The cross­ing of an ed­i­to­rial red line

News­pa­pers in Kuwait have joined forces to deny ed­i­to­rial cov­er­age to com­pa­nies that do not ad­ver­tise. Has a dan­ger­ous prece­dent been set?

ArabAd - - CONTENTS -

A po­ten­tially self-de­struc­tive ex­per­i­ment is tak­ing place in Kuwait. In an act of uni­son, the news­pa­pers Al Qabas, Al Rai, Al Seyas­sah, Alanba and Al-jarida have agreed to no longer pub­lish non-ad­ver­tis­ers’ cor­po­rate news. That means the vol­ume of ed­i­to­rial for any com­pany or or­gan­i­sa­tion will be mea­sured by the vol­ume of their ad­ver­tis­ing, with the pub­lish­ing of in­for­ma­tion sup­plied by non-ad­ver­tis­ers un­der strict con­trol.

While many pub­lish­ers across the GCC may have in­for­mally, or se­cretly, adopted such mea­sures in light of dwin­dling rev­enue, it is the first time that such a de­ci­sion has been for­malised by a coun­try’s lead­ing news­pa­pers.

In the past, any de­ci­sion to pub­lish cor­po­rate news was based on the dis­cre­tion of ed­i­to­rial teams. Now “that de­ci­sion might be purely based on client spends”, says Elie Farah, busi­ness di­rec­tor at Views Carat in Kuwait. “We now ex­pect to see full co-or­di­na­tion be­tween ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ments on the PR of all com­mer­cial com­pa­nies. No ad­ver­tis­ing spend, no ed­i­to­rial cov­er­age.”

The de­ci­sion im­pacts com­pany ed­i­to­rial only and is sep­a­rated from the wider eco­nomic, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal news af­fect­ing Kuwait. It is, says Farah, there­fore “a re­ac­tion to the cur­rent print ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket” rather than an af­front to news­pa­per ethics.

“If a client (com­mer­cial com­pany) is not an ad­ver­tiser, none of their ed­i­to­rial will be pub­lished,” says Farah. “We will be work­ing with our clients and sup­pli­ers to en­sure their re­la­tion­ships con­tinue to be of mu­tual ben­e­fit, but un­for­tu­nately, in Kuwait at least, the de­ci­sion has been taken that print can no longer sus­tain it­self with­out chang­ing its busi­ness model.”

All of which, in the­ory at least, makes sense given the de­cline of news­pa­pers and the fi­nan­cial im­pact the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has had on the in­dus­try. In Kuwait, news­pa­per ad­spend fell from $135 mil­lion in 2014 to $48 mil­lion in 2017, ac­cord­ing to Zenith. It is ex­pected to drop to $24 mil­lion this year. The re­sult has been re­dun­dan­cies and closures.

“It is an at­tempt to re-gain part of the lost in­come of ad­ver­tis­ing,” says Farah. “One news­pa­per men­tioned a par­tic­u­lar case of a ma­jor com­mer­cial com­pany com­mit­ting to re-al­lo­cate news­pa­per ad bud­get af­ter the news­pa­pers stopped pub­lish­ing its ed­i­to­ri­als. That par­tic­u­lar ad­ver­tiser re­con­sid­ered to spend in these news­pa­pers. Some ad­ver­tis­ers al­lo­cate a min­i­mal diplo­matic bud­get for lead­ing news­pa­pers in or­der to se­cure re­lease of their ad­ver­to­ri­als.”

Nev­er­the­less, jour­nal­is­ti­cally the de­ci­sion can be viewed with

WE NOW EX­PECT TO SEE FULL CO-OR­DI­NA­TION BE­TWEEN ED­I­TO­RIAL AND AD­VER­TIS­ING DE­PART­MENTS ON THE PR OF ALL COM­MER­CIAL COM­PA­NIES. NO AD­VER­TIS­ING SPEND, NO ED­I­TO­RIAL COV­ER­AGE Elie Farah, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Views Carat in Kuwait THE MO­MENT A NEWS­PA­PER OR MAG­A­ZINE HAS A TEC­TONIC SHIFT IN ITS PRI­OR­I­TIES AND MAKES ED­I­TO­RIAL SUBSERVIENT TO MAR­KET­ING AND SALES AND AL­LOWS THE LINES BE­TWEEN ED­I­TO­RIAL AND AD­VER­TIS­ING TO BE BLURRED AND MADE INDISTINCT, THEN THE RIGHT TO CALL ITS STAFF JOUR­NAL­ISTS IS UP FOR GRABS Bikram Vohra a colum­nist and for­mer ed­i­tor of Gulf News and Khaleej Times

con­sid­er­able con­cern. The sep­a­ra­tion of ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing is one of the core tenets of jour­nal­ism, with ed­i­to­rial in­de­pen­dence sacro­sanct. Even if the move only im­pacts cor­po­rate news, a line has been crossed.

“The mo­ment a news­pa­per or mag­a­zine has a tec­tonic shift in its pri­or­i­ties and makes ed­i­to­rial subservient to mar­ket­ing and sales and al­lows the lines be­tween ed­i­to­rial and ad­ver­tis­ing to be blurred and made indistinct, then the right to call its staff jour­nal­ists is up for grabs,” says Bikram Vohra, a colum­nist and for­mer ed­i­tor of Gulf News and Khaleej Times. “Just get tech­ni­cians or men and women in ticky-tacky ties and suits and arm them with buzz­words.

“The new ap­proach that seems to be gath­er­ing trac­tion is charg­ing for public­ity and equat­ing PR with news. If you be­gin mea­sur­ing vol­ume of space given with the vol­ume of rev­enue that any en­tity ear­marks for that space it de­feats the very pur­pose of jour­nal­ism. This is not just bit­ing into the fruit of the poi­sonous tree, this is the poi­son­ing of the whole fourth es­tate. The more money some­one has the more they con­trol the ed­i­to­rial space. [Which] says very lit­tle for any pub­li­ca­tion’s sanc­tity and even less for ed­i­to­rial cred­i­bil­ity.

“It might work for a while but it is a slip­pery slope and slopes are down­hill. While it might give the il­lu­sion of a health­ier earn­ing power it will not last be­cause its premise is false. And it bla­tantly cheats the end user – the reader – be­cause it has taken a u-turn from its prom­ise to seek, to strive and not to yield.”

For Vohra, even the at­tain­ment of profit by such a route is sus­pect. A pub­lish­ing house will re­quire more ac­counts staff as it con­verts news into some sort of clas­si­fieds sec­tion, while ad­ver­tis­ers will not in­crease their bud­get but sim­ply give part of it to buy­ing space. “By the same to­ken, if a com­pany can get 500 words on a new prod­uct pub­lished with a suit­able pic­ture, why place an ad at all?” he says. “By turn­ing the pub­li­ca­tion into an ad­ver­to­rial ve­hi­cle the rate of profit will grad­u­ally de­flate.

“One un­der­stands that times are tough and that ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets are on a harsh diet. But con­tent is still king and the mo­ment news is judged not by merit but by the bot­tom line it is sell­ing the pub­li­ca­tion down the river. You are bought and paid for. In ad­ver­sity you do not spurn your rai­son d’être, you em­brace it.”

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