Lanky, bespectacled and wearing cross-trainer shoes, Noam Sheizaf sat on a bench at Cooper Triangle as he was leafing through George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points. Sheizaf is not a stranger to decision points of his own. He is now 35, even though he doesn’t look it. And in that time he has built up enough connections to be a free agent at last.
Fiddling with the cardboard piece holstering a small cup of coffee and braving the autumn cold one night late last week, Sheizaf was somewhat fatigued. He ran the New York City Marathon five days earlier and in the slow cadence of his words explored the long run that brought him from Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to New York City — and back again.
The one point he cannot recall is where he decided to be a journalist. “I’m not sure that’s how things work,” he said. “Otherwise, how would you have all these people working in a McDonald’s or an insurance company? You don’t know any kids who say, ‘I want to work in an insurance company.’”
Sheizaf is now a political observer who writes with an ear to the mainstream. Yet he started out copy-editing sports stories while he attended university after his army service, mandatory for Israelis. “I started studying at the same time,” he said, majoring in political science and French. “It was easy to look at it as one of these odd jobs that students take.”
“Odd jobs” is a phrase he often employed to describe what he had to do to pay the bills while chasing after something better. Journalism become a bona-fide career for him by the time he reached his late 20s. “Things have their own flow,” he said.
After 10 months in Paris, Sheizaf returned to the promised land to make the idea of creating a career into a reality. How to do it was not so simple, he said. Friends of his connected him to interviews with papers like Yediot Achranot, Israel’s largest mass-circulation daily, and Ha’aretz, the country’s equivalent to the New York Times, but after meeting with them they took a pass. Instead, he began working at an evening paper called Ma’ariv (which means “evening,” incidentally), the 2nd-largest. For better and worse, he stayed on for six years.
Sheizaf started working there as a sports editor, from 2001 to 2005, and then moved to their weekend magazine — after he got sick of editing sports stories.
He mentioned that in his last three years there he had four editors, and he was recognized as the most senior editor there. “That is no way an organization is supposed to run,” he remembers thinking.
Even before the market crash in 2008, Maariv was bleeding cash. Management turnover was high and morale was low. “People were telling me, You’re in a dead-end job, you’re making good money but you’re not going to get anywhere.”
“I was too scared to move on,” Sheizaf added. The fire at his feet sparked to life when he finally realized that in a professional sense he was mired in a dead-end job in a failing media company, running the paper’s weekend magazine while CEOs were in and out. “There was nothing else to do,” he said, and then pointed out that many friends of his said he should have made a move much earlier.
Noam Sheizaf the professional journalist became Noam Sheizaf the professional blogger. “The Promised Land” was launched in 2008. Written in English, with an eye to a larger readership, it combined his strong interest in politics with a keen journalistic sense of fairness. Through this project, he discovered a group of like-minded bloggers, Israelis of different stripes but common passion who were also writing in English, and helped corral them into an online venture called +972 magazine.
Named after the long-distance country code, the collaborative webzine featured writers like former Haaretz editor Ami Kaufman and Didi Remez, who authored the Web site Coteret (“headline”), which translates the Hebrew press. With this platform, Sheizaf is free to opine in a newsy way, although he doesn’t “like to shout stuff.”
“The choice of subjects is ultimately more important,” he said. “I don’t try to throw it in their face. I’m a firm believer in the fact that opinion pieces are only reaffirming positions we already had.”
The most persuasive he thinks he’s ever been is when he tried to make a position seem like one the reader reached on his or her own. “I think one of the most effective stories I was involved in was a piece I wrote for Haaretz about right-wing people in Israel who support the one-state solution, who support annexing the West Bank and ultimately making the Palestinians Israeli citizens.
“I didn’t criticize that,” Sheizaf added. “I don’t have a clear position on whether the one-state or two-state solution is desirable but I oppose the status quo. If a reader reads this piece, and he’s against the one-state solution, he might think, ‘Well, we need to get out of the West Bank or else this is going to happen.’”
“There’s no such thing as an unpolitical reality,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that journalists will say, ‘I’m neutral, I’m only reporting the facts.’ I don’t believe them.”
For Sheizaf, it has been a long haul. He expects as much for anyone aspiring to follow in his footsteps. “It’s a funny moment in time,” he said. “Go with the flow.”