For almost two years the Lebanese journalistic community has been engaged in continuous debate about the future of their print media. This occurs at a time already impacted by the previous closings of many literary supplements, as well as political and cultural magazines, a time when many of the surviving newspapers must layoff of journalists, severely reduce their daily pages, or finally close their doors, as in the case of the recent shuttering of a 43-year old daily. To a large extent, most of the Lebanese print media problems remain global, but nevertheless, indigenous or “homegrown” causes do exist.
Global factors include the introduction of new technologies, social media, visual media, and global access to different outlets. These new technologies and developments have produced unintended consequences for print media, including decreases in advertising, readership, subscriptions, and sales.
To identify the more localized causes of the Lebanese print media crisis, we must delve into politics and economics at the domestic and Arab-regional levels. Historically, many Arab countries have used and/or sponsored newspapers and magazines in Lebanon that represented their interests. With the downward spiral of Gulf economies, the fall of Arab authoritarian regimes like Iraq and Libya and the ongoing conflict in Syria since 2011, wealthy Lebanese politicians with modest capital to invest and political parties like Hezbollah (with Iranian support) have become new players, attempting to compensate for some of the diminishing Gulf aid and funds which used to flow from pre-Arab Spring dictatorships.
Many observers inadvertently oversimplify the predicament of the Lebanese media by reducing its problems to those suffered by the Western press. For example, we always read how local and free presses have doomed the Western national print media. However, Lebanon possesses no analog to these types of media. No Lebanese version of a LA Weekly, nor an Orange County Register, exists to compete with national outlets, and therefore, such presses have no bearing on what has befallen the Lebanese media.
Others might reference the lack of competitive markets in Lebanon, since existing Lebanese laws concerning the licensing of new newspapers have fallen behind the times. Anyone wishing to enter the publishing market in order to compete with other Lebanese newspapers cannot apply for a new title (a copyrighted name or trademark), and instead can only purchase a licensed trademark (publication’s name) from the owners of an existing or defunct newspaper. Obviously, this monopolistic policy works against the marketplace, as well as freedom of expression, favoring owners who have already licensed titles – even those of closed papers – and can therefore charge exorbitant fees to sell their titles to new owners. Still, this remains a relatively minor issue compared to the other factors that have weakened the Lebanese press and rendered it unable to survive these difficult times.
Another explanation of a characteristically Lebanese nature comes from Al Hayat columnist Hussam Itani. He suggests that, under the impact of sharp sectarian divisions, readers no longer remain interested in concerns that transcend individual interests and consciousness, nor do they care to follow the evolution of news stories and learn of the factors that created them. Instead, sectarianism has led Lebanese readers to reject the transmission of new knowledge in favor of the reinforcement and confirmation of their pre-existing biases.
Mr. Itani’s observations have their own implication for a society afflicted by corruption and virulent sectarianism. The gradual demise of the print media does coincide with the weakening, if not evaporation, of political parties and unions, and correlates with the narrowing of individual freedoms on one hand, and the inability of non-sectarian social groups to survive and produce their own discourse on the other. While daily news articles in conventional and social media have often focused in the past on corruption and the misuse of state resources, especially the sharing of power and national wealth among the “Lebanese families,” these behaviors can proceed much more smoothly, with little to no fear of consequences, “far from the eyes of objective and professional journalism.”
A better understanding of the misfortunes afflicting the Lebanese print and TV media requires further examination of the roles played by external politics and economics in Lebanon’s publishing industry. Today’s crisis developed as the Gulf economy plummeted with the decrease in oil revenues, followed by dry up assistance from pre-2011 Arab dictatorships. This led to cuts in foreign subsidies to foreign media outlets, including Lebanese newspapers. Having by this time developed their own print, visual and digital media, the Gulf countries have managed to mitigate this effect. Lebanon, however, has not developed such a buffer, and can offer its populace nothing as advanced as Al Arabiya, and Al Jazeera satellite TV Channels, nor can it match newspapers like Al Hayat, Asharq Al Awsat, and Al Quds Al Arabi, to name just a few.
While Gulf media developed recognizable worldwide reputations, the Lebanese have gradually lost their aura of professionalism and respectability, becoming less competitive and less able to recruit professional staff. As the Lebanese media has slumped, becoming merely local as opposed to pan-Arab, wealthy politicians and other purveyors of Lebanese capital have stepped in, using print media as a means to further engage in local and regional political rivalries. Hobbled in this fashion, and unable to regain their old glory, Lebanese newspapers have gradually become irrelevant beyond Lebanon’s borders.
Despite its post-Arab money sponsorship era, and faced with the subsequent rise of local and Iranian influences, Lebanese print and visual media have continued to decline. Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, the media has suffered under the pressure of a stagnant local economy. Pressure also comes from Iran’s extended economic and military commitments to Hezbollah, as well as the Shiite community, leading to increased demand for aid to propaganda outlets. As recently as six months ago, the press reported Hezbollah turning down requests to aid a very sympathetic newspaper (As Safir), a 43-year pseudo-leftist daily. Motivated by both politics and economics, the Party became unwilling to sustain two print daily publications. According to press reports, Al Akhbar’s solid support of the Party’s domestic and regional politics, as well as discontent with the As Safir’s semi-autonomous positions on domestic politics, led to Hezbollah’s decision in favor of Al Akhbar. Further, Hezbollah has decided to invest more in social media and its visual outlets, foremost among them, Al Manar TV. As media increasingly becomes digitized, decisions to channel resources from print publications into the web, and social media, become more rational both economically and in terms of efficient audience engagement.
The dependency of Lebanese print media on foreign Arab money has created a dual weakness at both the ownership and labor levels. By failing to grasp the print industry’s problems and not finding sensible solutions for its difficulties, owners cannot salvage their media outlets economically. Those privy to the business approaches employed by many of the owners of larger Lebanese newspapers will not find this surprising. Historically, newspaper owners either started their publishing businesses or expanded them using sizable injections of foreign or Arab money, rather than by capitalizing on and responding to indigenous market needs. When the Lebanese market began to burst at the seams with daily newspapers, many economists started to wonder how the market could absorb such a large number of newspapers in such a small country and small economy. Disinterested and partisan critics of the Lebanese publishing industry aside, a near consensus exists pointing to extraneous factors like foreign money subsidies as the explanation for owner unwillingness to respond to the crisis or act according to the market’s contours.
Although the owners themselves have demonstrated little concern for the human element, many Lebanese commentators have continued to cite the impact of the crisis on employees, though this remains insufficiently publicized. As a collective body, weakly unionized, the Lebanese media has failed to weather the harmful human consequences of shortsighted publisher policies and cannot force owners to honor their commitments concerning employment conditions. As a result, owners have imposed crippling pay cuts, urged or forced early retirements, denied legally required severance payments, and have even left some employees unpaid for more than a year.
Professionalism has become another casualty of the Lebanese media, deriving from poor management hiring policies, as well as social and political ills like corruption, nepotism, and sectarianism. As a result, sectarianism and cronyism have become a criterion for much institutional hiring. Under these conditions, employers end up hiring servile cronies or recruiting from the ranks of their own sects for jobs once populated by highly professional staff members.
This results in a large proportion of journalists with limited experience, and average professional talent, faced with an unsupportive media labor force whose subservience to management ensures it will refrain from pressing for improved working conditions or new resources to improve and modernize production. Lacking logistical support, and faced with hostile, all powerful management teams and owners, journalists become increasingly unwilling to assert their own intellectual freedom and responsibility. This scenario results also in poor and biased news coverage, and guarantees that the Lebanese media will remain unable to cope with growing modern media challenges.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 21, No. 72, 2017.
© Copyright 2017, 2018 AL JADID MAGAZINESneaker Release Dates 2019