Last month, the UK daily The Independent announced that, starting on March 26, it was to become “the first national newspaper title to move to a digital-only future”. The move would mean obvious job losses in the production department, but Evgeny Lebedev, the youthful Russian owner, saw no other way out. “We faced a choice: manage the continued decline of print or convert the digital foundation we’ve built into a sustainable, profitable future.”
Funnily enough Mr Lebedev’s other daily, the London Evening Standard is still printing and doing a roaring trade with a circulation of just under 1 million copies. Since 2009, it has been handed out for free in Central London, mainly to the millions of commuters who travel in and out of and around the capital. In 2011, it was voted Newspaper of the Year at the London Press Club Press Awards and last year the paper announced a net profit for the third year in a row.
I mention all this because the English language Beirut Daily Star, a paper that I worked at for three years in the ‘90s and for which I still have enormous affection, can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. It still comes out on the news-stands, but Lebanon is a country in which the practice of “taking” a daily paper is almost dead.
The establishment reads An-Nahar, the left reads As-Safir and those who like to keep track of who has died read L’Orient Le Jour. And I’m sure that most of those readers are now reading online. However, The Daily Star is a valuable news source for local expats, the diaspora and think tanks, but it still abides by the silly Lebanese mentality that you’ve got to have a news-stand presence, that somehow if you’re not there, you’re not a “player”.
Three years ago, I was talking to the then managing editor and we calculated that if the paper went exclusively online, the money it would save in print costs would enable the paper to, and sorry if this sounds blunt, invest in better journalists and editors. This is especially pressing since last year, when The Daily Star announced it was charging an online fee of US$12 a month for readers based outside Lebanon. That’s what I pay to read the Daily Telegraph online. If it’s going to charge the going rate, it needs to up its game.
The good news in all this is that The Daily Star, despite its financial ups and downs in recent years, remains a strong brand. It is still the go-to name for the international media when a story breaks in Beirut, and this is a platform on which it can build a serious reputation. And it can start doing this by scrapping the wasteful print copy, creating a solid online product, and to quote Mr Lebedev, “convert the digital foundation … into a sustainable, profitable future”.
Another reason for going online is that Lebanon can’t really deal with any more needless waste than it already has. The rubbish crisis is now in its ninth month, but the government is so preoccupied with the Arab League and the recent edict declaring Hizbollah a terrorist organisation that it has completely taken its eye off the ball. Meanwhile, hospitals are warning of serious consequences if medical waste is not properly disposed off, as doctors are already reporting a spike in respiratory and gastric ailments. How soon before the crisis is held up as the leading cause in the number of incidences of certain types of cancer?
If the Arab League were serious about helping Lebanon, maybe it should put pressure on the government to make an effort to find a safe and sustainable solution to a crisis that has made life miserable for millions of Lebanese and which has affected the country’s image in a way that countless incidents of civil unrest were unable to do.
I have just noticed that the Daily Telegraph online issue has a video report on Beirut’s surreal “river’ of trash that is gradually snaking its way around the suburbs as well as the weekend protests.
For the moment, I know how I’d spend my $12.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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