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Gulf News and Khaleej Times deserve a fighting chance

How the region's struggling newspapers market might survive

UAE newspapers Reuters/Philip Brown
Newspapers have endured unsustainable losses, especially when the pandemic impacted on their commercial models

When I arrived in the UAE in 2006 to launch a daily newspaper it was like climbing into a boxing ring with the heavyweight champion.

In regional media terms, I was an ageing lightweight: long on experience back in London’s Fleet Street, but lacking the reach, power and punch in the Middle East to slug it out with Gulf News (GN).

GN was then the undisputed champion of the market. My project was the aborted Arabian Business Standard (ABS).

With hindsight it was foolish to think I could take on GN, which was by far the market leader in English. The multi-sectioned, advertising-packed giant was simply a media juggernaut.

So the news this week that GN, along with its local rival Khaleej Times, is to halt weekend print editions has given me occasion to reflect on the changing market for news in the UAE, and indeed the region. It’s been quite a journey.

ABS pretty quickly threw in the towel in the face of official disapproval – I still have some sad dummy copies somewhere – and I moved on to Emirates Business 24/7, a project of the Dubai government which came a cropper as a print product during the global financial crisis, and now survives as the website Emirates 24/7

Then came a long stint at The National of Abu Dhabi, though not as part of the launch team; Arab News of Saudi Arabia, where I played a part in the title’s transformation from being the ‘green truth’ to the ‘voice of a changing region’; and now the online-only Arabian Gulf Business Insight (AGBI).

I must stress that, despite my resentful feelings in 2006, I take no satisfaction from the relative decline of GN.

Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been fascinated by printed newspapers, the ‘daily miracle’ that arrives on your breakfast table with all the news in the world spread out before you.

As a confirmed ‘inkie’, I regret the decline of any print product. I even shed a little tear when the News of the World closed in the UK in 2011.

GN executives have made clear that the move to axe their weekend edition has been driven by market forces: changing consumer preferences, a steep rise in costs, and (of course) the rise of online publication, which has driven advertisers away from print and into digital ads.

All this has added up to unsustainable losses, especially when the pandemic has had such a huge impact on their commercial models.

But it strikes me that newspapers have never been properly priced in the UAE. For years the price was set by the authorities at AED2 ($0.54). Yesterday I bought copies of Gulf News, The National and Khaleej Times for a grand total of AED13.4 ($3.60).

When a cup of Starbucks coffee is around AED15 ($4), this is ridiculously cheap, and especially in comparison to international media titles. FT Weekend costs AED34 ($9), for example, and sells out in my local Spinneys.

This failure to reflect the cost of news in cover prices did not matter when advertising revenue was going through the roof. Right up until the Dubai property crash of 2009, GN was able to run sections devoted to real estate, jobs, motoring and other money-spinning areas, plastered with display advertising.

Since that crash, the print revenue stream has largely disappeared, to be replaced by cheaper digital advertising. And we all know about the pernicious effect the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have had on traditional advertising models.

Why has the region continued to sell its product on the cheap? This is where it gets tricky.

Consumers (in this case, readers) will pay for quality. Perhaps they never saw the quality proposition in regional media, and were therefore reluctant to part with more than a few dirhams for the product?

Wiser heads than mine have tried to tackle this perceived ‘quality gap’ in regional print media.

For example, both The National and Arab News have invested significantly to bring their titles up to international standards. Both also have financial backing from two of the best-resourced organisations in the world in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

GN, owned by private-sector entities, never had this luxury, and was forced to struggle with the commercial rules of a rapidly changing media market.

In fact, I’m surprised both GN and KT have taken such limited action to stem the financial tide. The problems at both have been apparent for some time, and you would have thought more drastic measures were required.

For what it’s worth, here is my suggestion: officially merge the two titles, publish them online only during the week, but with a high-quality weekend print product taking in the best of the weekday output.

That, with some much-needed investment in editorial, would give them a fighting chance in the media ring.

But what do I know about boxing?

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