The eternal crisis

Media makers and their 2016 struggle for survival

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Make no mistake about it, it is not a new idea that media types are today’s variant of preachers. Whether they work in advertising or in news media, the profession features a whole gamut of prophets, proselytizers and missionaries. The message about this land according to Amos (the prophet, not the communications satellites) was that its previous inhabitants were “as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks,” promising inbound migrants a fruitful environment (after overcoming various obstacles).

Given the Middle East’s known propensity for starting religions – just think of the “land of milk and honey” that a bunch of tribal nomads were promised millennia ago – it cannot come as a surprise that even within the battered Lebanese economy, the media crisis of spring 2016 caused an uproar of concern. Several newspaper companies announced that they were running out of money and were threatened in their survival.

According to reports, the organizations faced with closure or forced to downsize were the venerable An-Nahar and As-Safir newspapers as well as the Al-Akhbar and Future media organizations. Unconfirmed numbers from the Syndicate of Lebanese Journalists later said that of the 2,600 journalists with membership in the organization, 70 percent were already affected by media closures or at risk to be so in the near term. 

The crisis was exacerbated by the broad failures of media owners to exhibit concerns for their journalists and employees – omitting what AA President Georges Jabbour called a “CSR spirit” (see interview) – and by ham-fisted publisher appeals of the give-us-money-or-death variety. 

The 2016 media crisis occupied the minds of professionals and people interested in the sector throughout 2016, as was shown in November during a media conference when a panel was tasked with discussing if the death or the rebirth of print media was in the Lebanese future.

Putting the topic on agenda was beneficial to move the discussion to open ground and compare the situation in the Lebanese media with that of foreign print media markets, especially the UK and France, according to Bachir Khoury, the Lebanese journalist who moderated the panel. (The two markets were represented on the panel through an editor of Le Figaro and a former Middle East correspondent of The Guardian.)

“I don’t know if the panel brought a lot [in terms of results], but at least the issue was raised publicly. This is important in Lebanon, where it is somewhat taboo to talk about media and their financial difficulties. Media here are very polarized in political and confessional terms and this leads to a situation where [media employees] talk about financial issues only in secret, because they don’t want to hurt the image of their leader,” Khoury told Executive.

This code of silence according to Khoury is adhered to even by media employees who have not received salaries for months or years and are not able to provide for their families. “I liked that panelist Nayla Tueni [the publisher of An-Nahar] said that the paper’s people have not been paid for a year. My personal point of view on this is that the Lebanese media is facing a lot of changes, like in other countries where media have to deal with limitations. But in Lebanon people are still reading newspapers and the problem is more a [demise] of political sponsorship,” he said. 

The lack of local newspapers’ financial means, in Khoury’s view, has some similarities with cases of cash-strapped media elsewhere, but in the case of Lebanon the lack of funds is due to known people who stopped paying for media operations under their wing.

Data on real circulation of different categories in print media – dailies as well as magazines – was sought by Executive but was not available when going to press for 2016 and also questionable in terms of general accuracy.

Zulficar Kobeissi, print media veteran and chairman of Business Journal, which publishes three magazines from Beirut (the Alam Al-Massaref banking magazine, the Al-Khaleej magazine for the Gulf region, and the partly bi-lingual English and Arabic Business Journal magazine) estimates that the daily circulation of all Arabic-language newspapers in Lebanon is as low as 50,000 copies, with return rates of 20 to 30 percent. This means that only about 30,000 daily copies would be absorbed by paying readers.

Kobeissi confirms the entanglements of Lebanese media with various funders and compares local newspapers with diabetics who depend on insulin. “Perhaps one paper or the other today is still getting ‘insulin’ from time to time, but until when? Whether subsidies from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf are based on conviction or blackmail – there are both cases – they are reducing payments by 60 or 70 percent; I have inside information that newspapers face this large a reduction so if a paper got one million dollar[s] per year, they are now down to $300,000 – that is why they get rid of employees and have financial troubles,” he told Executive.

Having worked in banking and journalism his whole life, Kobeissi says he could list 50 reasons why Lebanese media have trouble – practically one reason for every year he has been in the profession, and moreover all homegrown problems that have existed since before the days of the internet.

The root of the problem

He rattles off reasons that include overspending by media owners; too much jealousy and personal pride in paper ownership; overly high street prices for newspapers when compared with people’s purchasing power; failure to rationalize production processes; incompetence of owners who are neither media managers nor journalists; lack of personal impact and relevancy of newspaper stories to readers; inaccuracy, lack of journalistic quality and lack of ethics in newspapers; and general failure to separate publisher positions and editor-in-chief positions.

He is able to maintain his operation based on working on strict budgetary discipline and filling the shoes of editor-in-chief and media manager instead of bringing in paid people, but he is not cheerful about the outlook for print media. “The situation, as it is today, looks as if this business in dying. It is not easy to make dailies survive, because they face a very difficult situation with the economy, journalistically, financially, and in terms of competition. I don’t see that there would be enough light at the end of the tunnel,” Kobeissi says.

But it seems warranted to also look at the Lebanese media crisis in the context of the global business models that have sustained media – from newspapers over audiovisual channels to online and social media today – for nearly two centuries. This model, according to Columbia University Professor and writer Tim Wu, is based on attention arbitration and the principal actors in it are “attention merchants”.

In a nutshell, the business model of the attention merchant is to provide something of lesser value and harvest something in return that can be sold with a profit to someone who recognizes its potential. In terms of trade offs it is the same as giving inexpensive glass beads to tribes in an isolated realm in exchange for metals or ivory that fetch a much higher price in the developed world. In practical terms, the attention merchant offers goods like content (low or high in quality and cost of production), fame, appreciation, or a sense of pride – of belonging, in the case of propaganda – in exchange for attention or, if heightened, loyalty to an idea, state or brand.

Media and the advertising industry have often been in collusion in endeavors to harvest attention and exploit it, often, even without any awareness of their prey. People, according to Wu, give up privacy, data and personal attention without getting much value in return. For Wu, who authored a book that was published under the title “The Attention Merchants” in 2016, the practice of attention arbitrage by media and advertising industry represented a long, dark night in which people’s very awareness was bought cheap and sold at a markup.

This process unfolded in stages that involved technological tools from print media – over radio, television, home computers, portable digital devices to smartphones – and in the future other wearable devices. It was overall, undeterred, although the process saw the pendulum swing between excesses in attention exploitation, using junk as bait, and the emphasizing of privacy and content quality. Because the process is continuing with new tools and is a growing challenge, Wu recommends, “If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and the celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention…”

Within the struggle of Lebanese media to clean out their own blind spots in areas of corruption and dependence on political ‘sponsors,’ with the only perceived alternatives in co-dependence of content media and advertising, it seems high time to be honest about their chosen art. They must engineer and test new business models that cover the whole lifecycle of media, and of preaching truth as best as perceived. 

Thomas Schellen

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