The Lebanese have a saying: “cheap is expensive”. It’s how we justify our love for quality gear: German cars, Swiss watches, Japanese electronics and so on. My father’s generation carried nothing but Samsonites, only drove Mercedes and lit their cigarettes with Dupont lighters. These were brands that inspired trust, made by supposedly trustworthy people.
And today, even with the unstoppable march of the Chinese industrial Godzilla, the Lebanese can still speak at alarming length about the quality of imported raw materials – kitchens and bathrooms and the like – as well as the difference between, the locally made red roof tiles that dot our villages compared to the mid- range Italian ones and the superior examples from France. But the cheap-is-expensive mindset stretches beyond consumer goods. It is a guiding principal in life and probably explains why we Lebanese are generous and hospitable to a fault, and why, when you see two (or sometimes more) men wrestling in a restaurant, it is normally over who is going to pay the bill.
But it can also make us quite rigid. Open a typical Lebanese magazine and you will notice the superior quality, weight and finish of the paper. This is very important because, and I kid you not, many Lebanese presented with a newly launched publication will feel it and even smell it before checking out the content. A beautifully made mag is paramount; who cares if the content is written by leading minds on white-hot, on-agenda matters? In the Arab world, as the saying used to go, books are written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad.
Not surprisingly, Lebanese publishers still believe it is hugely important to have a newsstand presence, even though most of the developed world reads its news and analysis on laptops, tablets or phones. They need to tell society they are still players, still in the game, even if it costs a fortune in print fees every day or month. It’s madness but that’s how it is.
I mention this because last week the Lebanese, English-language Daily Star started charging the princely sum of US$12 a month to “access the full breadth” of its content (which when you take away the syndicated copy isn’t a lot).
OK, most of the world’s leading papers now demand, at the very least, a token subscription with additional, often mind-boggling bundles for various complementary devices. I pay what The Daily Star is asking to read the UK Telegraph online, but I get a monster paper with dozens of sections by some of Britain’s leading writers, reporters and columnists.
The Daily Star management might argue that it has a niche readership: diplomats, students, policy wonks and the diaspora, all of whom who are happy to pay for vital news and analysis coming out of Lebanon, but as fond as I am of my former employer (OK, there’s a bit of love-hate in there as well) what The Daily Star offers – with the exception of the opinion page – doesn’t compare in “breadth” and, dare I say it, quality to warrant the buy-in.
And yet it could be a great paper. If it got rid of the hard copy it would save thousands of dollars every day, money that could be spent on salaries, new talent and maybe even a bit of home-grown regional coverage to enhance the paper’s identity. It could also entice big hitting contributors to add ballast to the well-meaning, hard-working but ultimately transient journalists that have defined the editorial staff in the past decade.
Once the content is beefed up the paper would have little trouble charging subscribers and be in a better placed to woo the advertising dollar. At the moment fans of The Daily Star are, like me, slumming it with the still free Naharnet or Now-Lebanon.
It’s not as if we live in a boring part of the world. The Daily Star has, somehow, managed to hold onto its brand equity while Beirut is still a glamorous hub with huge cachet. The Daily Star should lead the way in showing other Lebanese publications that there is no shame in abandoning the print version.
Cheap is expensive, but expensive is also expensive.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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