Middle East newspapers struggle in new age

26 October 2009

BEIRUT: Media in the Middle East, is much like its political system; and the Lebanese print press is no exception to this rule. Not atypical to the region, many Lebanese publications are either family-run, or serve as a mouthpiece to its respective political patron. Under such a model, profitability of newspapers is rendered irrelevant, since its main objective is not to make profit – nor is it to deliver news – but rather, to upkeep the family name or tow the party line. 

What is becoming increasingly apparent in these waning days of traditional media is that this primordial governance structure has, an ironic fate, safeguarded the newspapers of the Middle East from the economic tempest that has swept across the western world. 

And so it goes that while newspapers across the Atlantic are wilting and writing its own obituaries, the ones in the Arab world are still enjoying a serendipitous spell of prosperity; and the irony of monarchical ownership that safeguard Arab media against the financial turmoil is not lost to many members of the industry. 

However, in recent weeks Lebanon’s media scene was shaken by news of several media outlets laying off employees. Prominent newspaper An-Nahar discharged, earlier this month, more than 50 employees from their positions, saying financial difficulties were the cause. 

The business model of the past dictated that the main source of a publication’s revenue be derived from its advertising sales. Yet what this paradigm overlooked was the unprecedented ascendance of the internet, which yielded a market failure of growth in customer base, unaccompanied by equal measure increase in sales revenue. The hopes that internet would provide unlimited growth were quickly dashed. Grim forecasts on the failings of the media filled its space. This unfurling of newspapers has been accelerated by the Wall Street crash of last fall, and without readers or investors to foot the bill, publications have been coming apart at the seams. 

Pitted against such dire projections, the plaintive wails of newspapers in the Arab world seem inconsequential. The particular nature of its ownership frees newspapers from having to answer directly to the market. While ethically suspect, the patronage of families and parties have meant that the newspapers have been able to upkeep its operation with relative ease. 

This unorthodox business model inevitably led to certain journalistic failings: its newsrooms often lack code of ethics. Editors tread lightly the question of circulation and readership. In effect, the fate of the publication falls at the whims of a single patron’s fortune. As such, while newspapers in the Middle East are arguably more financially stable, they lack editorial independence. Such dynastic reign over the newspaper empires has been established as the norm: Many have discreetly – and not so discreetly – pledged allegiance to certain political factions. 

In this world, editorial compliance is the only insurance against continuous threat of bankruptcy. This is what propels Dima Dabbous-Sensenig to lightly cast the joke that only when she sees a newspaper going bankrupt will she trust its editorial independence. 

Dabbous-Sensenig, who serves as the Director of Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, further points out that newspapers in the Middle East have never been, and never will be, commercial. “It has always been about the owners, never about the readers,” she comments. This narrow-minded pursuit of self-serving truth has meant that publications only cater towards a homogeneous group, all members of an exclusive socio-economic class. “In Lebanon, newspaper is not a mass thing, it belongs to the elite,” adds Dabbous-Sensenig 

Many argue that the media industry of the Middle East as a region lag behind that of the west by 10 to 15 years. For this reason, the ailments of the West are not immediate concerns of the Arab world. Some argue that given time, the problems that currently plague western publications will soon catch up with those of the Middle East. Others argue that since much of the media in the region are either state-owned or family-run, the worries of the West will be of trivial concern to the East. 

The primary reason for the decline in newspaper sales in the west can be attributed to the internet; whereas this not the case in the Levant. The Internet World Stats reveals that 24 per cent of the Lebanese population enjoys regular access to internet, or 900,000 people. This is a 216.7 percent increase in the past decade. Yet, despite internet cafes being ubiquitous in many corners of Hamra and Gemmayzeh, the effects have not been sweeping. Much of this world still lacks access to high-speed internet at home. For this reason alone, newspapers still remain a primary source of information to many. 

While the above statement is true for the rest of the Arab world, the Lebanese situation is slightly different from even rest of the Middle East. “Lebanese, they don’t read,” complains Walid Azzi, Publisher of Arab Ad, a communication and business magazine in downtown Beirut. Azzi argues that the biggest challenge for Lebanese newspapers today is lower readership. Despite the cultivated and refined image of Lebanon as being the intellectual capital of the region, Lebanon suffers from the lowest readership rates in the Middle East, says Azzi. 

Where newspapers have failed, television has stepped in. Lebanon is known for its regional satellite and cable TV presence. If Dabbous-Sensenig is correct, what newspaper is to the elite, television has been to the mass; and this analogy seems to be most prominent in Lebanon. 

To avoid the pitfalls of generalization, it is worthwhile to compare Lebanese media with that of the Gulf. The Gulf region has traditionally scored the highest in both newspaper readership and subscriber rates. The answer lay with advertising, says Karim Makdessi, of THG Group, an advertising firm with offices all throughout the Levant and the Gulf. 

In times when newspapers are giving away binoculars (Canada) and cemetery plots (Turkey), newspapers of the Gulf have been benefiting from advertising for real estate, banking, and automotive – all industries that economies of the Gulf are built around. They also happen to be, according to Makdessi, items that sell better on paper than on screen. 

Compared to the Gulf much of Lebanon’s economy is built around miscellaneous consumer goods that are much more amenable to advertising campaigns on TV. Further, the fractured elite has meant that it has never succeeded in coalescing enough support behind passing a legislation that would be favorable to business. 

On top of this advantageous make up, the governments of these regions have been active in passing laws that allow for advertising discounts to be readily available, which has not been the case in Lebanon, where factionalism has made legislations impossible to pass. 

This is a problem acutely typical to Lebanon. A small country built on a delicate confessional balance; Lebanese politics has often been plagued by sectarianism. Some lament that newspapers have become the ego highways of Lebanese high-brow society, and many more have become increasingly despondent of the institution of journalism. While some grow apathetic, others, like Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri, are more hopeful: “Provided that we all adapt, we will not die.”

© Copyright The Daily Star 2009.

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