Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – With readership figures seemingly in terminal decline and in an attempt to stem the tide, Lebanese newspapers launched a nationwide campaign on Monday, to publicize the unique news features they offer.
The campaign followed month long meetings between the editors of Lebanese print publications and will feature on both billboards and television adverts.
Will it succeed?
According to the Lebanese journalism syndicate, 110 newspapers and political magazine are licensed to publish. Amongst them are 14 daily newspapers, including three in a foreign language: English, French and Armenian. Despite this record number of publications, sales and readership figures are worrying, leading many to express concern for the future of Lebanese newspapers.
In light of the absence of transparency and the lack of official figures on the number of readers of each newspaper, it is estimated that 80 thousand to 100 thousand newspapers are sold everyday in Lebanon. Readership figures range between 320000 and 400000. If we consider that each paper is read by four people, only 3% of Lebanese individuals buy a newspaper and only 8% read one, out of a total of 4 million.
Perhaps it suffices to consult the statistics published by Arab Ad, a monthly magazine focused on the latest developments in the field of communication and business, in its February 2005 issue, examining the number of advertisements featured in Lebanese newspapers between 1997 and 2004, in conjunction with IPSOS STAT. The study showed a worrying decrease in ad revenues from $36 million to $28 million.
Experts disagree on the causes of this downturn, with some blaming the newspapers themselves for the public’s lack of confidence in print publications as they follow the example of Lebanese politicians and forge alliances motivated by financial gain, thereby hurting their credibility. Others believe the crisis is caused by the population’s boredom and the lack of loyalty to newspapers.
During the golden age of newspapers in Lebanon, before the civil war started in 1975, newspapers used to sell 400 thousand copies a day, according to Naji Tueini, deputy general manager of An Nahar. He blamed the dismal economic conditions in Lebanon and the pressures of modern life for the decline in newspaper readership, with many working longer hours.
Tueini recalled a time when An Nahar used to print more than 110 thousand copies, or more copies that all 14 newspapers put together!
Issam Rahil, head of advertising at al Mustaqbal, agreed with Tueini’s diagnosis but added another dimension to the crisis: the entrenchment of sectarianism in Lebanon . He indicated that no national newspapers existed in the country; instead, newspapers spoke on behalf of a sect or a region inhabited by a sect. For example, in the Shiaa south, As Safir was popular while in Sunni Tripoli, al Mustaqbal was the preferred daily and in Christian areas, An Nahar was the best-selling newspaper. This, he added, was normal due to Lebanon ’s sectarian make-up.
For his part, Sami Mashaqah, director of distribution at As Safir, said the political orientation of a newspaper can, at times, correspond to that of the population in a certain area, citing As Safir’s popularity in south Lebanon , the Bekaa valley, Beirut and Tripoli , compared to eastern Beirut and Kesrwan.
All three officials agreed that the internet and specialist television channels had not affected the popularity of newspapers in Lebanon . Mashaqah said consumers could not afford the latest technologies and Rahil added that it was difficult to read a newspaper online because the reader would have to focus at his or her screen for a prolonged period of time. TV news channels played a positive role because they encouraged viewers to consult a newspaper to find out the details of a political event, according to Tueini.
Ibrahim al Amni, who is about to publish his own political daily, said he was conducting studies in order to overcome the difficulties faced by other newspaper. It was useful, he added, to consider the example of Sada al Balad, published a few years ago.
Between the realities of the Lebanese press and the ambitions of its editors, newspapers have realized the depth of the problem and launched this preliminary campaign. Newspapers find themselves faced with a critical test: can they survive? Only time will tell.