and content syndication.

TMD: Late last year, you transitioned to being a Senior Editor and Writer – tell me what your day-to-day is like now, as compared to when you were VP of the Electronic Publishing division? Do you like being on the “writing” side of the fence, or would you eventually like to have a strictly executive position?

AA: I guess I’ve always wanted to be Publisher of a newspaper, so I like the Executive position, but I am enjoying writing fulltime right now. The position of Senior Feature Writer gives me an opportunity to do in-depth stories about interesting people and projects in Israel that are usually outside the crush of daily, breaking news. I am doing my best to stay away from politics! There are enough people doing that.

TMD: A lot of people in the US are moving towards getting most of their news online, with newspaper being probably third in the rankings after television and the ‘net. Does this reflect the situation in Israel as well?

AA: Yes, nearly 1/2 of Israeli households are online, and Israelis are crazy for the latest news. Usually, unfortunately, it is difficult to hear, but the country is so small, everyone knows almost everyone else. So “bad” news has a broad impact. One of the most popular Hebrew news sites simply links to all the breaking news headlnies from all the other Israeli news sites. It posts 60+ an hour.

TMD: noticed that the Post has a subscription service, which isn’t very common in the US – only the New York Times and a few other papers have a lot of their articles in a pay-for-read format – how has that worked out for the Post?

AA: Virtually all of the content on JPost.com is free; some requires free registration. We experimented with pay-per-view content, and found some resistance, but also a degree of acceptance. The people currently running the web site have not been posting pay-per-view content for a while. [ed: we’ll see if there is any level of acceptance when this happens in the States]

TMD: What do you find your readers are most interested in reading about – either in the print or online edition? What stories evoke the most reaction?

AA: News of the terror war and attacks on Israelis and tourists always draw the highest readership. As for reaction, we have many provocative editorials and op-ed columns, and they receive significant response.

TMD: What’s a story that you’re really proud of being able to work on, anytime throughout your career? And as a followup, what was one of the toughest things you’ve covered?

AA: I spent four months in 1989 at a newspaper in New Jersey working on an investigative project about a local family that was extremely well politically connected, and was giving many New Jesey political figures “sweetheart deals” on housing loans and shares of stock in exchange for political favors. Six months after the stories appeared, the federal government announced a 60+ count indictment against the members of that family. Within the next 18 months, virtually all of the politicians we had written about either were out of office, indicted or in jail. This was also one of the most difficult stories to compile, because of the family’s power and strength. The toughest emotionally have certainly been the terror attacks in Israel and the death of the Columbia astronauts, including Israel’s Ilan Ramon. Ramon’s flight and death inspired me to write a book about him, “Journey of Hope: The Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut.”

TMD: If you can, give me a five year plan – first for what you see for major print publications like the Jerusalem Post, and second for where you see yourself – what would you like to be doing?

AA: I think the entire Internet will be different in five years, with almost all mainstream media content online being behind a subscription wall. I don’t think much content will be free. After all, how do they expect people to produce all of this material? Someone has to pay. The JPost is a unique entity with a worldwide audience and brand name, despite its small size. I would like to be heading up a major media organization in Israel.

TMD: Do you remember the first time you realized you wanted to be involved in the media? Do you have any mentors or people you credit with helping you get a head start?

AA: I wrote in my sixth-grade autograph book that I wanted to be a TV reporter, but I never really made it into the broadcast world. I gave up the track team to work on my High School newspaper, and I have never really done anything else. Mentors include the novelist (and former journalist) William Kennedy (“Ironweed“), who was a college professor of mine, and Harry Rosenfeld, the former Editor in Chief of the Albany Times Union, where I worked for a decade. Harry was also Woodward and Bernstein’s editor when he was Metro Editor of The Washington Post.

TMD: I also noticed that you have a book upcoming – can you tell us a little bit about it, without giving away too much?

AA: A friend and I are writing a humorous book about management, but we feel it has useful lessons for managers. It is called, “The Manager’s Guide to the Bible: Everything You Want to Learn About Business is in the Five Books of Moses.”

TMD: And finally, what advice would you give to the folks who might be interested in getting into writing, editing, and involvement in the mass media world, in three sentences or less?

AA: Do it only if you love it. Be fair. Be accurate.

I’m very pleased Alan was able to answer a few of my questions for the site, and think he brings a wealth of experience which the Jerusalem Post is really lucky to have. Many people are familiar with the JPost, and I’ve often been curious if it’s run in a similar fashion to American publications – but I realize that in the “Internet Age,” many things are quite the same – no matter where you call home.

I hope you enjoyed the interview, and feel free to send in any suggestions for people you might like to hear more about to tom@themediadrop.com.

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