The Importance Of Lebanese Newspapers In Arabic Culture

It is no secret that the printed newspaper industry is facing a crisis. This is due to the fact that people can now get news updates almost instantaneously, thanks to smartphones. As the users migrate online, so do the advertisers. Why advertise in newspapers when specific market segments can be targeted through online advertising?

However, once upon a time, the printed newspaper was the new technology, and it changed the way that people received their news. The content of the early newspapers differed from country to country. In 1785, the founder of The Daily Universal Register, which later became The Times of London, stated that the objective of the newspaper shall be to facilitate trade and commerce between different parts of the community and to record the events of the time.

In the Arab world, the first Arabic newspaper was published on the orders of Napoleon after he conquered Egypt in 1799. Nineteen years later, Mohammed Ali established the first printing press in Egypt. In 1851 the American Protestant Missionaries in Beirut published the first Arabic language magazine. The magazine was concerned with theological, scientific, historical, and geographic studies. In the following year, a group of Arabic and Western scholars in Beirut collaborated to produce a newspaper which was intended to spread scientific knowledge in the Arabic world. However, the first privately owned Arabic newspaper published in an Arabic country was printed when, on the first of January, 1858, Khalil Khoury published the first issue of Hadiqat al-Akhbar (The Garden of News) in Lebanon. Many people followed in the Arabic world, but, for a number of reasons, the Lebanese were at the forefront. Figure 1 shows the number of newspapers published in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arabic countries, up to 1879.

Figure 1 Number of newspapers started in all Arabic countries up to 1879. Credit: Najib A. Mozahem

Unlike newspapers in other parts of the world, the aim of Lebanese newspapers was not just to spread news, but it was to spread knowledge. Around the time of the emergence of the newspaper industry, the country descended into a civil war. The founders of the early newspapers believed that the religious animosity that was brutally displayed during the civil war could be eradicated if people became more educated. The founders believed that the new scientific discoveries taking place in the West could unite the people under the banner of knowledge. Until then, their newspapers were gardens that contained fruits, but unlike the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, readers were invited to have a taste of the fruits, which represented knowledge. This view was reflected in the titles that the founders chose for their newspapers: “Progress,” “Fruits of Knowledge,” “The Gardens,” “The Flower.”

Looking at the contents of the newspapers that were published from 1851 to 1879, it was clear that as time went by, newspapers became more systematic in their coverage. Initially, the amount of space dedicated to each topic varied to a large extent between two successive issues of the same newspaper. Also, the nature of the content varied. A newspaper might dedicate almost half an issue to politics, and in the next issue, it would not include a single political item. As time went on, successive issues of newspapers covered more or less the same topics. In other words, each newspaper started forming its own identity.

An analysis of these emergent identities revealed that there were two general types of newspapers. Newspapers in the first cluster dedicated on average around 78% of their content to scientific topics such as physics, chemistry, math, and history. These newspapers did contain political items, but these, on average, constituted 10% of their content. Newspapers in the second cluster were mostly political in nature, dedicating around 64% of their contents to political issues. The rest were split between economics, social issues, and miscellaneous news items.

When one looks at these early newspapers, the attention of the reader is quickly drawn to the importance of the Arabic language for the founders of these newspapers. Newspapers in both clusters dedicated parts of their issues to Arabic literature, grammar, and poetry. Some of these newspapers also made it a habit to publish, in every single issue, a series of novels translated from English or French.

These findings are described in the article entitled, Category dynamics and cluster spanning during the emergence of the Lebanese newspaper industry (1851–1879), recently published in the journal Heliyon. This work was conducted by Najib A. Mozahem from Rafik Hariri University.

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