TBY talks to Ibrahim Al Amine, Chairman of Al-Akhbar, on the aims of the newspaper, circulation, and the move online.
TBY What is the history of Al-Akhbar?
IBRAHIM AL AMINE Akhbar Beirut is the publishing house of Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper, the first issue of which went to market on July 14, 2006. In five years Al-Akhbar has become a reference newspaper on the Lebanese market, tag tailing long established institutions such as As-Safir and An-Nahar. Launched by the late Joseph Samaha, an outstanding Arab journalist, and myself, the newspaper gathered a team of young journalists from all walks of life. Its internet readership has made it a firm market leader in terms of readership.
How has the newspaper been involved in Lebanon’s development and growth over the past two decades?
Al-Akhbar was launched in 2006. People who work at the paper used to work at other publications such as Al-Hayat, As-Safir, and An-Nahar. They played a role in following developments in Lebanon after the end of the civil war in 1990. Most were perhaps inclined to oppose the late Rafic Hariri’s chaotic economic policy that led to a series of mistakes due to a policy of impunity toward militias and the leaders of Lebanon’s various sects. But, more importantly, despite Al-Akhbar’s preoccupation in the past few years with the political and security situation in the country, the paper was able to resume discussions over Lebanon’s economic role from a critical point of view.
What is the current circulation of Al-Akhbar and what are its main channels of distribution?
A total of 15,500 copies are distributed daily across the different communities. Al-Akhbar is on offer at 1,325 points of sales all over the country, with an average of 5,500 copies sold per day. We currently have 8,350 paid subscriptions delivered directly to our subscribers, from which 1,500 are split between airlines and free subscriptions, and the circulation continues to grow by the day.
How has Al-Akhbar sought to build up its regional and international profile as a newspaper of record?
There are a lot of professional journalists here who have spent more than 30 years working at big firms. They then transferred their experience, credibility, and reputation to this establishment. The newspaper itself broke the tradition of working with the authorities. This tradition is famous in the Arab world, where journalism is closely connected to the political, economic, security, and religious authorities. Al-Akhbar overcame it all, through its wide margin, which enabled it to address topics and issues that were previously forbidden. Also, it enabled it to express itself clearly, and without courtesy, and this made it quickly popular. In
addition to this, Al-Akhbar represented a clear opinion regarding the sharp general division in Lebanon and the Arab world. It was able to occupy a leading position for a large audience in addition to decision-making circles, and all those who think that what Al-Akhbar is doing is beyond traditional journalism.
Al-Akhbar has made an effort to enlighten people on topics not covered by other media outlets. What are some of the core issues that the newspaper has covered that have made a real difference in Lebanon?
Perhaps one of these cases is the exclusivity agreement with Wikileaks to publish thousands of cables issued by US embassies in several Arabic and international capitals. This has allowed a lot of interactivity. For example, it is well known that Tunisia faced political turmoil before the protests. When Al-Akhbar published the cables related to Tunisia, a lot of discussions took place. The same thing went for Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to the secrets of the last Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Al-Akhbar also provided a new model regarding cultural journalism, away from this field’s dullness and routine. It provided a platform for young potential journalists inside and outside Lebanon.
How is Lebanon considered an example for countries in the region in terms of freedom of expression in the media and in the public at large? What are some of the key strengths underpinning Lebanon’s freedom of speech?
There’s both a constitutional and cultural strength that underpins freedom of speech in Lebanon. The Lebanese constitution protects freedom of speech, and Lebanon is one of very few Arab countries that does not practice any form of internet filtering. Unlike what is common in other Arab countries, citizens are very rarely arrested or called in for questioning because of an expressed opinion—slander and libel notwithstanding. Also, what is important is that there’s an active citizenry, in the sense that civil rights activists and journalists mobilize whenever there’s an attempt to stifle this freedom, as was the case with the new internet law proposal put forth in 2010.
Lebanon is still considered one of the centers of news and journalism in the Arab world. Despite the competition of rivals such as Dubai, what are the key strengths behind Lebanon’s success in the media?
Freedom. You can never reach the maximum in your creativity if your freedom is stifled. There is also an old heritage in the press and journalism, dating back to even before Lebanon’s independence.
How has Al-Akhbar been able to adjust its operations with the advancement of new technologies such as the internet?
We try very hard to adapt to new technologies, and sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. It is not easy. It is not easy to change a workflow and a general mentality that thinks of paper as the predominant form and internet as a secondary channel, to fully accepting the importance of the internet and convergent forms of media production and collaboration. That said, we have from the very beginning tried to be leaders in the Lebanese media space specifically and the Arab world in general in trying to move the website from being an online “re-print” of the print edition, to offering web-specific content and news throughout the day. We also gradually migrated out of the more traditional form of the “issue,” in which print content is dumped on the web at a specific time, and rather publish the articles as soon as they become available. We also offer photo albums, embed rich media content such as video and audio, and regularly publish interactive info-maps.
In what areas of the media is the company looking to expand into?
We have been focusing on launching different supplements and frequent polls on various subjects. Our website is developing many features. Lately, we’ve been working on a unique website advertising policy based on video, full page, or article inserts. Furthermore a 40-page newspaper will be launched very soon. The English edition of the website was launched during the month of August 2011. The site aims to make debates and analyses circulating in the Arabic media sphere accessible to English speakers worldwide. It will also feature original content of opinion, analysis, and field stories as well as photo blogs chronicling the latest developments across the Middle East. Monthly economic and social magazines will be published in Lebanon and the Gulf area starting from October 2011, and lately we have started working on a market study in order to study the opportunities for launching a French version of Al-Akhbar newspaper.
What are some of the key topics that you see affecting Lebanon over the coming years?
Theoretically, Lebanon is an independent country, but is located in a big attraction field in the region, and many Lebanese people live or work outside of it. It is in contact with Israel, which means it is special in every aspect, and has always been affected by what happens around it and worldwide. Today, Lebanon is waiting for the scene in the Arab world to become clearer after the revolutions, especially in Syria. Yet, an additional threat is going to be an expected Israeli war on Lebanon soon. This threatens Lebanon’s capabilities and economy, and affects its configuration and political situation. The other side is related to the international economic crises, especially that the Lebanese economy isn’t independent, but directly and strongly related to what is happening around it.
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