In Lebanon, a dynamic year for news sites



 
2007 saw a number of new Lebanese news websites, and an increase in popularity for some existing ones. MENASSAT.COM takes a look at Lebanon's online media landscape.
 
By Wissam Al-Saliby
 
Lebanon's websites.
R.R.

BEIRUT, Jan. 10, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – For many Lebanese, checking news web sites and morning coffee go hand in hand. With the presidential elections crisis seemingly endless, online news sites have become an addiction, for Lebanese both in Lebanon and abroad.

On the other end of the spectrum, more and more news websites are competing to attract those visitors. Whether these websites are also profitable, remains something of an enigma, but in any case most Lebanese websites – like the Lebanese mainstream media – are either party websites or are affiliated with a political party, and they also get their funding that way.

2007 has proven to be quite a dynamic year with several new sites emerging and gaining market shares. There are four major categories of news websites in the Lebanese market:

1) Lebanese newspaper sites;
2) official political party websites or party-affiliated news websites;
3) dedicated online news websites; 
4) Arab news websites and newspaper websites.

Lebanese newspaper sites 

Lebanese newspapers have always been freely accessible online, usually offering the complete version of the paper version – unlike The New York Times and The Washington Post, which only recently abolished an unsuccessful paid subscription service.

The top 3 Lebanese newspaper websites are al-akhbar.com (Al-Akhbar), annahar.com (An Nahar) and assafir.com, based on  Alexa's Lebanon top 100 Lebanese sites (checked on November 26th 2007 and on December 17th 2007). They are followed (not so closely) by almustaqbal.com (Al-Mustaqbal or Future), journaladdiyar.com (Ad-Diyar), lorientlejour.com (L'Orient-Le Jour) and albaladonline.com (Al-Balad).

Comparing the top 5 sites’ international ranking (i.e. visitors from all over the world, from October through to December 2007, visited on 17 December 2007) showed assafir.com’s ranking slightly higher than annahar.com’s. 

Party news sites or party-affiliated sites
 

Party media, whether it's the party’s official website or a dedicated news site affiliated with the party, have become a trend.

Tayyar.org, the website of  opposition leader Michel Aoun's FPM party, is the number one online news source in Lebanon, and the number one Lebanese website in Lebanon (moving between 7th and 8th position in Lebanon, behind non-Lebanese sites, in November and December 2007 according to Alexa’s Top 100 Sites in Lebanon). Tayyar.org reportedly reached a record high number of unique visitors on Friday, November 23, 2007, the last day in office of President Emile Lahoud. 

Lebanese-forces.com is the second highest ranking party sites, moving between positions 23 and 26 in November and October 2007 in Alexa’s top 100.

14march.org – not a party site per se –, and wa3ad.org and almanar.com.lb (two Hezbollah-affiliated websites) as well as el-marada.net (Suleiman Franjieh's party website) remain out of the top 100 sites visited in Lebanon, despite the fact that almanar.com.lb and 14march.org are always appearing on the on-screen ticker on Manar Television and Future Television. 

Generally speaking – at least for the period of October-December 2007 –, opposition websites dominate. 

Dedicated news websites
 

The third category of news websites followed closely by Lebanese is dedicated non-affiliated news websites, which deliver news and analysis. Some of the most dynamic and promising news sites emerged only this year, notably lebanonfiles.com, elnashra.com, khabaronline.com (which overhauled its layout in December 2007) and nowlebanon.com. They offer a wide variety of content, in English and/or Arabic, and have the capacity to transmit breaking news very fast, challenging existing sites such as tayyar.org, lebanonwire.com (the only news site requiring a paid subscription) and naharnet.com, all of which have been present for several years now.

Three sites have reaped the benefits of the political crisis related to the presidential elections, elnashra.com (the second best real-time news site after tayyar.org, ranking 16th on December 17, 2007), nowlebanon.com (which entered Alexa’s top 100 most sites visited in Lebanon on Friday 23 November 2007, and is progressively advancing, reaching 67th position on December 17, 2007) and, to a lesser extent, lebanonfiles.com.

The Central News Agency (almarkazia.net) and the National News Agency (nna-leb.gov.lb), Lebanon’s two news agencies, lack the dynamism of the new websites and have therefore missed the train, despite both having reporters on the ground and significant journalism experience. 

Some sites are in English only, such as lebanonwire.com, beirutspring.com and yalibnan.com. Several others have both Arabic and English versions (wa3ad.org, nowlebanon.com, naharnet.com). Tayyar.org and 14march.org have some articles in English and French.

Click here for a comparison of international ranking evolution between the three top English online news sites, dailystar.com.lb, nowlebanon.com and naharnet.com, as well as lorientlejour.com and tayyar.org for the past three months. 

Non-Lebanese news websites 


Four non-Lebanese news sources, alseyassah.com, aljazeera.net, elaph.com and alarabiya.net are featured in Alexa.com’s top 100 most visited sites in Lebanon, respectively ranking 33, 51, 67 and 71 on November 26th, 2007. All four jumped three to twelve positions as a result of the presidential crisis. But on December 17, the ranking completely changed to: alarabiya.net (53), elaph.com (54), aljazeera.net (60), and alseyassah.com (75). 

In terms of content
 

Most of the sites mentioned above are positioned somewhere on the Lebanese political spectrum, including some of the non-Lebanese sites. It is interesting to see that most of the sites offering news in English (and so targeting non-Lebanese) – nowlebanon.com, naharnet.com, yalibnan.com – are pro-March 14, whereas the leading Arabic-speaking news websites, tayyar.org and al-akhbar.com are pro-opposition. 

But for sites to succeed, they need to deliver, regardless of who they sympathize with or support. This is the case of tayyar.org, the ratings of which went down after the July-August 2006 war, when more propaganda articles written by pro-FPM writers, and less news, were being published. Tayyar.org recuperated in 2007 and gained a significant readership through its quick and objective coverage of recurring breaking news.  

But what content are the dedicated news websites and party news sites delivering? 

Generally speaking, there’s a bit too much copy/pasting happening on Lebanese news sites. Too many news sites and party sites are simply copying from the main sources, Lebanese newspapers and international news sites. When Nicholas Blanford writes an article in The Christian Science Monitor, most sites will refer to it or copy it in whole.  

In one notable incident, the pro-Hezbollah site english.wa3ad.org copied an article from the pro-March 14 site beirutspring.com , which sparked an interesting (but limited) exchange.

Too much news?

But isn’t there already too much information out there to begin with? Aren’t the Lebanese saturated with news? That’s where some sites come in handy.

Most of the websites (other than the newspaper sites) act as filters. They select and publish a selection of newspaper headlines, “secrets” or “rumors” or “inside information”, opinion articles, analysis and news articles from a Lebanese, Arab and international newspapers and news websites. Official party sites or party affiliated news sites also syndicate articles in line with the party’s stance. Some websites make resumes of TV interviews, statements of politicians, accounts of visits of politicians etcetera. This is a key attraction for Lebanese who don’t have time to search for the “juicy” news or follow all that’s been said and done. 

Recently, tayyar.org has started featuring news articles written by its staff writers. Elnashra.com and lebanonfiles.com produce most of their content in the form of breaking news. Their articles are added and updated minute by minute, which is the key to their success. Nowlebanon.com’s content is mostly original copy as well, and the site has attracted a significant readership, but it is less reactive than other websites. Some party websites are featuring “daily party reports” with analysis of the situation from the party’s perspective. 

But it’s not all politics and breaking news. Most sites feature some economy, some sports, some world headlines, articles on Facebook or plastic surgery in Lebanon, etcetera.

News delivery


While the trend on international news sites such as BBC and CNN is to annex audio-visual content with written content – click here for an example from The Christian Science Monitor –, the leading Lebanese news sources still rely on plain old text, this despite the fact that youtube.com ranks among the top 10 sites visited in Lebanon. Maybe this is due to the fact that Lebanon has not yet fully embraced high speed internet.

We do note though the excellent use of Flash by nowlebanon.com, and the embedding of audio and live audio in the tayyar.org website. But it is tayyar.org’s sister site rplfrance.org that leads the way in the use of embedded video hosted on youtube.com

Websites are progressively embracing the new RSS technology. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite web sites in an automated manner that's easier than checking them manually.

One site which has taken advantage of RSS feeds is synxro.net (read 'syncro'; requires free registration), which offers many services including the opportunity to read news from all Lebanese and Arab and International news sites offering RSS feeds. 

So 2007 will not only have been a year of political crisis in Lebanon. It was also a year that saw the birth of several promising websites. The fierce competition is stirred by politics more than by revenues and could be somewhat healthy. That is, if news and propaganda stay separated.