Historically, Lebanon has had one of the highest ratios of private newspapers per head in the Arab world. However, with the rise in popularity and the rapid development of online media outlets, pan-Arab TVs and news sharing in social networks, printed newspapers have become increasingly less popular, causing a decrease in advertising revenues and sales. If this is true all over the world, in Lebanon the situation is more complicated. In fact, since their creation, Lebanese media have been receiving funding from foreign investors, who pursue their interest in the country’s politics. The withdrawal of foreign funding from the Lebanese media industry started when Gulf countries launched their own TV channels and networks and it intensified more recently with the global financial crisis and the fall in oil prices. For instance, As-Safir, which used to be one of the most popular newspaper selling over 50,000 copies a day in 2010, was only selling about 10,000 copies by 2016.
Anyway, if one stops at a newsstand in Beirut he will still be surprised at the plethora of daily, weekly, monthly local newspapers and magazines, that are offered to the reader. A daily newspaper costs from €0.50 to €1. For those who cannot read Arabic, along with a rich variety of dailies, Lebanon offers a vast repertoire of weeklies and periodicals. Those focusing mainly on internal and regional political affairs and on social gossip (Al-Hawadeth, Al-Jaras, Al-Watan Al-Arabi, Ash-Shiraa, Al-Masira/An-Najwa – all in Arabic except for the two francophone L’Hebdo Magazine and La Revue du Liban, alongside with the English-language Monday Morning) – are scarcely reliable as journalistic sources, whilst the ones dedicated to business and finance – most of them in English and French (Executive, Lebanon Opportunities, Le Commerce du Levant, al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal) – include a number of interesting insight features on social, economic and cultural aspects of Lebanon, in each issue.
Beirut, long before it became the capital of Lebanon, was and still is the capital of the so-called free media of the Middle East. The first Arab Jarida (newspaper), the Garden of the News (Hadiqat al-Akhbar), was published in 1858 in Beirut and was followed by other illustrious gazettes. Since the 19th century, the urban elite has also played a crucial role in establishing some of the most prestigious newspapers in Egypt and in the new destinations of the Arab diaspora, such as Argentina, Brazil, France.
From a legal point of view, Lebanon has two types of licenses: one for political and another for non-political outlets. Following the 1964 press law, the number of periodicals was limited and it has since been stabilised. The Lebanese press includes about 60 licensed political publications, including around ten dailies, almost 40 weeklies and four monthly magazines reporting a total circulation of 220,000 (2008).
However, there are no accurate figures on circulation and distribution of newspapers in Lebanon and each paper makes self-promoting claims. According to the Ministry of Information, formerly As-Safir (The Messanger) and An-Nahar (The Day) supposedly were the most read newspapers in Arabic language, with respectively 50,000 and 45,000 issues daily. However, Wissam Chehabeddine, director of planning at Media Direction OMD, estimated that An-Nahar’s circulation does not exceed 15,000, a figure consistent with a 2004 study on Arab media by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In any case, after the recent closure of As-Safir, it is fair to say the largest circulation dailies are An-Nahar and Al-Akhbar (The News, founded in 2006). If on the one hand, Al-Akhbar has always been praised for its focus on audacious and historically taboo subjects; on the other hand, it has been widely accused of being the mouthpiece of Hezbollah. Founded in 2003, Al-Balad (The Country) also registered a large circulation at an initial stage, which subsequently decreased. It is a commercial newspaper printed in tabloid format. It promotes aggressive and controversial campaigns, focusing on political, social, and cultural issues often in sensationalistic terms.
As-Safir was founded in 1974 and belongs to Talal Salman. For all its history, it has claimed to be “the voice of the voiceless” and throughout the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), it was known for its support to the Palestinian cause and to Arab nationalism. In wider terms, for years, and at least until 1989, it represented the secular left-wing Arab intelligentsia, opposed to Washington policies and loyal to pan-Arab ideals. However, in the last decade its orientation partly shifted towards more radical positions, often supporting conservative authoritarian regimes in the region. In March 2016, it was announced that As-Safir was to close, due to financial issues, and a final edition was published. However, the newspaper was still in existence until the end of 2016, thanks to a last-minute injection of funding. This proved not to be enough though and, on 31 December 2016, after 42 years in publication, As-Safir closed down.
Also An-Nahar newspaper could soon follow the fate of As-Safir, due to the economic crisis that has hit many local and regional Beirut-based media outlets. Established in 1933 by the Orthodox Christian Tueni family, An-Nahar has been characterised by a liberal orientation, which, without denying its roots and Arab affiliations, looks to Europe and the West in general as a political and cultural reference point. Nowadays, this historical newspaper has gradually lost its role of the leading public voice of a certain segment of the Lebanese intellectual landscape. An-Nahar is no longer a reference point for the readership, in fact it has become a collectanea of local affairs news and articles concerning the immutable domestic policy debate among the usual political/sectarian actors. As many observers and readers have pointed out, the paper now “is neither fish nor fowl”.
Nowadays, in addition to An-Nahar, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar and the commercial Al-Balad, smaller portions of readers are shared by the francophone L'Orient-Le Jour (resulting from the 1971 merger between L'Orient, founded in 1904, and Le Jour established in 1897) and the English-language The Daily Star (1952), which is a valuable news source for local expats and the diaspora. In 2010 a group of entrepreneurs close to the Hariri family bought the newspaper that has since adopted a stance more inclined towards the Future Movement led by current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Malik Mroue is its chairman, but has no executive role or power. In 2015 The Daily Star started charging an online fee of US$12 a month for readers based outside Lebanon. There is also the pro-Saudi Al-Mustaqbal (The Future, established in 1995), which is the organ of the Future Movement and is owned by current prime minister and Lebanese-Saudi business tycoon Saad Hariri, son and political heir of the former premier Rafiq Hariri, killed in a blast in Beirut in 2005.
The latest additions to the Lebanese newspaper scene are Al-Jumhuriyya (The Republic) and Al-Bina’ (The Construction). In fact, these papers were founded respectively in 1924 and 1958, but then their publication was suspended and only recently relaunched, appearing for the first time as daily political newspapers. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party controls Al-Bina’, whilst the ownership of Al-Jumhuriyya belongs to former Minister of Defence, Elias Murr, from the Murr family’s media empire.
As mentioned before, as a result of “financial difficulties”, An-Nahar dismissed 50 employees in September 2009, announcing that in the following months its staff would be reduced from 300 to 220 journalists and print workers. A few months prior to that, also Al-Akhbar and Al-Mustaqbal terminated the employment of a large number of their staff writers. Moreover, in January 2009 the printing of The Daily Star was suspended for two weeks by a Lebanese court order after financial difficulties. The newspaper resumed publishing the following month, thanks to agreements with creditors on payment of accumulating debt. In this context, new business models for the media are being actively considered, with an eye to increased commercialisation, aggressive marketing and online media investments, aimed at regional audiences and competitors.