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Washington Post problems are a straw in the wind for Gulf media

Print is dead or dying – but what will replace it and make money?

Men in Amman, Jordan reading a newspaper. Publications are under financial pressure in the absence of a big subsidising owner Alamy via Reuters
Men in Amman, Jordan reading a newspaper. Publications are under financial pressure in the absence of a big subsidising owner

One small regret about my 40 years in journalism is that I never worked in the USA, and more specifically in New York or one of the other big American media hubs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, New York City was the financial and media centre of the universe. I imagine myself as a business version of fictional British expat journalist Peter Fallow, the washed-up former Fleet Street hack who finds redemption and fame – and marries the boss’s daughter – in Manhattan, in Tom Wolfe’s marvellous novel Bonfire of the Vanities.

Maybe it’s not too late, because there has been a recent invasion of UK media folk into the US that makes Fallow just a distant outlier.

Now, hallowed icons of American media such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, CNN and Associated Press have been or currently are being led by former hacks who learned their trade on the “Street of Shame” – Fleet Street, the generic handle for what was once the UK media industry. Like I did.

All have been brought in to manage the traditional US media’s decline. In an era of instant internet news, global TV coverage, social media and “citizen journalism”, and now artificial intelligence, the tired old daily print product has seldom looked less appealing – to readers and to the proprietors who foot the hefty losses print incurs.

All these issues are challenges for newspapers in the Arabian Gulf – more of which later.

Of the traditional US print products above, only the WSJ has consistently made money since it was bought by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2007. The New York Times – under Mark Thompson – has successfully turned around a loss-making print product into a highly profitable multimedia offering, attracting revenue from subscribers, advertising and sponsorship.

In this, it was helped hugely by the “Trump bump” – the big rise in online readership during Donald Trump’s presidency of 2016-2020, when the “gray lady” was the focus of opposition to the White House.

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, there is a simmering resentment at the influx of all these Brits. Americans hold their media in special regard because of the First Amendment, it is said, and regard British journalism as vulgar and sensationalised.

They have a point, it must be said. The UK media is also struggling with the transition away from print. Daily titles are being closed or otherwise “rationalised” on a regular basis, most recently London’s Evening Standard.

This resentment has reached a head in the case of Sir Will Lewis, appointed last year by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon owner, as publisher and chief executive of the Washington Post.

Lewis, who I knew reasonably well in Street of Shame days, was given a mandate to turn round the Post, and has come up with a triple newsroom idea – news, opinion and social media – to accomplish this.

Few would doubt the newspaper needed some radical treatment. But what has angered the journalists and editors in DC is the idea that their work is to blame for the title’s decline.

That, and the increasingly shrill claims that Lewis’s past track record makes him unsuitable for such an august role at the Post.

The Arabian Gulf has the same problem: how to monetise content in the digital age

His detractors point to his role as a defender of Rupert Murdoch in the phone hacking scandal that is still reverberating around the UK media, and more recently allegations that he was personally involved in the process of publishing news obtained by illicit methods.

By US standards this means he “acted unethically”, according to US media commentators.

I can make no judgment on these claims – which Lewis denies – but can confirm that UK and US news gathering standards are very different.

The Sunday Times Insight investigations unit, of which I was editor in the mid-1990s – pre-hacking era, I must stress – got up to all sorts of things in pursuit of a good story. But I’m taking the Fifth.

Although a smaller stage than the US media mega hubs, the Arabian Gulf – where a fair number of Fleet Steet exiles are employed – is also wrestling with these same issues: how to monetise the valuable content of regional publications in the digital age.

Print editions have been pared to the bone, some have closed or reduced print frequency. All are under financial pressure in the absence of a big subsidising owner.

My personal view is that – regrettably – print is dead as a daily conduit for news that people are willing to pay for. The marginal marketing benefits of print products – copies lying around in hotel lobbies, for example – are outweighed by the cost.

Weekly or monthly print editions of high quality and design, with some unique editorial content, might still be financially viable as an adjunct to an everyday online operation, like the Economist or Spectator of the UK.

How Lewis fares at the Post – hacking allegations aside – could well be a straw in the wind for global media.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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