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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Near Death of a Star

Executive - Commentary

In late January I was asked to look into the closure of The Daily Star, Lebanon’s only English language daily. But discussions to financially prop up the paper were going on behind closed doors, so without a shareholder to quote, the story, as they say, was dead in the water. It also looked as if ‘the DS’ could be as well, and that this commentary might have been a eulogy of sorts.
For on January 14, the DS was ordered to cease operations following a court order requested by Standard Chartered Bank over a loan of some $700,000. The presses were at a stand still, staff were on leave until further notice, and the website frozen on the date the plug was pulled. It took until February 2, for the paper to raise the cash to get back on the newsstands.
To the hacks, editorial staff and interns that have spent time at the Gemaizeh offices (of which I am one), the closure was but another episode in the drama of the DS.
As the old hands can readily recall, the newspaper has had many ups and downs, from the deal with The International Herald Tribune that gave the DS a much needed boost in the early 2000s, to the unification of the Lebanon and Regional editions, to the downsizing of the paper’s staff in 2005, when it shrank from occupying two floors of Marine Tower to only one. Then there was the ill-fated plan to gain a bigger slice of the regional market by moving to Dubai – I was even asked if I would be willing to make the move, it was seemingly that certain – and the loss of the IHT alliance in 2006.
Older staff still working at the paper were pragmatic following the shutdown, feeling the causes would be rectified as so many times before when the paper was in dire straits. Former staff were somewhat nostalgic – they certainly let each other know about the closure – but equally not surprised when recalling the financial constraints and lack of dynamism and morale in the newsroom itself.
The discontinuation of the DS did not bring about any schadenfreude though, but rather handwringing. For despite all of the paper’s shortcomings, notably reduced pagination and a heavier reliance over the years on the wire services as well as interns to churn out content, readers bemoaned the loss.
There was talk of what news options were left to English-speakers in Lebanon and for readers abroad interested in this perpetually problematic country. For Lebanon is extremely limited when it comes to daily news coverage in English, confined to a handful of mostly partisan websites, such as nowlebanon.com, which is linked to March 14, naharnet.com, equally pro-March 14, and almanar.com.lb, linked to Hizbullah.
Although no details were forthcoming about the re-financing of the DS, the fact that it is not openly sponsored by any political group and regularly has Lebanon’s two opposing camps breathing down its neck, makes the Star’s position in Beirut a much needed one.
Sure there is a need for less wire copy and more original content, as well as an overhaul of the Opinion page, which more often than not reflects the ideas of those outside the region than in it – running counter to what anecdotal evidence suggests, that people want another perspective on Middle Eastern issues than what the Western mainstream media offers. The website also needs to be seriously revamped in keeping with the shifts in the media environment.
But these constraints appear to be acknowledged by the DS, as stated in a ‘We’re back’ announcement: ‘Expect to see some changes in format and style over the coming months as this newspaper tries to revitalize.’ That has, however, been heard before, so let’s hope some real change is afoot to boost readership and not lose the DS, again.
Media coverage of Lebanon aside, the loss of the DS would have deprived the world of a journalistic incubator for the numerous reporters, editorial staff, photographers and graphic designers that have passed through the Star since it was re-launched in 1996. From my time there and before, former DS staff have gone on to work for Britain’s The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent, and for Reuters; The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek and Time; Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; Belgium’s De Standaard; Canada’s Globe and Mail; the UAE’s The National and The Gulf Times; Australia’s The Age; and on television Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, Future, and ABC.
The aforementioned are clearly some of the biggest names in global media, and a fact the Star’s management can take pride in. It is another good reason why it’s good news to have The Daily Star back in print.

PAUL COCHRANE is a Beirut-based journalist. He worked at The Daily Star from 2002-2005

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