Social media and the slow death of the fourth estate

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The press in Lebanon has been under relentless attack since the beginning of its existence.

The Fourth Estate is a term that refers to journalism, the idea being that it’s the fourth branch of a (democratic) government, which ours, in Lebanon, more or less, is. The three branches are the Executive (the president, prime minister, and Cabinet, since the Taef Accord), the Legislative (our Chamber of Deputies – Majles al Nouwweb), and the Judicial. All three are supposed to be checks and balances on each other; however, this doesn’t always work too well, especially in our neighborhood. The Press Corps is supposed to keep an eye on all of them and be the final check to ensure our democracy works well, by jumping in and publishing features and OpEds that shine the disinfecting light of truth on flaws or corruption in the system. This hopefully leads to problems getting rectified by one of the first three branches.

2018 was a very bad year for the Lebanese Fourth Estate, with several newspapers shutting down, like As-Safir (established in 1974) and Anwar (1959). Others are also having major financial challenges – even the publisher of this article, established in 1933, and thus ten years older than the Lebanese Republic itself. The venerable author and journalist Charles Glass referred to An-Nahar as Lebanon’s New York Times, a huge compliment, if I’ve ever heard one.

When I was a kid, I remember seeing newsstands, peppered with newspapers, reflecting the diverse points of view, high level of literacy, and freedom of thought of the populace. The two that always caught my attention (and everyone else’s, judging by circulation numbers from those days) were An-Nahar’s blue rooster and As-Safir’s black, ominous font with the less memorable, barely discernible, yellow bird above. Even though I never identified with its extreme views, I can never forget its solemn logo: “The voice of those who have no voice,” and when it closed, it was a sad day for Lebanon.

It was also a dangerous day, for we are now living in perilous times.

 

The press in Lebanon has been under relentless attack since the beginning of its existence, occasionally by oversensitive censors, sometimes closing down publications, arresting journalists, or “suggesting” that they take out certain passages. During tenser periods of time, other organizations resorted to stronger measures – assassinations, car bombs, mutilations, kidnappings, beatings, and unresolved disappearances. However, nothing was able to irreparably damage the Fourth Estate … until now, and that threat is emanating from an obsolete business model in the era of social media.

Last week, a friend of mine, Patrick, sent me an article on WhatsApp asking me if I wrote it. Turns out that someone had copy-pasted my recent OpEd New Government – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, added some Lebanese flags at the top and bottom and sent it around, with no reference or link to my publisher. This reminded me of Clay Shirky’s 2009 article, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable quoting Gordy Thompson from the New York Times saying, “When a 14-year-old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

According to Ben Thompson in his article The Local News Business Model – Stratechery, the old business model required a lot of infrastructure (a very expensive printing press, centralized printing, delivery trucks, and numerous editors), all paid for by the large ads interspersed among the pages. The main competitors for advertising dollars were television or radio. You must remember that until the late 1980’s, before cable and satellite came to Lebanon, TV stations were limited to three or four, and started programming at around 7pm, and ended near midnight, assuming reception quality was good enough to watch and the signal wasn’t being disrupted (“darbeh Masr” as we called it). I remember going to New York for the first time, from that benchmark, and staying at a cheap motel, which had cable. I’d spend hours flipping through over a hundred channels in total awe, not watching anything, and not able to make up my mind.

Social media basically took out the infrastructure costs and replaced it with the ability to produce an infinite number of copies with near zero fixed costs. According to Ben Thompson, in the same article, “digital stories are interactive: readers can submit feedback instantly … and the collective knowledge of readers will always be greater than the most seasoned of editors.” In the old days, a typo would be immortal and an eyesore forever, requiring almost as many editors as journalists.

This old infrastructure took up to 70% of the cost structure, which drove the business model. That meant that the newspaper had to attract more diverse audiences (to maximize the advertising dollars). This is why newspapers were giant productions, including everything from local news to international news, to crossword puzzles, sports sections, and more, especially when the incremental cost of adding more pages was low relative to the cost of producing the first few pages, which were mostly a sunk and fixed cost. Additionally, this high fixed cost was a major barrier to entry (for any new entrants or prospective competitors).

Of course, the deluge of “fake news” on social media and WhatsApp (in Lebanon and other developing countries, as it’s not so popular in places like the USA) is another danger threatening our views of the world, which used to be regulated by reputable newspapers.

Nevertheless, despite the need for journalism to protect democracy through its most important function, which is to hold power accountable, this is not sufficient to guarantee its survival. Only a viable business model can.

Today, with the advent of digital platforms and unlimited choice, does a consumer of a Lebanese newspaper really need it to provide sports news? Would this be the first place to look for that? How about international news? Is that what a local paper is good at or would I go to an international website for that? So to apply Ben Thompson’s logic to Lebanon means that a local newspaper should focus on the stuff it’s good at – which is Lebanese news and analysis, i.e. focus on its competitive advantage. At the end of the day, the value added by newspapers is its news and analysis, which can be delivered in any form, but to be viable, a new business model that pays for its reporting and journalists has to be developed. Is it a paywall? Is it popup advertising? Is it within Search Engine Optimization?

According to Nicco Mele, Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University and former Deputy Publisher of the LA Times, the new business model requires “increased innovation … and more failure, until we’re able to find models that work more aggressively.”

The jury’s out for what that model should be for Lebanese journalism, but let’s hope we find it before more failures take place.

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Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon

 

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