Arab print media losing business
Amman - With high-tech leaps, people worldwide are opting for the internet as their main source of information, as manufacturers claim that they see the future in touch screens, circuitry and batteries — but not paper.
The digital era has created new reading habits among Arabs under the age of 29, who make up more than half of the Arab world’s population of 422 million — a shift detrimental to print media readership.
“Who wants to read yesterday’s news in newspapers, when one could simply scroll down a tablet or portable phone to skim through headlines, look at colourful pictures or watch videos?” Amman stock broker Murad Salameh told The Arab Weekly.
The tilt towards e-media coincided with the diminished lustre of the so-called pan-Arab satellite stations in the wake of the “Arab spring” because of their flagrant bias in favour of particular political agendas and their use as tools of influence and mobilisation.
That trend was coupled with the emergence of private national television channels capable of delivering independent news coverage to a population that grew disillusioned with state TV channels, widely seen as tilted-information machines at the service of governments.
In several Arab countries there is also the suspicion that business interests and party politics influence the editorial line of media organisations. In Iraq, for example, there are about 400 private radio and television stations, with at least 30% of them either financed or managed by serving or former politicians, including members of parliament.
Like in the West, Arab print media have also been dealt a blow by dwindling revenues.
In Tunisia, where government censorship is no longer a major issue, print media are faced with falling circulation and advertisement sales. The reporters’ and publishers’ union would like the state to provide subsidies — without strings attached — to pump new life into newspapers. Jordan’s five dailies are also struggling in the face of drying up revenues and the government is hesitant to lend a helping hand because it is on a belt-tightening programme to ease its own cash crunch.
Ad-Dustour, the country’s second largest and oldest Arabic-language daily, dismissed 46 employees, including 19 journalists and several photographers, on May 3rd — World Press Freedom Day.
The state owns 30% of Ad-Dustour, which has published since 1967. The paper incurred millions of dollars in losses because of sagging ad revenues and since several Arab publications from Egypt and elsewhere stopped using its printing facilities on the onset of the “Arab spring.”
Al Rai, the country’s largest newspaper with 55% government shares, ran afoul of its employees when it contemplated staff reductions and refused their demand for pay raises to make up for diminishing ad business. The employees are still waiting for management to deliver on their requests. Al Arab Al Yawm, once the country’s third largest paper, closed in 2013 amid financial strains. It reopened later that year under a new management but faces a court ruling to seize its assets to settle outstanding debts estimated at $700,000, mostly in unpaid staff salaries.
For Jordanian banker Ahmad Wishah, 28, the local dailies are “meaningless” because they are the mouthpiece of the government.
“They can keep their newspapers to themselves because nobody is interested in government humbug,” Wishah told The Arab Weekly. He said Twitter and other social media networks are his source for breaking international news.
Financial losses forced several of the region’s 150 newspapers to go online, just like in the United States where some newspapers have stopped daily print editions to save production costs. The London-based, Arabic-language Asharq Al Awsat daily was the first Arab print newspaper to introduce an online version 14 years ago, while Elaph became the first fully online newspaper in 2001.
“There is a thin line between printed and online. It’s a bold decision to go online only but it’s cost saving and a new look to the future,” said Ayman Khateeb, a reporter with Jordan’s Al Ghad Arabic-language daily.
More than 120 online news websites exist in Jordan and they are providing updated news around the clock, competing with the printed dailies, he added.
Faisal J. Abbas, chief editor for Al Arabiya satellite station’s English news, blamed the current state of Arab newspapers on their inability to compete with blogs, websites and social media networks.
“You can’t run a 21st-century media outlet using 19th-century propaganda mentality and then expect people to still buy your newspaper,” Abbas told The Arab Weekly.
According to Forbes-Middle East survey in 2012 of the most popular online media that have the strongest presence, Egypt’s Al Ahram came first and Al Yawm Assabeh second, while the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News was third.
Rather than looking at the digital age as a threat, Abbas recommended that newspapers “consider this an opportunity to build their online presence so that the brand continues to feed people’s minds regardless of the platform”.
“Remember, as journalists we’re in the content business, not the paper business,” Abbas emphasised.
For Abbas, print media are unlikely to vanish completely.
“Look at a magazine like the Economist, for example. Will it die soon? The answer is ‘no’ because the intelligent content it produces will always be demanded,” he said.