Excursion into Lebanese journalistic futures

Professional media and the quest to discover new relevance

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Lebanon has a tradition of freedom of speech. This tradition finds expression in media freedom, intellectual discourse, academic debate and a general atmosphere or spirit that makes Beirut a regional capital of thought and center of attraction for far more people than just journalists and academics. This status is intangible; it cannot be expressed as a contribution to GDP or in terms of capital utilization. Nonetheless, through concentration of intellectual capital, it has bearing on the country’s budding creative and design industries. Moreover, this environment is crucial for Lebanon’s future as an origination point of human capital, which, if one reflects on it, is by definition only productive if it is nurtured in freedom.

Media – and, more specifically, qualified opinion makers, journalists and commentators – are essential in maintaining and keeping up this freedom-of-speech environment. This function of the media has sometimes been undervalued (especially when it comes to remuneration of Arabic-language journalists), and sometimes been impaired by tendencies to convert organs of the Lebanese press into mouth pieces for various – even external – interests and by journalists who sold their skill of opinion making to the highest bidder, and with this sold their conscience.    

In 2016, the chicken of this non-journalism came home to roost and Lebanon’s newspapers were beset by severe money problems and existential crises. It was debated if the print media had to be propped up by state subsidies, or if the funeral announcements and obituaries for the old media should be written in preparation for their impending deaths.

In this time of concern over the future of serious media in Lebanon, however, it seems advisable to widen the scope of debate: it is not just a question of whether print media and political newspapers are endangered, but also a broader consideration about freedom of speech and its new and old incarnations.

First of all, it must be noted in this wider context that the rise of digital communication has resulted in both: attention-grabbing vehicles of communication that are based on the lowest possible common denominators – of animalistic instincts (like exhibition of body parts) or of intellectual non-demand (such as “like” buttons or tweets limited to 140 characters) – and a long tail of online repositories filled with high-value-added material and demanding discourses. In Lebanon, this means the birth of new online media with original thinking and thought-provoking visualizations.

Heritage of martyrdom

One should also not forget that since the beginning of Lebanon’s reconstruction, the country has seen the creation of professional media outlets with commitments to transparency (Executive, we like to believe, is among these) and that critical journalism has therefore found new “conventional” as well as “new media” outlets. Finally, there are the seeds of media freedom and quality improvements that were sown in the very attempts to violently destroy journalistic voices that some powerful entities felt disturbed by in the mid-2000s. These seeds have developed and for five or six years have increasingly produced fruits in the work of institutions like the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKeyes) and the May Chidiac Foundation (MCF). No one can deny that the strongest hopes for the development of better journalism in Lebanon and for the region have been nurtured by the heritage or the legacy of journalists who put their lives on the line and, by being murdered or maimed, paid the ultimate price for their commitment. 

This notwithstanding, the question remains if there is a future for serious journalists. Answers to this question must be sought in universal terms and in a global context, because, as is well known, print media in national markets around the world have experienced one challenge to their economic viability after the other. Two or three years ago, print journalism became one of the professions associated with the least career opportunities in surveys in the United States.

One answer to this existential question may be connected to recent developments toward a new form of global investigative teams of journalists. The background for these developments is actually perhaps a painful realization: the globalization of the economy is going hand in hand with the globalization of wrongdoings. This must be seen as an inevitable development, save for a total ethical and moral upgrading of the human being, which sadly is not currently in sight.

From everyday crimes, especially tax and financial crimes, to violations of nature’s integrity, to classic transnational crimes from simple smuggling of goods to trade in drugs, piracy, selling of illicit weapons, human trafficking and outright slavery, there is a gruesome catalog of evil human deeds. This catalog of crimes has further recent entries through cybercrimes, adding another whole dimension of evil doings that take place in virtual space, but affect real people.

Next, there is the whole realm of governmental intelligence, with its various intrusions into civic rights that also seem inevitable when some people have an abundance of power that affects others. That realm has also been expanding, owing in part to dangers of terrorism, but mostly to the technical evolution that transformed average citizens into “people of glass” whose every action could be traced.

Examples for media on the job

News and investigative media have the dual responsibility of keeping watch over governmental behavior, exposing abuses of power and helping to protect members of society from falling victim to criminals and evils. Within the breathtaking expansion of media, especially when taking into account the proliferation of entertainment and digital gaming, it seems there is a greater need now than ever for investigative and analytical media, seeing as the increasing amounts of information and relevant data on crime and politics have to be reviewed, understood and condensed.

Instead of the news organizations that were providing feeds through centralized filters in the 20th century – the big commercial or state-aligned wire organizations with their networks of correspondents and stringers – a new form of investigative collaborations among media seems to be emerging. At the MCF’s annual conference in Beirut in November 2016, two versions of these emerging journalistic forces were present: the notorious Wikileaks and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Both deal with data and scenarios of global dimensions that were not imaginable even 30 or 40 years ago. And these investigative organization are still in their early days, on rising trajectories with implications for much more work.

Wikileaks, founded just 10 years ago, has not only gained an increasing prominence despite its founder’s troubles with American and Swedish prosecutors, but in 2016 it made new waves by spreading pertinent information during the run-up to the US presidential election (the Podesta emails) and also by uploading 2420 leaked documents from a German government investigative commission on, curiously, leaked information. The Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) commission was convened in 2014 on the so-called NSA (National Security Agency) affair, discussing the methods of intelligence agencies and the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was working as a NSA contractor at the time of his disclosures.

Furthermore, in a similar thread of investigation as the one of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that led to the revelation of the so-called Panama Papers on tax evasion by people all over the world, a Europe-wide journalistic effort was published in December 2016. Its source was an online site called Football Leaks, created a few years ago by a Portuguese whistleblower under the assumed name “John.” Leading German news magazine Der Spiegel and eight other media organizations in Europe established an investigative consortium titled the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) to cover the leaked documents. The story kept 60 journalists on their toes for seven months, was guarded by tightly secured IT and produced stories that uncovered the dirt in the world’s most popular spectator sports. Based on shifting through 1.9 terabytes of documents and electronic papers, or 18.6 million documents, this investigation showed tax violations of the highest magnitude – by top football celebrities such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the world footballer of the year. 

This project speaks to a pattern. What is emerging is a tendency for whistleblowers to emerge in environments of organized corruption. These whistleblowers provide millions of documents to support their claims. In the case of the Panama Papers, it was an anonymous source who approached two reporters at the largest and most reputed German daily newspaper with 11.5 million documents of varying relevance. The newspaper in 2014 joined hands with a global alliance of similar, reputable media under the auspices of ICIJ, a global network formed in 1997 of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries. ICIJ, with a liberal bent and a mission to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions, had its largest break ever through this investigation. The team took months to analyze the papers, with the process involved sophisticated information technology, high-grade security, vows of secrecy before publication and a big-bang day of revelation.

It was debated if the print media had to be propped up by state subsidies, or if the funeral announcements and obituaries for the old media should be written in preparation for their impending deaths

Space for professional journalism

In sum, the way that journalistic work is heading in these two examples is a tip-off on a scandal (not unusual for classic press work), combined with a truckload of evidence that needs to be sorted, evaluated and transformed into a chain of stories. In this process, it is not enough to dump information and unorganized files into the public arena for all to see – even with corroboration of their authenticity. Tremendous work and hundreds of hours need to be invested to make sense of the material and make it transparent to the public.

Only professional journalists and highly credible media organizations can handle this task. Apparently the effort was so rewarding that the editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel broke out into praise of the profession: no work was as exciting as that of a professional journalist who is engaged in “project enlightenment,” he enthused in a column on the occasion of the start of the Football Leaks story.

Such emanations of professional pride have not recently been frequent among editors. They speak to a renewed sense of purpose in journalism and at the same time to a great societal need for a new type of investigative teamwork by journalists. Instead of the centralized model with a focus on first-world clients and audiences, where raw news was channeled through the filters of editing bureaus with a preoccupation to serve specific audiences and agendas, the future seems to call for large investigative collaborations that involve diverse teams.

Grade A reputation capital, expert journalistic knowledge of niche markets and local conditions, and collaboration in project-centric networks appear to be the three operational necessities for future journalism in those extensive investigations that require teamwork for weeks and months to uncover a series of interconnected secrets or crimes, yielding stories that are of relevance in any number of countries and to distributed audiences.

Serving the purposes of investigations into globalized issues and revealing their findings without being totally vulnerable to pressures by powers that be seems to be far outside the scope and reach of citizen journalists and other new traditions of internet-age journalism. This implies that professional media should focus much more on developing tools for future investigative skills, reputation, relevance and cooperation in multi-anchored networks, rather than worry only about developing new avenues for monetization of their content.

Monetization tools, important as they are, will follow from the creation of relevance, quality assurance, and, on the practical side, better measurement tools to understand their reach and audience. This is not a debate over how many people prefer videos or images over the written word, how may tick the opposite way, if paper is going to coexist with digital or if reading is a dying habit. One can be relaxed about all these issues. What may be on the extinction list is not large media organizations or independent journalism, but inflexible media dinosaurs of all sizes which are failing to innovate and develop new franchises in smaller niches because they are weeping after the newspapers’ past role in (national scale) opinion domination.       

Enhancing relevancy

It is urgent that Lebanese media and Beirut as a regional hub for quality journalism embark on an investigation into themselves with the goal of establishing future relevancy and take immediate steps in toning their skills to meet the objective of relevancy. The good news for Lebanese journalism is that some steps are already being taken.

One example is a new training facility related to journalism. Called the Academy of Leadership and Applied Communications (ALAC), it is an initiative by MCF that will commence operations at the start of 2017. Planned initially are four majors and an intake of between 80 to 200 students, according to a spokesperson for the academy. The programs include online journalism and other media-related offerings organized under a principle of hands-on learning. Perhaps sadly, the academy does have a program dedicated to investigative journalism or classical skills of the profession, at least not yet. It is nonetheless encouraging that future media skills are given a new base in the eastern suburbs of Beirut.

Other new impulses originate in a place that in the past has been associated primarily with the political press and extremely traditional thinking. At the press syndicate, one of two long-existing media-related associations in the country, 2016 marks the arrival of a new initiative and a new spirit. The driving force behind this spirit are a handful of future-minded members of the syndicate’s board, including Yasser Akkaoui, manager of NewsMedia, the parent organization of Executive, and the editor-in-chief of this magazine.

According to Akkaoui, NewsMedia has been pushing for innovation at the press syndicate since NewsMedia took a board seat two years ago. One of these projects calls for the syndicate to embrace entrepreneurship and content development concepts that are related to journalism. “The Syndicate of the Press, as we know it today, represents mainly political dailies published in Arabic. [These media makers] in the syndicate today are aware that what they represent is minuscule when compared with electronic content, bloggers and social media. It took a shock like what happened in spring 2016 for the old dailies to realize that they will be left behind from media developments if they don’t embrace the future of journalism and absorb bloggers, etc.,” Akkaoui says.

Based on the shock of financial troubles in the large news organizations, it was possible for NewsMedia to gain the press syndicate’s board approval for a conversion of the syndicate’s headquarters building into a co-working space for journalists and online media ventures. “We have several options in front of us. Ideally, we would transform the 2,700 square meter (sqm) building of the press syndicate in Ramlet al-Baida into a mega co-working space for journalists, content developers and entrepreneurial media outlets. That space would provide all the offerings of a co-working space, plus an accelerator for media entrepreneurship, and all the equipment that will allow journalists and content developers to do their job, whether this is a cooking channel or one that is dedicated to war reporting and investigative journalism. The purpose is to promote the highest ethical standards in any field of journalism,” Akkaoui says.    

Obstacles to this version of the project exist through the building’s age and location in proximity to a politically exposed area with intense security controls nearby. Therefore, an alternative version of the co-working development project at the press syndicate would be to start out with the creation of a 500 sqm space on the building’s first or second floor, have it rehabilitated, equipped and managed by a company that is specialized in co-working operations, e.g. Antwork, and enter an agreement with this company under which press syndicate members would be entitled to use other facilities that this company maintains in Lebanon. 

This initiative to create a 500 sqm co-working space for media in the short term would aim to create incentives for journalists to use the facilities and would, in a second step, be accompanied by further press syndicate initiatives to organize trainings and talks on both media management and journalism, while also making financing (including financing under central bank Circular 331) accessible to media entrepreneurs. The press syndicate’s board members have accepted this initiative and are trying to understand the entrepreneurship concept and business model. According to Akkaoui, there might be attempts to resist innovation, but the current situation the media finds itself in compels press syndicate board members not to resist because daily newspapers have exhausted all business models, by which until now they have attempted to achieve sustainability.

Other innovation projects that Akkaoui and a few like-minded board members are promoting at the press syndicate are the development of better governance in the organization, with a focus on advocacy of transparency and accountability, and proposing an update to the legal framework that will be fit for the digital age.

Obstacles to create a 21st century culture of investigative journalism in Lebanon similar to that promoted by networks such as ICIJ and EIC exist on several levels, Akkaoui says. Investigative journalism was not possible for several decades in Lebanon because most news organizations practiced self-censorship. As organizations with political sponsors, they had no interest to stir up any mud in the political landscape or investigate their sources of revenue. “While we would be interested to be involved in large investigations and see it as our mandate to provide independent journalism in Lebanon, Executive cannot do it alone. We cannot afford to hire three, four or 10 journalists and have them on our payroll as dedicated to investigative collaborations. But creating this co-working space at the press syndicate will help us identify candidates who practice journalism out of a sense of vocation and who will be interested to give their time and dedication to investigations that could be as big as the Panama Papers,” says Akkaoui. 

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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