Young blood: Al Balad’s big debut

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There’s a new newspaper in town and it’s in your face – television, billboards, vans, in other newspapers, sales people in the street, your doorstep, even the office. Al Balad’s marketing is aggressive; with start up costs of $6 million, its investors are not taking any chances, especially with a daily print run of 65,000 copies.

“We have a very serious marketing plan and a very serious business plan, and it shows,” said Marwan Dimas, the newspaper’s general manager. “We think there is room in Lebanon for a new newspaper that has a different approach to news and it is clear that this is a serious newspaper, not just a bunch of people publishing anything.”

One has to be a serious player – at least financially – in Lebanon, to set up a paper because it involves buying an existing state-set number of licenses, which cost several hundred thousand dollars. Insiders say that it cost Dimas and his fellow shareholders $300,000 to buy the defunct title Al Balad from ex-parliamentary speaker Hussein Husseini.

Dimas acknowledged the price was wholly unreasonable for a license. “Although journalism in Lebanon is supposedly free, you cannot obtain your own license. You have to buy an existing one for several hundred thousand dollars. This restricts people’s ability to open a newspaper. The existing licenses are rare and those who have them hold onto them,” said Dimas. “In a free country, everyone should be able to open a newspaper.”

Despite these obstacles, the Al Balad team is out to smash circulation records and shatter the hidebound assumption that Lebanon’s total daily print circulation figure will never surpass 60,000. To achieve that goal, Al Balad aims to overcome religious and political barriers that it believes has created this apparent readership ceiling.

“The newspaper industry has a complex political and religious scene. All the newspapers have their political identities and this automatically reduces the target audience, or target group of readers. Nobody in Al Balad has any local political agenda,” said Dimas, admitting that newspaper’s editorial line is pro-Gulf countries as a number of the shareholders in Integra, the marketing and advertising arm of Al Balad, are Kuwaiti.

The emphasis is on marketing, Dimas reiterated, a domain hitherto neglected by Al Balad’s Lebanese competitors. “Can you name the marketing manager of any of the daily newspapers in Lebanon?” he asked. “They don’t have a marketing manager. They have commercial managers to sell advertising but they don’t have anyone to market their newspapers. They don’t sell subscriptions. They don’t have street vendors. There is a lot missing in their marketing activity and tools. There is no tactical marketing.”

Al Balad, on the other hand, has adopted a marketing strategy that they are confident ultimately allow it to reap “huge” advertising revenues, declared Dimas. The paper’s aggressive home subscription campaign constitutes a starting block of 50,000 subscribers within a year – a tally that Dimas is sure will be attractive to advertisers. Dimas maintained that this was a realistic goal, but conceded that it would be no easy task to get more people in Lebanon to read.

“Lebanese people don’t have the habit of reading a newspaper every day,” he lamented. In an effort to spur such a habit, Al Balad has given away 50,000 free three-month subscriptions. Overall, the paper has embarked on a major advertising campaign involving television, billboards, radio, and direct marketing activities – Al Balad salespeople have distributed free copies and promotional items across Beirut using funds set aside under a $500,000 advertising and marketing launch budget. Dimas said a little less than that amount would be spent on marketing and advertising every year until expenditure stabilized at around 2% of total revenues. He preferred not to give a figure for projected revenues, saying that people would regard it as totally unrealistic and think he was crazy. He said he expected 20% of revenues to come from subscription fees and the remainder from sales and advertising. In general, he said, a newspaper in Lebanon needs to make about $500,000 a month to break even.

Finding an unexploited niche market in the lighter side of the news, Al Balad is not bound by the confines of a serious image, unlike Lebanon’s other major newspapers. “They cannot accept the light-hearted stories, the light-hearted layout. It’s against their fundamental principles of credibility, seriousness, and traditionalism. This has constituted an opportunity for us,” said Dimas.

With its modern, self-effacing image, Al Balad is unpretentious, meaty and speaks to the whole family, claims Dimas. Its dozens of pages comprise a lifestyle, sports, economy, business, and politics – both regional and international – section, and its layout is novel and refreshing. True to its innovative image, the paper places special emphasis on the Lifestyle section, the eight pages of which cover entertainment, nutrition, beauty, health and fitness, fashion, food, music, and art. Less attention is paid to politics.

“You don’t usually find our kind of content in the local newspapers,” said Dimas. “Al Balad is like a daily magazine. We aim to have less politics. It is part of our strategy to have a maximum of 30% to 40% of our content related to politics.”

Pressed to elaborate, Dimas said: “In politics, I believe we cannot compete with the opinion-leading newspapers of Lebanon, such as An Nahar and As Safir. Our strategy is to compete elsewhere.” He acknowledged that Al Balad’s conscious accentuation of the light-hearted could initially lead some people to dismiss the paper as trivial. “Just because we place greater emphasis on the light-hearted does not mean we are not a serious newspaper. We tackle all issues very seriously. You can tackle the marriage of Britney Spears as seriously as you tackle any other issue.”

Overall, Al Balad employs 200 staff, from printing press technicians and delivery boys to salespeople. The peper’s owners claim to employ 55 journalists, most of whom are hungry, fresh, young graduates, attuned to the youthful, energetic pulse the paper is attempting to generate. Editors enjoy an established pay scale scheme, which starts at $500 for the least experienced, and reaches $1,200 for the most experienced.

As an entity, Al Balad encompasses two companies: the newspaper – which is run by Dimas (general manager), a chairman, Ahmad Badrani, and an editor-in-chief, Charles Charbel, formerly of Al Hayat – and Integra, a company contracted by Al Balad to take care of the marketing, advertising, sales, distribution, and printing.

The stakes for Al Balad are definitely high: running a daily newspaper costs about $5 to $6 million a year. Although the paper’s shareholders don’t expect a profit after the first year and have embraced a five-year business plan, they will be looking for early reassurances that their hefty financial investments will pay off in this most difficult of markets.

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