As-Safir bids farewell after 43 years: What is on the cards for the rest of print?

Juliette Jabra

Staff Writer

 

As Lebanon faces a crisis in print media, As-Safir, one of the country’s leading newspapers, surrendered. Over the years, despite having faced lawsuits, a number of bombing attempts targeting the paper’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder Talal Salman, and a bombing targeting the printing house itself, the print battle was one As-Safir could no longer fight.

As-Safir, arabic for ambassador, was established in 1974, just one year prior to the breakout of the Lebanese civil war. The newspaper was recognized for providing a voice to the left-wing, Pan-Arab movement, branding itself as “the voice of the voiceless,” with a mission to be “the newspaper of Lebanon in the Arab world and the newspaper of the Arab world in Lebanon.”

As-Safir’s circulation was the second highest in the 1990s after another prominent newspaper, An-Nahar.

In the year 2003, As-Safir circulated 45,000 copies daily, making it second in line with the other newspapers in the area. In less than ten years, As-Safir was able to rank first in the country with a daily circulation of 50,000 copies.

To the industry’s surprise, Salman announced last March that the newspaper would be ceasing publication both print and online. However, an eleventh hour financial contribution saw As-Safir push forward until it was on its last legs. The paper published its final issue on December 31, 2016 with a front page editorial titled “The Nation Without As-Safir.”

The collapse of the 43-year-old news empire sparked much debate and controversy amongst the Lebanese public.

Some wondered whether other local papers would follow suit, in light of rumors that An-Nahar is in the midst of the battlefield as well.

Others asked whether the general public had grown disinterested in printed media, or if the country’s economy contributed to the struggles of not only As-Safir, but also Lebanon’s other once-prosperous newspapers.

Whatever the reason, it is no secret that the country’s dailies are facing major obstacles that are depleting their resources, but not their hope.

Editor-in-Chief of Lebanon’s only English newspaper, The Daily Star, Nadim Ladki provided Outlook with insight on the issue at hand.

“There are local factors that are contributing to the crisis facing printed newspapers in Lebanon on top of the global digital challenge. Lebanese newspapers are suffering because of the economic downturn in-country and the Gulf which has hit advertising revenues, a drop in “political money” contributions, and a fall in readership of printed editions,” Ladki explained.

 He added that the major challenge for both local and international dailies is to increase digital revenues, which is reason to why more papers could fail in the next few years if they don’t find a solution to the problem at stake.

Ladki’s thoughts raise the question of whether global news outlets are also facing similar situations in their print media.

AJ+’s Emmy-nominated correspondent, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, also spoke to Outlook about his views and concerns regarding printed news in a digital age.

“Part of the problem with media today is that it’s an echo chamber where people are only searching for stories and sources that confirm their perceptions and suspicions rather than those that are true or verifiable,” Shihab-Eldin elaborated.

He continued that, “The news cycle is becoming much more relentless in terms of the pace. We’re more impatient, we have more options, the internet is interactive, you can search for content that you want versus just what’s given to you in a newspaper.”

When asked if he thinks print is still relevant today, Shihab-Eldin answered with great candour. He offered a less optimistic argument but a compelling one nonetheless.

“The world of print is dying because of cultural and habitual reasons regarding consumers. I don’t think it’s just about user behaviour and impatience, I think it’s also about the limitations of print both in time and audience engagement,” Shihab-Eldin expressed, “So, yes, I think the world of print in terms of traditional newspapers is not only dying, I think it is over.”

Perhaps it offers some comfort knowing that Lebanon is neither the first nor the last country to suffer at the hands of the print crisis. In an era dominated by technology, it does not come as a shock that global newspapers are also struggling to stay afloat.

It is still, however, hasty to pronounce print dead, especially that there remains a population invested in the printing world. The reading of a newspaper, to many of them, is a social ritual they are not yet ready to give up.

Newspapers have been a constant throughout Lebanon’s turbulent life and remain resilient in dire times.

During wars and crises, the dailies published daily. Their ink endured, and embraced the hardships of Lebanon’s more difficult days. The papers have reflected the people, and much like the people, they will fight to survive, and even more so, will fight to prosper once again.

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