Kuwait Press: the crossing of an editorial red line
Posted on January 02, 2019 | By Iain Akerman

Newspapers in Kuwait have joined forces to deny editorial coverage to companies that do not advertise. Has a dangerous precedent been set?

A potentially self-destructive experiment is taking place in Kuwait. In an act of unison, the newspapers Al Qabas, Al Rai, Al Seyassah, Al-Anba and Al-Jarida have agreed to no longer publish non-advertisers’ corporate news. That means the volume of editorial for any company or organisation will be measured by the volume of their advertising, with the publishing of information supplied by non-advertisers under strict control.

While many publishers across the GCC may have informally, or secretly, adopted such measures in light of dwindling revenue, it is the first time that such a decision has been formalised by a country’s leading newspapers.  

   In the past, any decision to publish corporate news was based on the discretion of editorial teams. Now “that decision might be purely based on client spends,” says Elie Farah, business director at Views Carat in Kuwait. “We now expect to see full co-ordination between editorial and advertising departments on the PR of all commercial companies. No advertising spend, no editorial coverage.”

The decision impacts company editorial only and is separated from the wider economic, social and political news affecting Kuwait. It is, says Farah, therefore “a reaction to the current print advertising market” rather than an affront to newspaper ethics.

“We now expect to see full co-ordination between editorial and advertising departments on the PR of all commercial companies. No advertising spend, no editorial coverage.”Elie Farah, business director at Views Carat in Kuwait

“If a client (commercial company) is not an advertiser, none of their editorial will be published,” says Farah. “We will be working with our clients and suppliers to ensure their relationships continue to be of mutual benefit, but unfortunately, in Kuwait at least, the decision has been taken that print can no longer sustain itself without changing its business model.”

    All of which, in theory at least, makes sense given the decline of newspapers and the financial impact the digital revolution has had on the industry. In Kuwait, newspaper adspend fell from $135 million in 2014 to $48 million in 2017, according to Zenith. It is expected to drop to $24 million this year. The result has been redundancies and closures. 

“It is an attempt to re-gain part of the lost income of advertising,” says Farah. “One newspaper mentioned a particular case of a major commercial company committing to re-allocate newspaper ad budget after the newspapers stopped publishing its editorials. That particular advertiser reconsidered to spend in these newspapers. Some advertisers allocate a minimal diplomatic budget for leading newspapers in order to secure release of their advertorials.” 

   Nevertheless, journalistically the decision can be viewed with considerable concern. The separation of editorial and advertising is one of the core tenets of journalism, with editorial independence sacrosanct. Even if the move only impacts corporate news, a line has been crossed.

“The moment a newspaper or magazine has a tectonic shift in its priorities and makes editorial subservient to marketing and sales and allows the lines between editorial and advertising to be blurred and made indistinct, then the right to call its staff journalists is up for grabs,” says Bikram Vohra, a columnist and former editor of Gulf News and Khaleej Times. “Just get technicians or men and women in ticky-tacky ties and suits and arm them with buzzwords.

“The moment a newspaper or magazine has a tectonic shift in its priorities and makes editorial subservient to marketing and sales and allows the lines between editorial and advertising to be blurred and made indistinct, then the right to call its staff journalists is up for grabs.”--Bikram Vohra, a columnist and former editor of Gulf News and Khaleej Times

“The new approach that seems to be gathering traction is charging for publicity and equating PR with news. If you begin measuring volume of space given with the volume of revenue that any entity earmarks for that space it defeats the very purpose of journalism. This is not just biting into the fruit of the poisonous tree, this is the poisoning of the whole fourth estate. The more money someone has the more they control the editorial space. [Which] says very little for any publication’s sanctity and even less for editorial credibility.
“It might work for a while but it is a slippery slope and slopes are downhill. While it might give the illusion of a healthier earning power it will not last because its premise is false. And it blatantly cheats the end user – the reader – because it has taken a u-turn from its promise to seek, to strive and not to yield.”

   For Vohra, even the attainment of profit by such a route is suspect. A publishing house will require more accounts staff as it converts news into some sort of classifieds section, while advertisers will not increase their budget but simply give part of it to buying space. “By the same token, if a company can get 500 words on a new product published with a suitable picture, why place an ad at all?” he says. “By turning the publication into an advertorial vehicle the rate of profit will gradually deflate.

“One understands that times are tough and that advertising budgets are on a harsh diet. But content is still king and the moment news is judged not by merit but by the bottom line it is selling the publication down the river. You are bought and paid for. In adversity you do not spurn your raison d’être, you embrace it.”