Here come the deontologists

“The good old-fashioned newspaper” says Maroc Hebdo this week, “on the terrace of a crémerie, between café crème and croissant, is finished. From now on, we must arrive with i-pads under our arms …” and there’s truth in this rather sad comment. For one thing I do find myself arriving most mornings at the Café Fine Brioche under my Rabat office for my coffee clutching my i-pad containing the day’s Guardian, and a weekly – the TLS, the London Review of Books, TelQuel or Maroc Hebdo – with not a real daily newspaper in sight.

So what? Well, the comment comes in the course of an interesting cover story in Maroc Hebdo this week about the press. Newspaper circulation bothers me (as regular readers know) because it is a dipstick in the tank of literacy: I quote from time to time the figure of 300,000 for the combined circulation of all Morocco’s dailies, and compare it querulously to the circulation of Algeria’s Al-Khabar (400,000 plus) or Egypt’s Al-Ahram (over a million). Hebdo‘s story allows a rather deeper and more nuanced look at the press’s problems – and they are no less depressing for being nuanced.

Abdellah Mansour, in Hebdo, describes this primary circulation problem as “le couplet analphabétisme-pouvoir d’achat,” and neither element in the couplet is getting better, at least not fast enough for sales alone to save a Moroccan newspaper. Illiteracy is only a part of the problem. The press is certainly trapped by low circulation: broadly speaking, sales account, at the very most, for 20% of income – but there are sobering figures here which put the particularly dire problems facing Morocco’s press in sharp relief. Fewer than 1% of Moroccans buy a newspaper at all, a total sale of “between 300,000 and 350,000 daily.” This compares with almost a million in Algeria, with its population roughly the same size as Morocco’s, and about 400,000 in Tunisia, population 10,000,000, well under a third of Morocco’s. Thirteen papers are sold in Morocco for every 1,000 Moroccans – the global average is 95 – and in this table Morocco comes 15th in the Arab world, beating only Mauretania, Yemen and Somalia, by a whisker.

Less familiar are some other rankings: 1.7 kg of newsprint consumed annually per Moroccan, against a world average of 20.3 kg (but where, I find myself asking, does the 1.7 kg actually go? Even that is a great deal of print for the average Moroccan who is said, anecdotally, to spend six minutes a year reading one page of print: it must be more like thick cardboard than paper, and at 1.7 kg per page that’s a GSM for wiping dinosaurs’ bottoms with). The Hebdo articles comment not only on Moroccans’ lack of purchasing power but on their expectation, where they do read, of reading free. Sharing and even renting newspapers is common, and in the street-level window of L’Opinion/Al-Massae below my office there is always the day’s edition taped to the back of the glass and attracting casual readers.

But if readers are the core problem (which stands to reason for reading-material), there are others almost as threatening to the newspaper business. Of these the collapse in advertising revenue is the next. In the twelve months between November 2011 and November 2012 total advertising revenues fell by 14.4%. This leaves the newspaper companies caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: minuscule readership income from kiosk and subscription sales; and plummeting advertising revenue. No wonder that 50% of all newspaper companies are in financial difficulty. Finally on the debit side, the three distribution companies, on whose meagre usefulness I commented recently in the context of book distribution, take 40% of cover-price.

It’s a nightmare. And newspapers generally stay alive through another, quite different, mechanism – state subsidy. This amounts, under the current agreement signed a month ago by the Minister of Communication, M Khalfi, and the owners, to MAD 65,000,000. This is just enough to keep most of the papers tenuously afloat, though there have been many closures. But it does create a dependence on government funding which seems less than entirely healthy. And it’s not all that generous: the subsidy represents only about a third of what the industry pays in tax. Newspapers are awfully vulnerable to the concerted withdrawal of advertising, a means of pressure and even quietus, that has been used against papers in the past. But anyway, to be beholden to the Ministry of Communication and the large commercial advertisers for survival will tend to introduce an element of caution: caution which can all too easily lead to blandness and tedium.

This is where Nadia Lamhaidi takes up the baton in the third article of the week’s ‘En Couverture’ special. She places Morocco’s newspaper problems in a global context – the rapid erosion of hard-copy sales by migration to on-line news is almost universal, and papers cutting and closing across the globe – but notes sadly that “many Moroccan papers have in the last few months had to resign themselves to shutting up shop, because in truth they have failed to find a workable business model.” Morocco’s has long been a press of diverse opinions – “as a matter of practice if not of principle” – and this is being rapidly eroded as newspapers close. She makes very clear that Morocco’s press has been amongst the most ‘plural’ in the region, and that this is very much at risk. But she notes too that many too many journalists are betraying professional standards – she uses that wonderfully opaque French word, déontologie, which has no direct English parallel – by failing to check facts and by letting the sloppier standards of Facebook and Twitter pull down the professional practice and ethics of newspaper journalists.

She prescribes a new emphasis on investigative journalism and a return to high standards of professionalism, a “journalisme soigné, où l’on prend le temps du prendre du recul par rapport à l’information, de la verifier, de la recouper. ” This seems rather a thumb-in-the-dyke approach to a much vaster and more intractable problem – after all, this elaborate regime of fact-checking and po-faced press ethics is very much an American phenomenon (and who would read the New York Times for fun?). But then, in England we too are facing up to the excesses of the gutter press with an approach which risks being reassuringly, or alarmingly (selon gout), deontological. In the end, if papers are to be read they have to be interesting, surprising and irreverent.

Just like (and I say this with a sigh of resignation) some of the perfectly ghastly but also perfectly necessary organs of the British press.

*

Meanwhile in TelQuel (you can see I’ve been on a flight this week – to London in fact for a small eye-operation, hence the review of the weeklies) there is a piece about Morocco’s museums and the new Fondation des Musées, headed by Mehdi Qotbi, which is taking over the running of the Ministry of Culture’s 13 museums. First fruit of this, visible to Rabatis, is the newly white-painted shell of the Museum of Modern Art at the top of Avenue Allel ben Abdellah. The ground was broken nine years ago, and for my entire time in Rabat it has been silent, not a workman or a cement bucket in motion – and suddenly it’s all go, with an opening promised by the end of 2013. This is excellent news. So too is the thorough survey of contents that the Fondation is undertaking, the determination to source private sector funding, the search for training for museum staff and the international links. Naturally, most of those links are with French institutions, so I note with discreet and quiet pleasure the role that Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum is playing, with the British Council’s brokerage, in advising Rabat’s Université Mohammed V Agdal on the creation of its own Museum of Natural History.


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