Paying for Stuff Online

Before I start, I want you to take a look at this screenshot I took today of an article on Lebanon Files, one of the better online sources of Lebanese news in arabic. Now quick! Try to find the headline of the story from the image below:

lebanon files with ads

The screenshot above makes me feel bad for Lebanon Files, but it also makes me respect it. I feel bad because such an excess of ads is bad for all parties involved. It’s bad for advertisers because readers learn how to ignore the ads and go straight to the content. It’s bad for readers because ads (especially animated ones) strain their eyes and make reading the website a stressful experience. And finally it’s bad for Lebanon Files itself because it makes the website look desperate for income.

Paradoxically though, these ads also make me respect the website. Gathering news around the clock and keeping a popular website up and running costs a lot of money. The fact that they have so many ads imply that the ads are the outlets’ only source of income. This means that they are not beholden to an outside party (except the reader), and are free to report the news without any interference from would-be benefactors. This is very important in a country like Lebanon where every political party has its own news outlet.

The Cost of Free

Whenever a website is both popular and free, you should learn to always look for a catch. The owners are paying a lot of money to keep their websites online, you have to tell yourself: What are they getting in return? Usually it’s money from ads: Facebook, twitter and Gmail (and Lebanon Files) are free, but they get paid by advertisers, hopefully enough to cover their costs and with enough profit for them to want to stay in business. But popular websites that are free and have no advertising or subscription costs should be very worrying to you for two reasons:

  1. There’s something they’re not telling you: Where are they getting their money from? Who is financing them? What is the agenda? If it’s a news site, its independence and commitment to reporting the objective truth should be put in question
  2. There’s no guarantee that they’ll stay around: If a website is not generating income for its owners, it can have its plug pulled at any moment. You will love a website and depend on it, but it can disappear in a fortnight because its owners didn’t feel that it was worth their while

Two big news

Last week, two big things happened that are related to this topic: Google Reader, a free product that millions of people used and depended on was put on death row. This should be a reminder to us of the hidden cost of “free” products.

The second thing is that we learned that Paypal, an easy way to pay and get paid online will be coming this year to Lebanon.

Hopefully, with Paypal and other payment gateways, we will have more independent news services that get paid straight from readers, without having to subject themselves to the humiliation of advertising overkill or the humiliation of a political (or commercial) benefactor that would keep a close eye on the editorial line.

What is the Proper "Arab" Way of Talking About Gaza ?

This morning, I read an interesting article by Joy Slim ( جوي سليم ) in Assafir, in which she berates some Arab journalists for their coverage of the conflict in Gaza. Ms. Slim is shocked, shocked! at some of the vocabulary used by those she sarcastically refers to as “Arab” (with quotation marks) journalists.

Arabs in name only

Here is a list of some of the things that shocked Ms. Slim in how some news outlets, especially in the Gulf, are covering the events:

  • The use of the phrase “killed Palestinians” instead of “Palestinian martyrs”
  • The description of the Israeli actions as a “campaign” or “operation” instead of an “aggression”
  • The description of Hamas as a “terrorist organization” instead of a “resistance movement”
  • The expression of empathy towards “innocent Israeli civilians”
  • Criticizing Hezbollah for its intention of sending missiles to Gaza

The important thing to note about the subtext of Ms. Slim’s complaints is that she is not making an argument about “fairness” in covering Gaza, she is making an argument about authenticity, about the “Arabness” of such coverage, with all the inherent and implicit accusations of treason such an argument carries.

Double Standards

Now take a look Nadine Kanaan’s article in Al-Akhbar (Assafir’s buddy in the “resistance” camp), in which she celebrates the foreign media for finally getting “unshackled” in Gaza.

You see, it’s okay if the foreign BBC correspondent describes Israel’s attack as a “campaign” instead of an “aggression”, in fact his very presence on the ground should be a cause for celebration. But heaven forbids that an Arab opinion writer describes the Palestinians being killed as –Horrors!– “killed Palestinians”.

Why is that? Why should Arabs have an exceptional form of logic and a form of story-telling that is different from that of the rest of the world? Aren’t we capable of a nuance that sees both the victimhood of the Palestinian people and the evil of Hamas?

Does being Arab require that I protest loudly when innocent Palestinian children are killed, but that I completely give away my humanity and turn a blind eye when innocent Israeli children are killed?

The world is changing, and the word “Arab” no longer means what Joy Slim thinks it means. That’s a good thing.

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.

Al Mayadeen TV's Incomplete Promise

Ghassan Ben Jeddo’s new TV channel can only be trusted if it’s completely transparent about the source of its funding.

“The biggest problem is people’s inability to differentiate between Al Jazeera and the Qatari government. Al Jazeera is totally independent from the government although it is funded by it”. Those were the words of Ghassan ben Jeddo back in 2006 in an interview with Habib Battah. Back then Ben Jeddo was a champion of Aljazeera and its role in the world. 6 years later, we now know how naive that statement was. The golden rule of TV stations has reestablished itself: He who has the gold makes the rules.

The basic idea of Almayadeen is to become what Aljazeera used to be: An independent Arab channel that is generally objective and not afraid to stick it to the big guys. We can expect a channel that is friendlier to the dwindling “resistance” axis (Hezbollah, Iran, Assad’s Syria), but Ben Jeddo’s personality and ideas are sufficiently nuanced (he’s both friendly to Hezbollah and to the USA) that we can safely rule out an Almanar without the veils and religious overtones or an Arabic version of PressTV.

Follow the Money

But who is paying for the hundreds of international reporters, big city news desks and bilboard advertisements covering Beirut? As the experience of Aljazeera and Qatar has taught us, promises are not enough. Mr. Ben Jeddo says that the station will be “keen to present the full picture, precise information, and to convey things as they are, in a professional media language committed to professionalism and balance”, but how can we tell that once the station builds enough viewership and trust it won’t pull an Aljazeera when propaganda really matters to the funders?

Mr Ben Jeddo’s coyness about the funding is worrying. He stressed in a press conference that the station was not funded by an Arab state or regime. But that formulation excludes non-Arab states (Iran? Turkey?) and non-state actors (Hezbollah? ambitious billionaires?). The crowded media market also insures that they’re not counting on commercial success anytime soon. The fact that there’s no transparency about the station’s funding throws into doubt the stations’ motto of covering “reality as it is”.

It’s the mask, not the backer that is troubling

I don’t have a problem with stations 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. Even Aljazeera was forthcoming about being financed by the Qatari government, but we all trusted it because we thought the Qatari government was not a significant regional player.

But when you’re opaque about your endless 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.


Operation "The Light Side of Hezbollah"

A few days after “paint-balling with Hezbollah”, we get yet another exposé in an english language publication in which the themes of Hezbollah, entertainment and western journalists getting privileged access and bragging about it, are mixed together.

“Inside Hezbollah’s Terror Tech Museum”, published today in WIRE, (more colorfully republished in io9) is yet another piece in which the journalist (in this case Sharon Weinberger) tries to overcompensate for his access to Hezbollah by using the words “terror” and “terrorism” whenever he can. (Translation: Yes, I fraternized with Hezbollah but I still think they’re a bunch of baby killing monsters)

Everybody wins. Hezbollah plays the journalists, the journalists brag about their access and western readers get exotic photos and material to read.

Do I get anything out of the article? Yes: I find myself thinking that the amount of visitors to the Mleeta park is directly related to how popular Hezbollah is in the region. If only I could get statistics of visits, how they changed during key Hezbollah events, and how they are affected by the events in Syria.. (Thanks Azmi)


Patric Galey, a western journalist with an extensive Beirut experience (reporting for the Daily Star, a local newspaper with a Lebanese readership), explains western Journalists’ fascination with Hezbollah:

["paint-balling with Hezbollah"] is in keeping with a long narrative of western gawping at Hezbollah. We’ve all done it. When I first arrived in Beirut I wrote excitedly that six days into my stay I’d had tea with party officials. I thought that was cool and, in a way, I suppose it was for someone fresh off the plane. But reporters learn and evolve. When you’ve gathered party sources and interviewed enough officials, you realize that, largely, Hezbollah is just like most political parties here; they just happen to have more rockets

Maybe “fresh off the plane” should be the standard way of dismissing writers who come up with such pieces..