Ah­mad Sal­man: The Ex­cru­ci­at­ing Demise of the Printed Word

ArabAd - - CONTENTS - AN EX­CLU­SIVE IN­TER­VIEW WITH AH­MAD SAL­MAN DEPUTY GEN­ERAL MAN­AGER OF AS-SAFIR BY: JAD HAIDAR

There was a time when a firm hand­shake sealed the deal and cer­tain words still held true value. Then again, those were also times when com­mu­ni­ca­tion called for a di­rect ap­proach and truth was the most sought-af­ter com­mod­ity. Now re­place the hand­shake with a ‘sm­i­lie emoti­con’, trade the truth for the high­est ‘num­ber of clicks’ and you would have a more ac­cu­rate though highly mis­lead­ing idea of where we are to­day.

The world has def­i­nitely changed, and with it, ev­ery­thing else. This change is ush­er­ing a very dif­fer­ent re­al­ity spe­cific to an in­dus­try upon which democ­racy and free speech were pred­i­cated and con­tinue to ex­ist, at least for now!

We used to com­pete with a dozen news­pa­pers but to­day that same paper is com­pet­ing with the en­tire news world.

Ad­dress­ing the mat­ter, we in­vited Ah­mad Sal­man, Deputy Gen­eral man­ager of As-safir news­pa­per to a heart-to-heart talk. The tall gen­tle­man, whose ex­cep­tion­ally po­lite de­meanour proved over­whelm­ing and his care­fully-weighed words

en­light­en­ing, took the time to clar­ify the true catas­tro­phe the en­tire news­pa­per in­dus­try is try­ing to avoid.

Prior to go­ing on the record, Sal­man ex­plained that ever since Lebanon gained ac­cess to the In­ter­net dur­ing the early nineties, much has changed and As-safir was one of the first to con­sider the ef­fects this new medium would have. In re­sponse, it es­tab­lished one of the coun­try’s first news web­sites in par­al­lel with its print ver­sion in 1996. Since then, it has built a dig­i­tal fol­low­ing of 1.5 mil­lion us­ing Face­book and Twit­ter, cut the num­ber of pages to half, liq­ui­dated some of its phys­i­cal as­sets and down­sized its work­force. Sadly, all these strate­gies only saw it through on a short-term ba­sis.

Mode of De­liv­ery and For­mat

Delv­ing straight into the heart of the mat­ter, Sal­man ex­plained that this is a global prob­lem each print en­tity is try­ing to find the most suit­able so­lu­tion to. Hav­ing said that, I would like to in­sure all our stake­hold­ers and read­ers that As-safir will con­tinue op­er­a­tion con­trary to pre­vi­ous statements made.

To do so, it is im­per­a­tive for ev­ery­one to un­der­stand the chal­lenges brought about by the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that have been sweep­ing the world since the emer­gence of the In­ter­net in the early nineties. These have proven ben­e­fi­cial as well as harm­ful to a num­ber of in­dus­tries, es­pe­cially print. In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion has se­ri­ously af­fected read­ing be­hav­iours, specif­i­cally those re­lated to the news. I say news and not news­pa­pers be­cause there are so many ag­gre­ga­tion por­tals where the de­sired in­for­ma­tion can be got­ten. Also, and due to the num­ber of avail­able dig­i­tal ve­hi­cles, any per­son can eas­ily post any­thing online by­pass­ing es­tab­lished news out­lets, which no longer are the go to source for in­for­ma­tion.

That be­ing the case, we find our­selves won­der­ing how to best adapt while re­main­ing rel­e­vant. The other ques­tion is, how do we sus­tain the work we do from a com­mer­cial per­spec­tive based on the avail­able re­sources and rev­enues in a new for­mat?

Un­for­tu­nately, As-safir still does not have a de­fin­i­tive way to adapt its rev­enue stream and business model to sus­tain op­er­a­tion. On the other hand, to get big rev­enues from the In­ter­net, we need more than heavy traf­fic to our web­site. The prob­lem is not who all our read­ers are, rather who are the peo­ple read­ing our sto­ries when posted by other web­sites?

Af­ter in­ves­ti­gat­ing, we con­cluded that there is no law to gov­ern the dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net as op­posed to print, TV and ra­dio. This means that any­one can open a por­tal and start shar­ing news from any­where in the world with­out be­ing legally li­able.

The other trou­bling mat­ter re­lates to cut­ting fur­ther losses by com­pletely shift­ing the business model to a dig­i­tal one. How­ever, at the mo­ment that is out of the ques­tion since the printed ver­sion con­tin­ues to be our main rev­enue stream. Sadly, that very same stream has dropped, con­sid­er­ably, in the past cou­ple of years.

On the dig­i­tal front, the younger gen­er­a­tion reads quickly and in a frag­mented way from nu­mer­ous sources and on dif­fer­ent de­vices. This presents a very dif­fer­ent set of chal­lenges the cur­rent print model can­not ac­com­mo­date.

Be­fore the In­ter­net, the print mar­ket was quite de­fined and nav­i­gat­ing it was more or less a man­age­able process as op­posed to the global dig­i­tal mar­ket, which is grow­ing by the day. As-safir used to com­pete with a dozen news­pa­pers but to­day that same paper is com­pet­ing with the en­tire news world. In other words, our reach has ex­panded to cover the world, yet our rev­enue stream is barely enough to cover op­er­a­tional costs based on our share of the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

True Value

Re­puted and trusted news­pa­pers com­prise the back­bone of the me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sec­tor. Ev­ery ma­jor news story re­quires tremen­dous time, re­search, and know-how to com­plete, which is ex­actly why such work has great value for the read­ers. This is pure jour­nal­ism com­pounded by years of field ex­pe­ri­ence and the mas­tery of var­i­ous skills. It is this kind of value we are try­ing to main­tain.

To­day, un­like any other time in his­tory, print news­pa­pers have the best chances to reach the largest au­di­ences than ever be­fore. The prob­lem is, that though I may have an au­di­ence all over the globe, cap­i­tal­is­ing on this re­al­ity by cre­at­ing the proper rev­enue streams has thus far proven quite prob­lem­atic.

Case in point are web­sites that ag­gre­gate the news. Some of these have met with great suc­cess be­cause they cut through the clut­ter by mak­ing all rel­e­vant news avail­able from one source. To gain an edge, some have de­ceiv­ingly and shame­fully re­moved the sources of some sto­ries we posted to give off the im­pres­sion of own­er­ship. In hope of re­solv­ing this mat­ter, we had our lawyers draft a doc­u­ment and sent it to the top twelve lo­cal news or­gan­i­sa­tions invit­ing them to con­tinue shar­ing our

sto­ries but also link­ing them to our web­site. Some stopped pub­lish­ing them but then started again, oth­ers com­pletely ig­nored us, and the rest called to say that they are in fact pro­mot­ing our news­pa­per and in turn do­ing us a favour.

This drove us to con­sider what in to­day’s wired world brand value re­ally means, es­pe­cially when it comes to young au­di­ences whose knowl­edge on the mat­ter may not have yet been fully-formed. That was when we re­alised a fun­da­men­tal truth, namely that when it comes to our news sto­ries, read­ers, ir­re­spec­tive of age, will au­to­mat­i­cally as­sume that the in­for­ma­tion they are read­ing has been fact checked and is there­fore cred­i­ble and most im­por­tantly, re­li­able and trust­wor­thy. In other words, we con­tinue to be a ref­er­ence on any plat­form.

How­ever, what re­mains some­what trou­bling, is get­ting our rep­u­ta­tion to work for us, rather than for the sources post­ing our work and shar­ing it with the world. Keep in mind that in­de­pen­dent dig­i­tal news sites who are di­rectly com­pet­ing with es­tab­lished print news­pa­pers pri­mar­ily rely on their sto­ries to cover daily af­fairs. In do­ing so, they ei­ther di­rectly quote the orig­i­nal source or repack­age spe­cific news sto­ries of in­ter­est and then post them as their own. If these same news por­tals no longer have print news­pa­pers to draw story ideas from, they will have to em­ploy the very same news­pa­per model to con­tinue op­er­a­tions and that is ironic!

So­lu­tions

Af­ter var­i­ous at­tempts to har­ness more rev­enue, we ex­e­cuted var­i­ous strate­gies only to ar­rive at the con­clu­sion that it would be best to op­ti­mise the op­er­a­tion rather than keep down­siz­ing. What also

What also be­came clear is that run­ning a dig­i­tal op­er­a­tion in par­al­lel is an in­escapable re­al­ity.

be­came clear is that run­ning a dig­i­tal op­er­a­tion in par­al­lel is an in­escapable re­al­ity. Though As-safir would be tak­ing a big risk, we do not see any other way.

Aware of how dire the sit­u­a­tion is, the Le­banese In­for­ma­tion Min­is­ter, in a bid to res­cue the lo­cally re­puted news­pa­pers, sug­gested cre­at­ing a spe­cific sub­scrip­tion model where var­i­ous depart­ments of gov­ern­ment would buy these daily pub­li­ca­tions all year round. He added that the amount of 500 LB would be paid for each copy sold. The only prob­lem was find­ing out who was sell­ing how much as there is no le­gal en­tity re­spon­si­ble for that kind of op­er­a­tion. Af­ter that fact be­came ob­vi­ous, it was sug­gested that all news­pa­pers re­ceive an equal amount, which is not fair on any level. We also dis­cussed the sub­scrip­tion­based model with banks. Sadly, even that strat­egy met with lit­tle suc­cess.

On a dif­fer­ent front, and in a bid to break through the dig­i­tal clut­ter, we de­cided to look at con­tent in a dif­fer­ent way. As a re­sult, we no longer are con­sid­er­ing in­for­ma­tion based on the num­ber of pages, rather ar­ti­cles that could eas­ily fit any frame on any medium. This al­lows us to over­come the prob­lem of lim­ited space and in turn op­er­ate in a lim­it­less or rather less con­strict­ing en­vi­ron­ment. This also af­fords us more lee­way when it comes to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion over var­i­ous por­tals lend­ing con­tent rel­e­vance pre­vi­ously in­ap­pli­ca­ble.

Though we are yet to dis­cover the ef­fects this will have on our read­ers, it would be per­ti­nent to note, in con­clu­sion, that no mat­ter what hap­pens, we will con­tinue to ex­ist out of a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity to our coun­try and the re­gion. How­ever, what scares me most is mak­ing prom­ises of con­tin­ued op­er­a­tion that we would not be able to keep. We are fight­ing tooth and nail to re­main a rel­e­vant por­tal to all our clients, ad­ver­tis­ers and read­ers in hope of up­hold­ing one of mod­ern so­ci­ety’s ma­jor pil­lars with­out which the shift from ‘real sub­stance’ to ‘num­ber of clicks’ will dom­i­nate and with it, take down any­thing that is of true value.

Af­ter Sal­man made his fi­nal re­mark, the con­fer­ence room grew si­lent as an ere feel­ing of un­cer­tainty hung heav­ily in the air. What be­came clear is that the bat­tle is not lim­ited to As-safir’s own sur­vival, rather the sur­vival of the news­pa­per in­dus­try as a whole. What the fu­ture holds re­mains shrouded in mys­tery, yet what is cer­tain is the fact that there still is time to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion. Friends and foes should work to­gether be­cause fail­ure, is lit­er­ally, no longer an op­tion.

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