International experts have carried out a thorough assessment of media viability in Lebanon using DW Akademie's Media Viability Indicators.
Located at the nexus of geopolitical interests in the Middle East, Lebanon's media face specific challenges. To what extent is the Lebanese media sector able to produce high quality, independent journalism in a financially stable way?
A new report aims to answer this question. Following a data collection project carried out in 2019, Media Viability in Lebanon. Applying DW Akademie's Media Viability Indicators (MVIs) has now been published. You can download the pdf here.
DW Akademie got together with the report's author, Ann Hollifield, Professor Emeritus at Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, and Roula Mikhael, Executive director of Beirut-based media development organization Maharat Foundation, to discuss the results.
#mediadev: Ann, you authored the study. What were the biggest surprises for you?
Ann Hollifield: Lebanon occupies a unique and critically important geographic and geopolitical position. I was surprised to learn through my interviews with Lebanese experts how much the country’s location at the nexus of geopolitical interests in the Middle East impacts journalism there.
Many news organizations in the country have been directly funded for years by governments and political parties in other countries. Those funders have used their clients, Lebanese news organizations, to represent their points of view through news coverage, and as platforms to signal their interests and intentions to other regional and global political actors. Such direct funding from outside interests makes it hard for Lebanese citizens to access editorially independent journalism.
Additionally, such outside funding does not depend on the news organization's success in attracting and serving its audience, so it is one of the major factors keeping Lebanon's news industry hypercompetitive. That, in turn, undercuts the ability of all Lebanese news organizations to produce high quality, independent journalism in a financially sustainable way.
What have been your main insights?
Ann Hollifield: My key take-away is that a careful, deeply considered policy response almost certainly will be required to reduce the hypercompetition in Lebanon's news media system within a foreseeable time frame. Government regulation and involvement in news media markets is always a potential problem. But if the past 30 years has taught us anything about news media worldwide, it is that markets for news and information do not function the same way as markets for consumer goods. Owners of news media organizations will keep them operating at a financial loss for decades because of the many other benefits they get from controlling news content. Thus, it seems likely some form of policy engagement will be necessary to stabilize Lebanon's news media industry.
Another take-away from my intense conversations with colleagues and experts there convinced me that Lebanon has an impressive pool of journalism professionals available to produce the news the nation and its citizens need. But those professionals cannot serve the public if they are not getting paid salaries commensurate with the education, experience and expertise they bring to their societally critical role. Their news organizations must also be able to provide them with the equipment and resources they need to produce quality content. In the information age, such journalism is a critical component in political and social stability and economic development.
Where do you see main challenges for media viability in Lebanon?
Ann Hollifield: The biggest challenge to media viability in Lebanon is that there are simply more news organizations in the market than there are audience members and revenue sources to sustain them. Lebanon has a relatively small population, a limited commercial advertising market, and a struggling economy. That means news organizations also don't have many options to develop non-advertising-based revenue that doesn't threaten editorial independence.
As the research for the report was conducted in early 2019, it does not reflect any of the recent developments - Covid-19, the explosion in Beirut harbor and a sharp economic downturn. Roula, would results look different if the research had been carried out in early 2021, for instance?
Roula Mikhael: The report would have shown an increased vulnerability in society and a negative impact on the media industry including its infrastructure. Covid-19 exacerbated the lack of robust online frameworks and of digital security in Lebanon.
Ann Hollifield: I would be interested to know what impact, if any, recent and ongoing changes in the MENA political landscape has had on Lebanon's news media viability since we were there. In fact, however, it would be positive for Lebanon's overall news media viability for some of the existing competitors to close.
What would you say are the strengths and also the limitations of the Media Viability Indicators (MVIs)?
Ann Hollifield: The Lebanon report represents the first field test of DW Akademie's MVIs, a tool for assessing media development issues usable in countries around the world regardless of the specific country or media ecosystems. DW Akademie has invested years in developing the MVIs, and in my view, the field test in Lebanon demonstrated that it is a powerful tool that can help experts quickly and efficiently assess the range of challenges facing journalists and news organizations in a specific country.
Users of the MVIs have to be careful not to misinterpret individual sub-indicators that are scored identically as being equally important in terms of their actual impact on a country's media viability. For example, journalists who are so underpaid that they behave unethically is a major obstacle to media viability. So is having 24 national news organizations competing for audience and advertisers in a country of 6.1 million people. I think a next step in the development of the MVIs could be to create a system that helps users weight the individual sub-indicators, indicators and dimensions in terms of their total impact on long-term media viability in a country.
Roula Mikhael: Assessing media viability at local level through an external evaluator gives an overview of the situation and sets directions for possible interventions that would improve the situation. This was the case in the Lebanon assessment, especially in areas related to capacity building, community, and audiences. However, the recommendations need to be validated again by the local community especially when it comes to giving more powers to the state to regulate specific areas.
The MVIs provide the basic elements and the foundation to study and monitor the situation, but [the results] need to be put in the context. That applies especially to the economic and political dimensions. The recommendations should take into consideration the existing media systems in a country. The analysis should also look at the viability of alternative media platforms presenting quality journalism in a different way than the mainstream outlets. These mainstream outlets are mainly driven by the easiest business model - political money - and might not be interested in exploring alternative sources of revenue and further capacity building.
What role can the media development community play in tackling media viability challenges and what should it avoid?
Roula Mikhael: There are several roles. First of all, media viability should be promoted, and efforts should be undertaken to incubate new media initiatives. Also, more work should be done on audiences to regain trust in quality journalism which will contribute to more opportunities for alternative business models and monetization of content. We need to exert pressure at local levels to improve legal frameworks and further engagement should be fostered with tech companies to support quality journalism at local levels in this region. The media development community should avoid giving advanced roles to state-actors before making sure that the countries they represent respect rule of law and that their public policies are in line with freedom of expression and human rights, with a sound judiciary system.
Ann Hollifield: The true experts on the media situation in any country are the journalists, media managers, and media experts in that country. The biggest obstacles to news media viability are now almost universal. News organizations in the Global North as well as the Global South face similar challenges, even if the degree of impact varies. So, we need to look to each other globally for ideas and support.
In the 21st century, no matter what country you are in, building and maintaining a news media industry that is editorially independent, financially sustainable long-term, and produces high-quality journalism that serves the public interest is going to be a very, very long game. But as someone far wiser than I once said: It’s better to light a single candle, than sit and curse the dark.
Interview: Petra Aldenrath