'A new way of doing journalism'

A young newspaper in Lebanon is trying to tap into an unserved audience by challenging the traditions of Arab journalism in style, form and content. Walid El Houri reviews the new look of Al-Akhbar, where life is about more than politics.
Two recent Al-Akhbar covers, and a story on the Society pages about Lebanon's polluted beaches.

BEIRUT, August 4, 2008 (MENASSAT) – When you browse through the Lebanese dailies at any given newsstand in Beirut, there is one that stands out immediately. It is the only one whose front page is not filled with the obligatory pictures of politicians shaking hands or sitting down for a summit.

Instead, on a recent day in July, it featured a striking full-page picture of British artist Banksy's artwork on the separation wall in the West Bank.

Say hello to the new look of Al-Akhbar, a rising star in the Lebanese media landscape and a newspaper that, in the words of business editor Mohammed Zebib, "refuses to be a collection of political statements without any clear criteria of value."

Success story

Al-Akhbar (The News) was always supposed to look like this: an attractive tabloid-size newspaper on forty pages daily, which challenges the conventions of the Arab written press in style, form and content. But the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel decided otherwise.

When the war started, Al-Akhbar was still in the planning stage. After the war ended, its young editor-in-chief Khaled Saghieh says, "We had to publish as soon as possible with what we had."

Al-Akhbar came out on the very first day of the peace in a skeleton 24-page format and it remained that way for the next two years, the switch to the current 40-page format having been delayed by two major factors: the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Lebanon, and the tragic early death of Al-Akhbar's founder and editor-in-chief, Joseph Samaha, at the age of 58 in February 2007.

After Samaha's death, Saghieh says, "We were more preoccupied with keeping the newspaper alive than adding the initially planned pages."

Al-Akhbar's founder Joseph Samaha. R.R.

The death of its founder left the Al-Akhbar team with an empty desk that was very hard to fill. Samaha's silhouette still watches over the Al-Akhbar logo on the top of the last page, and his name still appears as the founding editor-in-chief on the paper's masthead. In the offices of Al-Akhbar on the 6th floor of the Concorde center in Verdun, a wall-size picture of Samaha is a constant reminder to the Al-Akhbar employees that this is a newspaper that follows his particular school of journalism.

In just two years time, Al-Akhbar made it to the top of Lebanon's bestselling newspapers, vying with Ad-Diyar for the third position, after As-Safir and An-Nahar. In a small market like Lebanon, this doesn't translate it into huge sales: Al-Akhbar sells less than 10,000 copies a day. But Al-Akhbar also claims to be the most-visited Lebanese newspaper on the Internet, with more than 300,000 unique vistors per month.

Close to Hezbollah?

The decision to make the switch to the originally planned 40-page format was made shortly after the Doha peace accord paved the way for the election of a president and the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon.

According to Mohammad Zebib, making the switch without adding more staff was met with conflicting opinions within the Al-Akhbar team. "Like in any household, there were two contradicting views when it came to the switch'" he says. "However, everyone has been working twice as hard to fill the 'sacred new layout' and the new sections."

In the complicated and highly politicized Lebanese media landscape, every newspaper has to be given a political label, and in the case of Al-Akhbar this label is often one of "close to Hezbollah."

It is an unfair label, Zebib insists. "Al-Akhbar is a leftist, opposition newspaper but is not the newspaper of the opposition."

Indeed, one of the reasons for the switch to the 40-page version was to reassert the Al-Akhbar identity.

"The identity of Al-Akhbar was always clear for those who were working in it, but it was ambiguous for its readers. The new version was partly meant to clarify this issue and to present a newspaper that doesn't conform to the stereotype of a newspaper belonging to the Syrian-Iranian axis."

Challenging social taboos

One way in which Al-Akhbar distinguishes itself from other Lebanese – and even Arab – newspapers is that its focus is not only on politics but on social, cultural, and economical issues as well.
"Al-Akhbar's vocation is to defend civil rights and it is perhaps the only Arab newspaper that openly advocates and deals with what are usually called taboo issues such as the rights of homosexuals and sexual freedom in general," says Zebib.

In this sense, Al-Akhbar's social and cultural agenda is often in clear opposition to the party with which is so often associated. In fact, Al-Akhbar has recently been flooded with angry reactions from mostly Shia readers who buy the paper for its political position but who are shocked by its stand on certain social and cultural issues such as homosexuality.

There are other fundamental differences between al-Akhbar and the rest of the Lebanese newspapers, in terms of work structure, content and style, editorial line, and financial issues.

Mohammad Zebib proudly says that Al-Akhbar is the only Lebanese newspaper that works according to a strict layout, which requires more work and mirrors the way newspapers in the West work. This has sometimes led to conflicts with some of the old school journalists who were used to see their articles printed no matter how long they were.

In the red

Another Western influence is the absolute separation between the financial aspect (advertising, marketing, and finance) of the newspaper and the editorial aspect. In other words: the editorial line is completely independent from any financial pressure.

Financially, Al-Akhbar relies in part on ads. The rest of the paper's revenue comes from newsstand sales and individual investors, Zebib says.

But although Zebib claims that Al-Akhbar is "practically under siege" from advertisers wanting to take out ad space, the newspaper is nevertheless operating in the red.

This is visible when walking around the offices of al-Akhbar: only half the neon ceiling lighting is lit, the windows appear not to have been cleaned since the 2006 war, electricity cuts are frequent, and journalists have to go through the operator to make outside calls.

In a sense, the new Al-Akhbar is complimentary to rather than in competition with other newspapers. In other words: As-Safir or An-Nahar readers can continue to read their newspaper in order to get the political news, and read al-Akhbar for the features and articles that tackle subjects no other newspaper tackles.

New journalism

At Al-Akhbar ,"The background of the event is more important that the event itself," says Zebib. The newspaper avoids using agency news and instead fills its pages with signed articles, investigations, and features.

"It's a new way of doing journalism", says editor-in-chief Khaled Saghieh.

"It's not about marginalizing politics but about giving more space to other issues that are equally if not more important. If there is nothing extremely important on the political scene [on a given day] why would we write a column about politics?"

A constant problem for any newspaper, but especially a new title, is the extremely low number of newspaper readers in Lebanon. Saghieh believes that these low numbers mean that the Lebanese readers do not find what they are looking for in other newspapers. He is betting that Al-Akhbar's new approach will be able to tap an as yet unserved audience.

But it is not only on the Lebanese scene that the Al-Akhbar is hoping to compete; the next project is to go pan-Arab and start publishing from Qatar in order to reach the Gulf countries. An agreement has been made in principle and Al-Akhbar will enjoy the same criteria when it comes to freedom of expression as the satellite television Al-Jazeera. (Read: You can talk about anything you want as long as you do not say anything wrong about Qatar's ruling family.) 

Saghieh believes that the Al-Akhbar experience has more chances to influence newspapers in the rest of the Arab world than in Lebanon because of the extreme political polarization in the country. Still, several Lebanese dailies are allegedly working on new layouts of their own to be released in the future, according to Saghyeh.

What is certain is that the new format of Al-Akhbar represents a rich addition to the Arab written press scene. The Al-Akhbar adventure will perhaps inspire other Arab newspapers to try new and dynamic formats both in terms of esthetics and content (reporting on social issues, civil society, and campaigning for civil and political rights).

In another sense, the new Al-Akhbar look and content is one response from the Arab written press to those who believe that newspapers have nothing new to offer at a time when all eyes are on New Media.