The phrase "the situation today is worse than during June of last year" could apply to the international financial crisis, the war on terror, peace (what peace?) negotiations with Israel, and the internal Palestinian situation. They have all gone from bad to worse, but today's column is specifically about the international media situation, with the Chicago Tribune Corporation's announcement that it was facing bankruptcy.
Arab readers might not know much about this company, which is understandable, since they already have enough bad news. In reality, the firm alone is bigger than the entire Arab media sector, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. It owns the eponymous newspaper from Barack Obama's town, as well as The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun (among the most important and best American newspapers), television stations and the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team.
The mother company got into $13 billion worth of debt when it became a private company a year ago this month. Ever since, the owners' calculations have appeared to be mistaken, especially after the international financial crisis that erupted at the end of the summer. The crisis turned the company's $84 million profit from the third quarter of last year, into $124 million in losses during the same quarter of 2008.
I will start the story in June of last year, since I was taking part in the Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates and happened to talk about the Arab and international press. I drew a frightening picture of our press, which suffered from lack of freedom and everything else, and "their press," which faced the possibility of bankruptcy due to the invasion of the Internet and seeing readers and advertisers move away, since it has more viewers and cheaper ads.
In Jordan, I said that any meeting of western newspaper publishers has come to resemble a funeral. Today, it is not just one death, but many. The Chicago Tribune is just an example of a situation without end. On The Daily Show, American comedian Jon Stewart asked the other day: "What's black and white and completely over? Give up? It's newspapers."
In June, I said that The New York Times had lost approximately half of its book value; losses are now up to 60 percent. The company is even considering the sale of its historic headquarters in the heart of Manhattan because of its debts; an old amount will come due next summer. I said that McClatchy News, which bought Knight Ridder in 2006, had lost 80 percent of its book value, also in June. Now the figure is up to 90 percent. As to the Washington Post, it has lost 40 percent of its value over the last two years.
In June, also, the World Association of Newspapers held a conference in which participants said that the newspaper was on its way to extinction, like the dinosaur, the dodo, and the Palestinian issue - actually, any Arab issue.
Up to now, we have been talking about a newspaper that is bought by a reader, or subscribed to and delivered to one's front door in the morning. However, other media will continue to prosper. Television is the king of media and the Internet is competing against it in the west. Thus, NBC television star Jay Leno will move next year from one program to another, with a new yearly salary of $50 million, or the equivalent of the salaries of all journalists in the same year in any large Arab country. On American TV, I heard that nighttime star Jay Leno says that George Bush is luckier than his father, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and other presidents, because when he said "I don't know," people believed him. This resembles my comment that George W Bush is innocent on the grounds of "No Felonies."
Amid the current press turmoil, or massacre, Abu Dhabi opened a media city in October and announced that it had sold the first spots to CNN, Harper Collins publishers, the BBC, The Financial Times and Thomson Reuters.
These are all big companies; any of them is bigger than all Arab media. Nevertheless, I advise our brethren in Abu Dhabi to ask for cash up front.
I will close with something negative and something positive.
On the negative side, the extremist Likudnik New York Sun closed at the end of September due to the financial crisis. If the Likudniks of New York go bankrupt, what will happen to the rest of us? The positive thing is that we are behind the rest of the world by about a decade, or more, which is why Arab newspapers will survive after the newspapers of the rest of the world disappear.
*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Dec. 15.