To live or die: the digital age and Lebanon's newspaper industry

The digital revolution has revolutionized media and helped to breakdown formally established media and journalistic rules in the process. Will this digital media evolution mean the death of traditional print media? Although the discussion has been passionately viewed from both sides of the digital divide, what is sure in Lebanon is that the Lebanese newspapers are going through hard times – similar to newspapers the world over.
Lebanon Newspapers
The big names in the Lebanese newspaper industry.

BEIRUT, August 3, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Every now and then, media workers in Lebanon hear news about financial problems in their local newspapers, reaching the point where closure of the newspaper or a cessation of publishing is discussed as a distinct possibility. In Lebanon, it has begun to happen with such frequency that it's become almost a routine media exercise.

Recently, this subject has been renewed with more graveness, backed with tangible evidence that is signaling a true crisis among Lebanon’s newspapers, even if it is still an “underground” concern.

Breaking new ground and the financial crisis

About three years ago, a group of Lebanese journalists decided to create a “new, independent” newspaper. Editorial independence was their chief concern when venturing into these media waters because dependence on funding sources had always been a major fear that they said restricted both the work and freedom of any news media outlet.

As one of the founders told MENASSAT, it was a9 long time ago that the “independence” of the newspaper clashed with its financial needs. When that happened, “dreams” or “illusions” of independence disappeared in the face of the dependence on capital, which, more often than not has been accompanied by the influence of the tastes and opinions of the funders themselves.

Locally, this is a Lebanese story that can be replicated anywhere else in the Arab world - the relationship between media as a profession when related to the sources of funding, between dependence and independence, between the need for storytelling and the ads, between outspoken criticism and pleasing advertisers - this is an endless story in today’s newspaper industry.

What has happened in Beirut, financially and otherwise, begs the question: do you think newspapers are in danger? Many signs point to the fact that there is an accumulation of a variety of serious problems - particularly financial problems - that are threatening the continuity of the Lebanese newspaper industry.

Take, for example, a particular advertising campaign unveiled recently in which the Lebanese woke up to see the streets of several cities covered by ads from one of the local newspapers trying to convince its readers that the country (Lebanon) was more beautiful, better, clearer, and more powerful… without colors, a reference to the colors of the political parties featuring prominently in the ad.

The message it seemed was a veiled means of preparing its readership for the publishing of a black and white newspaper, a message being sold as a political decision. Informed media sources told MENASSAT that the decision of that newspaper to publish in black and white came from the financial crisis and the need to cut expenses - not out of a political need.

In the same context, another newspaper had been forced to cut the number of its pages in order to decrease the printing and paper costs - packaging the scaling back of the newspaper's content as a new “summer look" and a means of off-setting the decrease in sales usually seen in summer.

Another newspaper, considered one of the oldest and most prestigious in Lebanon, has undertaken an internal re-organization in order to cut expenses - to be followed by a number of employee lay-offs.

Serious talks about killing another newspaper that recently renewed its publishing schedule just a few months ago has also been spreading among the political party it is affiliated with, and some newspapers have already stopped publishing special editions that used to appear with their daily issues. All signs show there is a general direction to cut down expenses.

Is this matter restricted to Lebanon or this case is wider?

We can’t deny that the surge in the information flow witnessed in our world today has put the printing press in tough competition with the other audio-visual and digital media offerings. Will we witness the extinction of the paper press? Will the widespread dissemination of the image and internet culture mean that there is no more place for the printed press to focus on what happened “yesterday," versus “today” or “now?"

Partisan media

Indeed, the media sector in Lebanon is so interrelated with political life that the line between media and politics is often blurred. Who is using who? Who is taking advantage of the other to serve his own interests? These complications are unique to Lebanon given that it is such a confessional system that only distributes private newspapers, without any official or state-sponsored publication.

June parliamentary elections in Lebanon saw large amounts of public and private money spent on the campaign process, money that according to one source exceeded November's US presidential elections expenses. A media expert told MENASSAT, “The calm state the country is supposed to witness after the elections will reflect negatively on the print press in specific.”

The reason here is mainly that the political forces usually use the local newspapers in their daily political battles, spending great amounts of money. Today, there is an appeasement period that all political parties have agreed to as a means of reducing media expenses, which would otherwise reflect negatively on all newspapers.

Where Lebanon's ad sector is concerned, these expenditures have not been taken into consideration by the media. The same goes for sales returns, which constitute 30% of the cost of production.

Worldwide problem

We could say that this is an international crisis with Lebanese features. The international financial crisis put the printing press in serious trouble. But this process was additionally affected by the internet and the sizeable number youth who follow the news online. The readership, for example, of the print versions of the major American newspapers lowered in comparison to the e-versions' readership. In fact, Christian Science Monitor stopped its print version all together, now appearing solely on-line.

Many statistics, however, show a decrease of 2.5 percent in the newspapers' readership in the US between October 2007 and March 2008. the US Newspapers Syndicate claimed that the Sunday newspaper sales regressed by 3.1 percent according to 610 newspapers, whereas there was 2.5 percent regression weekday sales according to 770 newspapers.

This regression is not restricted to the US; the UK, France and other European countries have also experienced similar slumps in sales and readership.

Thus, it is clear the printing press is fighting for its survival - both in Lebanon and abroad. Its continuation means transporting each newspaper from its current point of stagnation into a dynamism that comes from dissecting the news and analyzing it through an electronic means, thereby reducing the time gap between the printing press, and the digital press.

Today, e-media is a new competitor to the printing press with cheaper overhead and a wider readership, so which one will survive and which one is actually stronger? Time will tell.