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As-Safir announces deal with investor

September 20, 2011 01:33 AM By Annie Slemrod

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: When one of Lebanon’s leading dailies said Monday that a Syrian-American businessman had acquired 20 percent of the paper, few were surprised. It’s not uncommon for businesspeople or politicians to invest in media.

But according to experts, the surprise is that As-Safir made an announcement at all, as these types of deals are not often discussed in the open. And discussed it was, as the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief Talal Salman proudly spoke about investor Jamal Daniel’s purchase in front of microphones, cameras, and a full house at the Press Federation.

Calling it a “joyful occasion,” Salman, who has been at the paper’s helm since its founding in 1974, said Daniel’s investment meant that the paper would no longer be “haunted with the concern of securing the needs of [financial] survival.”

Salman himself deemed the announcement significant, calling it the “first time in history” that a newspaper owner “celebrates giving up some of his ownership to a partner … in order to strengthen his ability to perform his [journalistic] mission.”

Nabil Dajani, a professor of media studies at the American University in Beirut, agreed that the occasion is noteworthy. While he is not informed on the details of the deal, he told The Daily Star “these types of deals are going on all the time,” but “what is unusual is that [this one] is being announced.”

Media analyst Sarah Richani also said that “newspapers usually have backers,” but aren’t usually revealed.

Richani added that these backers are necessary because the circulation numbers of Lebanese newspapers are “dismally low” – estimates put the paper with the highest circulation selling 9,000 copies on a good day. Money from advertising is hardly pouring in, in part because, according to Richani, they are reluctant to advertise in a market “when the situation is not stable.”

This means that newspapers, in crisis worldwide and not making profits in Lebanon, must seek other types of funding. Lebanese newspapers have a need, Richani said, “to increase capital by mergers, selling to investors, or politicians who invest money to serve their political aspirations.”

Earlier this summer, Ad-Diyar’s editor-in-chief Charles Ayoub wrote an editorial in which he openly acknowledged that his newspaper receives funding from political sources. Ayoub even laid out specific dollar amounts that he receives from different political sources, including those related to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah and Syria.

Monday As-Safir’s head Salman called Daniel, who has managed investments in oil and gas, high technology, and real estate, “an ideal partner” because his ambitions are “not suspicious” and non-political. “He doesn’t want to take over pens and opinions, he doesn’t have political ambitions on the inside, and he doesn’t work for anyone on the outside,” said the As-Safir veteran.

Richani said that it is too early to tell whether Salman’s vows of editorial continuity will transfer into practice. As-Safir, she noted, “has a clear political line,” so any changes would be clear.

This is not the first attempt at seeking outside sources of funding. Several years ago it considered becoming a shareholding company. Lebanese daily An-Nahar is now a shareholding company, with shareholders from “across the political spectrum, said Rihani.

Salman told The Daily Star that he hopes for more investors, “because the printed press is in severe crisis. We’ve seen that a lot of newspapers are going through difficult times.”

So with print media losing money, what is the Lebanese newspaper to do?

In a word, change. Newspapers “have to be innovative,” Richani told The Daily Star. “Times are changing,” and newspapers “need to be avant-gardist in the moves they make … make the newspapers available on tablets, on ipads.”

She added that technology, including the advent of social media, have shaken the newspaper business, and they need to prove that they are worth their readers’ time and money. “We don’t read the newspaper for news anymore, because it just comes too late.”

As-Safir is attempting more than just financial change, starting a new venture under the leadership of former diplomat and journalist Clovis Maksoud.

Maksoud told The Daily Star that the project will partner with As-Safir and Daniel’s business interests in the U.S. It will employ translators who can project “what Arabs think of the issues that pertain to them and what is going on in the world” to a global audience.

Maksoud said a board of directors will choose articles from the region they find “worthy of communication,” with a focus on editorials, perhaps posting them on a website or engaging in syndication deals.

It remains to be seen what will become of this venture, not to mention Daniel’s investment. But it’s a change for As-Safir and suggests that print media has not yet taken its final breath.

“I don’t think we can speak of the death of newspapers,” said Richani, but the need for “a format change.” – With additional reporting by Reem Harb

alman, Baalbaki and Maksoud at the news conference. (Mohammed Azakir/The Daily Star)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2011, on page 3

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