The closing this month of the Daily Star, Lebanon’s oldest English-language newspaper, founded in 1952, had a bittersweet feel to it. Bitter, because of the way the publication treated its staff in its final years; sweet, because the Star had built up a noteworthy track record since reopening in 1996, in the midst of Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction, and for a time reflected the optimism in the country’s revival.
I had the good fortune of being the paper’s opinion editor between 2003 and 2016, which allowed me to see how a news institution could attract great talent, only to allow other, more prominent, media outlets to poach them at will. This underlined a perennial problem the publication had to place itself on a stable institutional basis and retain staff, often because of a lack of money.
When the newspaper’s owner, Jamil Mroueh, sold the Star to a group of investors led by Saad Hariri in 2010, there was hope that its financial difficulties would be resolved. The paper left its offices in the trendy, bohemian neighbourhood of Gemmayzeh for the more expensive, less adventurous, downtown area – a telling transfer that perhaps reflected Mr Mroueh’s and Mr Hariri’s contrasting visions for the publication.
By 2015, the situation had changed for the worse, with little prospect of an amelioration. The advertising market was in what proved to be a lasting downturn, Mr Hariri’s own financial problems had become serious, and most of the former prime minister’s media interests were ailing. Within a few years virtually all the outlets he owned or in which he had a stake – Al Safir, Al Mustaqbal, Al Nahar, Future Television – had either closed or faced severe financial crises that threatened their existence.
For the staff at the Daily Star, this meant years of on-again, off-again salary payments, but apparently no settlement of the backlog from unpaid months. Colleagues had to borrow money to cover basic expenses, while job openings for those wanting to leave were very limited.
This was a remarkably callous and disgraceful way to treat a staff that laboured under conditions of uncertainty so that Mr Hariri could publish a newspaper. Perhaps management assumed that journalists who had suffered so many indignities could always be made to swallow a few more.
In the mid 1990s the mood had been lighter. Mr Mroueh reopened the paper just over a decade after he had reopened it for the first time, in 1983. Post-war Lebanon was going through a rebirth, and that Mr Mroueh twice sought to bounce back when Lebanon’s wars seemed to have ended told us something about the man. At the beginning the newspaper was rough around the edges, but it had a contagious vitality that attracted young people in search of a job.
From my perspective, I was always given the latitude to write what I wanted in my opinion articles, even before joining the staff. Others may have had different experiences, but when I became an editor, I appreciated that Mr Mroueh would mostly resolve disagreements over controversial opinion articles by rewording the text, as opposed to spiking pieces entirely. Later on, even while retaining freedom to choose pieces, I could see that the red lines were narrowing.
Beyond the Star, however, what we are witnessing today is the demise of Lebanon as a media centre for the Middle East. This venerable legacy was unsustainable for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that newspapers no longer command the audiences they once did. As the media landscape has changed with the internet and social media, the old way of doing things has collapsed.
That may not necessarily be bad. Most Lebanese newspapers survived for a long time through a combination of domestic and foreign political money and advertisements. This made for coverage that was often biased, but it also created a pluralistic press in which political disputes played out on the front pages. For all the shortcomings of such a model, it did allow readers, by decoding the political rivalries in print, to get a good sense of what was going on in Lebanon.
When political money dried up in the last decade, few Lebanese papers tried to develop an alternative model applicable to the internet age. The Star did attempt to rely on online subscriptions for readers overseas, but the somewhat rigid format it adopted was limited in its appeal. That was a shame, because a restructuring of the paper’s ownership, an injection of cash and a savvy internet and social media strategy might have saved it.
The Daily Star should not have ended with a whimper. Many journalists who had drifted through the newspaper expressed nostalgia when they heard the news. That was understandable, but what is less so is how a publication that had, since the early '50s, chronicled Lebanon’s political and social life should have been allowed to go so unceremoniously.