AJCS Conference: Investing in digital publishing and diversifying content are means of overcoming the crisis of journalism

14 July 2020
Session one (right; from right to left): Mohammed Mukhtar Al Khalil, Director of Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, during his opening remarks; Noureddine Miftah; Nacer-Eddine Layadi; Nawaf Al Tamimi; Azzam Abu Elhamam; and Mostafa Ashoor (as moderator). Session two (right to left): Adel El-Baz; Imad Bachir; Manal Mazahreh; Mohamed Erraji; and Mustafa Elshaikh (as moderator). [Al Jazeera]

On Sunday, 28 June 2020, a web conference organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies commenced under the title, “The Challenges of Print and Digital Press in the Arab World” with the participation of an elite group of mass communication professors and experts in the media field. The sessions of day one addressed the structural and functional challenges facing printed and digital Arab press that have been exacerbated due to the coronavirus pandemic. Participants presented various ideas and visions that may help press institutions deal with said challenges and overcome crises.

The sessions concluded that the crises that Arab press suffers from are the result of an accumulation of chronic problems, and that the coronavirus pandemic is not their main cause but has contributed to their exposure, complicating matters further.

Researchers attributed these crises to a number of political and economic causes.

As it pertains to the political causes, researchers highlighted the authoritarian climate, the restriction of freedoms, and the arsenal of laws and legislations that prosecute press institutions whose editorial line the government does not approve of.

As for the economic causes, these include press outlets’ low income, the consequent accumulation of debt due to the end of government support, and the state’s monopoly over a large portion of advertisements and its use of them as a “carrot and stick” with press outlets depending on their editorial lines as well as the unbalanced rates of distribution, and contemporary readers’ preference of social media over printed newspapers whether for information – regardless of its accuracy – or entertainment.

At the end of day one, panellists offered various ideas and visions that may help press institutions deal with the challenges of printed and digital press. The most prominent of which is the merging of a number of press outlets into one media entity that has the power, capabilities, and abilities to present more in-depth and diverse content that attracts a wider array of readers. Another idea is the cooperation of Arab press outlets in conducting an investigation regarding a particular issue that concerns wide segments of readers, like the Western press outlets did when they cooperated to expose the corruption of government officials in the Panama Papers.

Conference objectives and research questions

The first session was preceded by opening remarks by the Director of Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Dr. Mohammed Mukhtar Al Khalil, in which he spoke about the concept and objectives of the conference. He indicated that the timing of the conference came at a time in which printed and media press are facing great challenges – albeit at varying levels – whether because of social media, the lack of government support, or the decline of advertising revenue.

“What we anticipate from this conference is answers to a number of questions that represent the challenges posed to Arab press in terms of both the continuity of its educational role in public opinion and its survival as institutions that serve the profession and foster those associated with it,” he said.

Furthermore, he pointed out that the development of the means of communication and communication channels brought about new ways of practicing journalism as a profession. For example, a news item now includes text, an image and a video, which necessitates that journalists keep up with this development at the levels of formation, training and practice.

Al Khalil also questioned the nature of the current media environment, explaining: “There are questions posed to the researchers in this conference regarding this environment and whether it is nurturing or repressive, good or bad; and whether the means available to printed and digital press are abundant and serve a purpose or lacking and ineffective. [There are also questions] about the challenges presented by social media platforms to journalism and whether they have hurt or benefitted the perception of journalists in public opinion.”

He concluded his remarks by stating, “What is expected from this two-day conference is the formation of visions that can help Arab press deal with its current challenges and crises.” He also pointed out that the conference output will be published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ platforms as well as in Lubab, AJCS’s quarterly journal for strategic and media studies.

The impact of the coronavirus crisis on the structure and function of printed and digital press

Under this title, the first session convened with the participation of Noureddine Miftah, Editor-in-Chief of Al Ayam and the Chairman of the Press Establishment Committee of the National Press Council in Morocco; Nacer-Eddine Layadi, Professor of Mass Communications at the University of Algiers 3; Nawaf Al Tamimi, Professor of Journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies; Azzam Abu Elhamam, Former Professor of Media Studies in the Arab Open University; and Mostafa Ashoor, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter (as moderator).

During this session, the discussion was centred around the nature of the crisis that printed and digital Arab press face and the ways of dealing with it. Most panellists agreed that the crisis did not arise in the past three months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but that it is an accumulated structural crisis with numerous roots and reasons. These include political roots and reasons pertaining to the restriction of public liberties and laws and legislations that control public opinion as well as economic ones signified by media institutions’ low income due to the lack of internal and external support, low advertising revenue and the decline of distribution rates and numbers. Some causes are structural and functional also as most Arab media institutions remain traditional and were not fully prepared for electronic publishing and digital broadcasting. Naturally, this then necessitates a change in the forms and tools of this type of knowledge and production.

However, opinions did differ regarding the future of printed press. Some – despite their acknowledgement of economic difficulties – expect its continuity based on the fact that the pandemic has prompted a substantial number of readers to return to traditional media outlets, especially the more reliable ones, for accurate news and information. This could potentially revive the market for printed press in the future. Meanwhile, others believe that the pandemic harmed the printed press because of rumours that paper may spread the virus.

In this regard, the session presented examples of the struggles faced by the printed press, using three different Arab countries – Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon – as models. What was noticed is that the common denominator between all three cases is the negative impact of the economic factor and how economic institutions deal with it, especially in terms of layoffs and the full or partial end of government support. Nonetheless, some experiences were differentiated, such as in Morocco, by the pursuit of an economic model that allows a single institution to carry out various tasks - such as publishing, distribution and having a radio station that reaches a wider audience and attracts various advertisements – that had once been allocated to a number of external parties.

Panellists also suggested that the printed press is currently experiencing a stage of decline that some believe is the end and others view as merely a difficult period that will pass and be followed by a more stable phase.

Moreover, panellists emphasised the importance of content and the necessity of deepening and diversifying it in order for the press, whether printed or digital, to attract more readers. They also mentioned the obstacles hindering the pursuit of deeper content, particularly the political environment limiting public liberties, prosecuting journalists and pressuring media institutions whose editorial lines do not coincide with the ruling regime’s general orientation. Researchers deduced that the importance of deepening content lies in the possibility that it could help the Arab press overcome its crisis as demonstrated by the experiences of Le Monde and The Guardian  and how they put their efforts towards digital publishing while also deepening and diversifying content during the time that the distribution of printed press dropped vis-à-vis online subscriptions, which expanded their activity and increased their revenue.

Speakers in this session also suggested the idea of cooperation among Arab institutions in aims of providing society and individuals with content that is important and worth reading. They used the example of certain Western media outlets that collaborated to expose the corruption of government officials all over the world in what came to be known as the Panama Papers. They concluded – despite their recognition of current difficulties – that some Arab media institutions could carry out something similar.

Finally, panellists brought their remarks to a close by explaining that the coronavirus crisis caused the closing of several newspapers and websites but others will arise in the future when the implications of the crisis have gradually diminished, and that change, whether upward or downward, is part of life.

The economics of printed and digital press and the co-existence and competition between them: a strategic vision

The second session was dedicated to thoroughly discussing the economic factor and its impact on printed and digital press. The panellists – Adel El-Baz, Editor-in-Chief of Al Ahdath News and Former Managing Editor of Lusail News; Imad Bachir, Professor of Information Studies and Director of the Information Management Department at the Lebanese University; Manal Mazahreh, Professor of Mass Communication and Chairman of the Journalism and Media Department at the University of Petra; and Mohamed Erraji, Researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies – presented a number of ideas and visions that may help press institutions overcome challenges and deal with economic crises. The session was moderated by Mustafa Elshaikh, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter.

At the beginning of the session, the discussion revealed that the future is in digital journalism, that the most profitable investments are those in it, and that the premise that “no new media is necessary” is no longer valid with the decline of the printed press and calls for its ban for the sake of preserving the environment.

The session also touched on the nature of digital journalism, and panellists pointed out that it still has plenty to offer the reader. They added that Arab press institutions have yet to utilise all the available forms and tools that come with the nature of digital publishing and reconsider the institutional structures and the technical framework necessary for the flow of work as per the requirements of this type of journalism.

Furthermore, panellists offered summaries of studies they had conducted in certain countries in which they researched the problems, challenges and crises of printed and digital press. In their presentations, it became clear that while there are commonalities between these countries, there are also differences distinguishing each one. For example, in terms of commonality, they all experience the severe negative effects of the economic dimension on the crisis and the partial or complete closing of a number of printed and electronic newspapers. Researchers attributed this to various factors such as the lack of financial resources whether because of the end of government support or low advertising revenue and the decline of sales in addition to competition with social media sites over the time and interest of the audience.

However, differences are seen in the order of the relative weight of each of these factors, i.e. advertising, sales and support. In some countries, like Morocco for example, advertisements were the main source of revenue for some press institutions despite the decline of distribution to about 120,000 copies (in a country that has a population of 35,000,000). Meanwhile, support, whether from political parties or foreign factions, in other countries like Lebanon is the main factor among the three.

The session came to a close with the presentation of attempts by some Arab and international media outlets to overcome their economic challenges. The discussion concluded that integration and cooperation within the units of a newspaper or between one newspaper and another may be one of the solutions for dealing with the financial and economic crisis facing printed and digital press.