The news, last week, that Al-Hayat newspaper had ceased publication of its print edition in the UK, Egypt and Lebanon took many of its followers by surprise.
A statement on its website reassured readers that they would still be able to “access a PDF version of the newspaper by clicking on the special icon on our website”.
On 2 April, Al-Hayat reported on its front page that members of the Dar Al-Hayat board of directors met in late March to discuss developments in the audio-visual media and journalistic industries that have led to a decline in advertising revenues and a shift from print to digital publications.
The meeting concluded with the decision to halt publication of the print edition. It was stressed that this measure was taken in the framework of the restructuring policy adopted by the board of directors which calls for the closure of the newspaper’s bureaus in Beirut and London.
The fate of the Cairo bureau has yet to be determined.
The restructuring process will “unite all efforts in a single newsroom, the Dar Al-Hayat office in Dubai,” the Dar Al-Hayat statement said, adding: “We are currently combining human and financial resources to provide the high-quality content that is the mark of the company’s publications.”
The Arabic language newspaper Al-Hayat was founded in Lebanon in 1946 by Kamel Mrowa. In 1990, Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan bought the newspaper with a 30-year usufructuary licence. It was not until 1996 that circulation of the newspaper was permitted in Saudi Arabia.
Known for its liberal editorial policy and high-quality reporting, Al-Hayat, which means “life” in English, grew into one of the most eminent and respected Arabic language newspapers in the Arab region and abroad.
Such qualities, together with its considerable resources, enabled it to attract many of the most eminent reporters and commentators in politics, economics and culture.
Such was the influence that the newspaper acquired that it contributed to shaping political decision-making in the Arab region.
Therefore, the decision to halt its print edition and close some of its offices not only stirred speculation over the future of the printed press around the world, it also raised the question as to whether there was a connection between this decision and the sweeping political changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia since the rise of Prince Mohamed bin Sultan to the throne.
Sources contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly deny any such connection and insist that the measures are part of a streamlining process that Al-Hayat’s board of directors initiated three years ago.
“Contrary to the impression that some people have, Al-Hayat’s decision to stop the print edition is not surprising at all. It had notified its readers of this intention on several occasions,” Mohamed Ali Farhat, managing editor of Al-Hayat in Beirut, told the Weekly.
He also noted that the print edition is still being published in Saudi Arabia and Dubai where there is good advertisement support compared to other Arab countries.
All major international newspapers had to take the “bitter medicine” of halting print editions and restructuring their offices, and Al-Hayat was no exception, Farhat said.
Still, the newspaper managed to make the PDF version available free-of-charge “out of commitment to its readers who have retained their faith in the newspaper and its content”.
Farhat estimates that the streamlining policies will save Dar Al-Hayat about $2 million a year.
What about the rights of employees?
“The management has been engaged in negotiations with employees for months. It is expected that about 90 per cent of the employees in the Beirut office will be able to carry on, on the basis of temporary contracts in accordance with which employees do not receive social security coverage.
Another group will continue work from their homes and will continue to obtain their regular salaries.”
According to the managing editor of the Beirut office, Al-Hayat management had settled matters with the employees in the London bureau while the question of the fate of the employees of the Cairo bureau has been deferred until the end of August.
In its abovementioned statement, Al-Hayat stressed that “the rights of our employees are guaranteed in accordance with the legal procedures and regulatory systems in effect in each country.”
The director of Al-Hayat’s Cairo bureau, Mohamed Salah, also insists that the decision to halt the print edition “came as no surprise”.
“The office is working at full capacity in spite of the halt of the print edition,” he told the Weekly, adding that he had no information as to whether the Cairo office would continue or would eventually share the fate of its London and Beirut counterparts.
“The Cairo bureau is still performing its duties,” he said. Nevertheless, Al-Hayat was not immune to the “difficult circumstances” affecting the printed press around the world. “We’ve had some financial difficulties which we are sorting out,” he explained.
Two months ago, the newspaper had to cease publication of the Cairo edition for five days. “That had to do with a debt that was settled with Al-Ahram Establishment.
Ultimately, it was the rising cost of paper in Egypt that led to the decision to completely halt the print edition in Cairo as part of the restructuring process and the conversion of Al-Hayat to the system of digital journalism.”
Salah, in his interview with the Weekly, explained that this process had begun two years ago. “A number of steps had preceded the decision to halt the print editions and close the offices in Beirut and London.
The most significant were the plan to develop the website and the launch of ‘Hayat Press’, a service that adapted the newspaper to social networking journalism or citizen journalism, which is to say it enables numerous individuals to contribute to writing and feeding the news through a social networking platform. It is like an interactive news agency and it is part of the single newsroom operated out of Dubai.”
In Salah’s opinion, Al-Hayat is something of a trailblazer. “The process that Al-Hayat has embarked on points the way for the press throughout the Arab world.
The losses that have accrued to the Egyptian printed press in recent years are a sign that it will meet the same fate as the Al-Hayat print editions.
But Al-Hayat, alone, had the courage to announce that it was heading into the future.” That future meant changing the ways in which people read and interact with the news, which requires “expanding into social networking journalism and encouraging readers to interact with the digital press”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Al-Hayat slashes print editions