Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- In one of Jeddah’s new business buildings, employees at a major public relations (PR) company meet with journalists working for a leading Saudi newspaper on daily basis. Even though only one floor separates their offices, there is a huge list of clear differences between the two, which is evident even before entering the building as the car park designated to the PR Company is distinguished by the latest luxury car models whilst the other car park is dotted by modest older cars. As the journalists look at the other car park, they think to themselves ‘maybe one day’ but when that day seems to be further and further away, they begin to believe that the time has come for them to cross over to the other side, especially since an employee’s needs and aspirations grow if he/she works in various different institutions. Within this context, what is striking when you compare people from the two professions is that you find that the journalist is almost always frustrated, complaining that no one recognizes the value of their work, whereas the employee at the PR company is likely to be boasting about their latest promotion.
In any case, the migration of journalists into the business sector, and PR in particular, is not a new development as it is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia or Arab countries only. Many of the world’s PR companies were founded at the hands of journalists, and they are always looking to recruit people with experience in media, which does not come as a surprise – for who knows better than those who have come from what is considered to be the ‘fourth estate’ – in terms of skills, experience and dealing with public opinion, and who is more knowledgeable than journalists when it comes to networking on all its different levels?
But matters take on a different dimension in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the same applies to various other Arab countries as well. In such cases, making the career move is not triggered by the search for the treasure of El Dorado, instead when these journalists open up their own private companies it is an attempt to escape the ‘quicksand’ rather than what is known as the ‘minefield’ of journalism, which forces the journalist to dodge the mines in the industry, driving them to master the skills of maintaining focus, objectivity and balance. Those who cannot dodge the media mines, or who do not wish to do so are better off working in a job that is far removed from this ‘love of labor’, labeled as such by virtue of the institutional pandemonium that reins many of the newspaper institutions, which have claimed and continue to claim the professional careers of competent Saudi and Arab personnel in the media field.
But why is PR in particular the choice for those who have despaired of journalism? Former journalist-turned-PR executive, Saleh Farid, has the answer; he says that the reason behind his new career shift lies in “the job’s similitude to the former one”. In response to why he abandoned journalism, Farid explained that he had worked in a number of publications that were issued by a local Saudi media company and although he was initially very excited, his salary remained unchanged with the exception of a 1,000 Saudi Riyals (US$ 267) increase after eight consecutive years on the job. There had to be a ‘strategic move’. This came in the form of joining a PR company named ‘Headline’, for which he currently works and where he says he earns double his former salary, in addition to gaining training opportunities, with room for self-improvement.
But it wasn’t only about the pay; Farid stated that one of the main reasons that compelled him to leave was the way he was treated. But what if Farid was not suitable for the job or less efficient or qualified than others and the matter was strictly professional and not related to flouting codes of conduct or suchlike? Why does he blame the institution for the lack of improvements in his professional career? He responded to this by saying, “Let us assume that I was incompetent and didn’t deserve any job improvements throughout my stay – why didn’t someone tell me that I wasn’t qualified on a certain level and that I was capable of developing my capacities if I worked on this particular aspect? Also, not once was I offered any training to improve… This in addition to the lack of moral support – even in its mildest form such as ‘thank you’”. He added, “I gave everything I had to journalism, but unfortunately it let me down when I needed it.”
But does this constitute a universal solution to all? Saleh Farid answers in the negative explaining that there is a ‘favored’ clique and that such employees, who are close to the owner of the institution, or editor-in-chief, or senior journalists, or the office managers are the only exceptions and that they are likely to receive bonuses, assignments and advantages… This in some instances is regardless of their competence.
This is the very point that journalism Professor, Dr Ghazi Zein Awadallah of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah warns of saying, “through teaching my students I find that what occupies them the most is their concern for professional stability in the absence of laws and the lack of trade unions in some countries to place regulations.” However the absence of such bodies that could function as unions cannot solely be deemed the reason as there are no unions for PR executives or bankers in Saudi Arabia and yet they are in much better shape and conditions are improving for them both professionally and financially in comparison to journalists. Although there are unions in some countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, for example, the conditions in this ‘labor of love’ are still hectic. Awadallah explains that often times the element of ‘prestige’ determines who assumes the leading positions (meaning that the head of the union’s position becomes one to polish his own image, his appearance taking precedence over working with the journalists or dealing with their concerns).
Deputy head of the Saudi Association for Media and Communication, Dr Abdullah al Humod highlights another point; the absence of a professional career path for journalists, it being the only way that could enable Saudi journalists to protect their rights seeing as local journalism is a hybrid mix between privately managed and owned institutions (private sector) and public sector, and as such are not affiliated to the Ministry of Civil Service on the pretext that they are governmental institutions, nor do they fall under the social insurance system based on the consideration that they are privately owned. Furthermore, al Humod considers local media institutions to be ‘semi-civil’ and that the time has yet to come for them to stabilize their employment systems.
Dr Awadallah adds, “Despite the amount of criticism that the Egyptian press institutions face, one must acknowledge the positive aspect in the national papers, namely the significant support and the subsidy programs that are dedicated to aiding employees… this is a reference to newspapers that do not have the advertising revenues that many of our Saudi papers achieve here.” Dr Hamod acknowledges the lack of research studies in this field.
For his part, the official spokesmen for the Saudi Journalists Association (SJA), Abdullah Dahlan sees that the association is a supervisory body and an ‘umbrella’ for journalists, which does not have the capacity to issue any binding agreements. Dahlan points out that journalists fall under the Ministry of Labor’s control, which is the one to set the remunerations, adding that he sees that making the hierarchy universal for all journalists in the various institutions would result in oppressing all journalists within the different institutions and that it is a matter best left to each individual journalistic institution to place the system that it sees most appropriate. Dahlan reveals that the SJA continues to call for the establishment of a hierarchy in all institutions, in addition to offering annual bonuses.
Dr Awadallah reiterates his call for the development and application of regulations that guarantee journalists their rights, adding that “journalism is a very oppressed profession” and that journalists toil and work day and night to provide material for newspapers only to see the profits that come out of their efforts (for those who believe in the final product) go to the advertising and marketing executives and those in charge of editorial and the members of management. He added, “In the end, journalism is a commodity that the journalist contributes to producing and thus must have a share of profit from its sale,” (based on the principle of participation through which the more effort he/she contributes, the more he/she reaps in the end). In terms of rewarding journalists, there are many ways to accomplish that, since many declare journalism a nontraditional profession as opposed to working in a bank, for example; thus the nature of the working hours vary depending on the news stories and the submission deadlines. Dr Awadallah proposes for there to be reward mechanisms for the stories that require exceptional efforts or news ‘scoops’. Awadallah warns of ‘moodiness’ and stresses the necessity of defining the notions of ‘exceptional efforts’ or news ‘scoops’ in every press institution. Therefore, stating that it would be best for the issue of reward to be placed in the hands of an ‘independent observer’ (auditor) in order for the evaluation of the work to be objective.
From his perspective, Shabab al Harthi, member of the Saudi Management Organization comments that in the absence of ‘job satisfaction’ due to the lack in ‘incentives’, it makes it more difficult for all institutions to maintain their cadres and employees. Al Harthi explains that disregarding ‘job descriptions’ in press institutions goes back to the absence of a designated administrative body, on the condition that all the employees in the journalistic institutions must be media specialists rather than focusing on recruiting administrative affairs experts. He points out the impoverishment of journalism institutions when it comes to research and studies on the subject of job titles and employment gratification for media personnel, which can help avoid making journalists flee into PR, or any other sector.
Returning to the point as to whether the journalistic institutions have ‘suspended’ identities between the private and the public sector, in addition to the fact that one can consider that Saudi journalism, and other Arab journalism to have been deeply influenced by the surrounding political climate, and that all the ‘schools’ affiliated to them from abroad, the majority of which were politicized and partisan, brings us to the absence of the understanding of journalism as a trade (which consequently would make the market a competitive one in which the reader benefits with information, the journalist in terms of income, and the newspaper in terms of credibility and profit). Terms such as ‘journalism is a mission’ were created, in addition to understandings that justified the suffering of the journalist on behalf of the institution in which he worked, meaning that it is not an issue for journalists to relinquish their rights (such as salaries, contract and holidays) in the name of the mission.
So as not to end the matter on a negative note, there are a number of positive indicators that are embodied in the recent announcement of the ‘birth’ of several new local Saudi papers and their blatant attempts to attract and secure the largest number of skills by doubling salaries. This comes in addition to ‘revitalization’ efforts in the sector for various Arab countries, also following the announcement that the Saudi and Arab press institutions will make the transition into following an institutional system in which there will be transparent laws and regulations, furthermore making attempts at modeling them on the success of Western newspapers’ management schemes. The bottom line is that if journalism requires those working in the field to walk through ‘minefields’ to prove that they are true journalists, it doesn’t mean they have to sink into quicksand.
The obvious question to be asked in the end is: Do journalists deserve the poor professional circumstances given that they have been through all what has been mentioned and yet none of them has been known to have written anything on the subject, those who habitually do not let anything pass them by without commenting on it? Awadallah answers this by saying, “Perhaps they feel ashamed of writing about their circumstances for fear of it being understood as writing for their own interests”. He calls for all writers and journalists to ‘launch a campaign’ to improve conditions in their profession.
The mass communication professor’s words seem logical… but perhaps journalists should realize that the matter could truly be summed up by the expression: Nothing awaits the timid ones.
*Additional contributions by Huda Saleh and Abdel Qader al Zahrani