News Media Independence

–Nice. Who paid for that?–

I just read Now Lebanon’s explanation for why they pulled their recent editorial (and then restored it). For the record, I think their point is fair: If an editorial does not represent the publication’s point of view, the publication has the right not to publish it. That said, once a piece is published, unpublishing it becomes wrong, if for the only pragmatic reason that it will attract more attention to it.

I and others gave NOW Lebanon a hard time this week and perhaps unfairly so. As Zaher noted, the big picture is that the news site is heading towards an interesting new direction of independence and professionalism. While I noticed the same thing (I did read refreshingly independent pieces in NOW recently), and while I hold NOW and its writers to the highest of standards, I don’t believe they are there yet.

Follow the Money

NOW is making assertions about independence that I don’t believe hold water. The truth is, you cannot claim real independence without being completely transparent about your finances. I wrote the same thing to Al-Mayadeen TV recently:

I don’t have a problem with [news media being] funded by interest groups or people. Knowing that Future TV is funded by the Hariri family or that France 24 is funded by the french tax payer allows me to know where they’re coming from and helps me see conflicts of interests.

But when you’re opaque about your […] funding and make empty promises about objectivity and independence, you freak me out. I’d rather watch Official Syrian TV. At least you know where they’re coming from.

Now Lebanon employs talented people from investigative journalists to star writers to technicians. It has a physical location so it pays rent. It also has a fair amount of web traffic so it needs decent hosting and perhaps in-house servers. All this costs money, and It’s important to be completely open about where this money is coming from.

We as readers have the right to ask ourselves: Someone out there is paying tens of thousands of dollars monthly for a news publication. What is that person/party expecting to get in return? Which topics constitute conflict of interest to that party?

I am proud for calling myself independent, and maybe it’s easy because I’m just a small-scale blogger. But I will walk my talk:

Beirut Spring yearly cost of operation

Domain cost:        $   38.00
Hosting plan:       $  119.40
Volunteer Writer:   $    0.00
            TOTAL:  $  157.40

Those $157.40 came from my own pocket. I pay more for coffee per year than to run this blog. I have my biases of course, biases that I hope come across in my writing. But when I want to call a spade a spade, I’m glad I’m not financially beholden to anyone who wants me to call it something else.

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  • Ghassan Karam

    We have been down this road before but I will take this opportunity to say again that the scale of the operations in Lebanon makes it very difficult and maybe impossible for a professional media organization to be independent. All the print and visual media outlets offer the public a variety of points of view , which is helpful, but not one offers a truly independent coverage and thus not one can be trusted.
    It is also important to note that no vibrant democracy is possible without an independent trustworthy journalism that is willing to hole the feet of the ruling party to the fire, so to speak.

  • Charles

    To follow ho on Ghassan’s comment, the Lebanese media market is over-saturated. An advertising based model of media outlet viability is nearly impossible for newspapers, local magazines, and local TV. Al Balad, I believe, has the widest readership of any paper in Lebanon, but it’s success has to do with it being a regionally connected and financed outlet.

    In the mid-90s, Rafiq Hariri, al Waleed bin Talal, Pierre Daher, and Antoine Choueiry all saw the potential for sophisticated Lebanese TV outlets to make money using satellites to advertise goods to wealthy Khaleeji viewers. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, even though it should have been a viable solution. Al Waleed has made the best go of it of anyone, but even he has a difficult time making satellite media profitable in the region.

    When NOW began, I was infuriated that they refused to sell ads. They had the opportunity to experiment with ways to use the Internet to sell ads to the Lebanese diaspora and a global readership. It would have been a lot of work for a small team to figure out such a model, but since the bills are being paid by someone else, why not try? The Internet offers a small country with specific expertise the way to tap into global financing and increase scale.

    Of course, even media powerhouses from countries where the Internet was invented have not figured out how to make money nonlinear. Could NOW have become the Lebanese Huffington Post? That was never their hope to begin with. Ya Libnan tried that model, but there just isn’t enough credibility – or interest – in packaged news from Lebanon.

  • Charles

    As you can see, my phone auto-corrected a few things that it should have left intact. Apologies, but editing with thumbs and a touch screen is difficult.