How can UAE newspapers save themselves?

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Eleanor Dickinson asks how the country’s newspapers can reawaken client interest, following a year of plummeting adspend, lay-offs and now  closures

UAE newspapers have been crying out for help since the beginning of this year, but recent events suggests pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

The news of 7DAYS’ closure sent shockwaves throughout the journalism and media community, but the writing on the wall has been apparent for several months now.

Last month, long-running daily Khaleej Times axed up to 30 members of its workforce as part of a brutal restructure.

Elsewhere, The National announced its acquisition by International Media Investments from its current owner, Abu Dhabi Media.

Earlier this year ZenithOptimedia predicted that newspaper adspend would fall by a third in 2016, and these recent shifts make it evident that UAE titles need to evolve their business models before more follow 7DAYS.

The most obvious answer to this is for news outlets to offer a first-class digital product that is both user- and mobile-friendly, something titles in the UAE have been slow to adopt until recent years. However, the client interest is there, as Gopal Sudhakaran, media and marketing communications manager at Grand Stores, explains: “With newspaper advertising, you are shooting the same message to mass audience, while with digital marketing you have total control in terms of choosing your audience, timing the frequency of exposure, altering the content and measuring the feedback. That too at a cost that is only one quarter of print advertising. [Online ads] are cost-effective compared with print, and the flexibility and measurability offered are much more helpful for marketing professionals.”

At a quarter of costs, an online ad barely scrapes what a newspaper could gain from its printed counterpart. And whereas in previous years newspapers were just competing with each other, they are now up against digital juggernauts Facebook and Google, which are predicted to take 75 per cent of all digital spend next year, according to Campaign UK.

Furthermore, as any reputable news outlet and media agency knows today, a poor, intrusive banner ad will do a website more harm than good, and easily takes the blame for the proliferation of ad-blocking technology.

In light of all these huge challenges, it’s perhaps not surprising that 7DAYS Media CEO Mark Rix said that the company had found it impossible to create “an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business”.

But, newspaper owners should not lose hope – and neither should they give up investing in their digital offerings, believes Saleh Ghazal, business unit director at OMD UAE. And some are already pressing ahead.

He says: “Not only have newspapers [in the UAE] established digital foundations, but in fact, some [are innovating], such as Al Ittihad, which launched the first Apple watch app in the Middle East in 2015, as well as Sport360 which embedded Augmented Reality into its offerings becoming the first to introduce such a tool for print readers. This shows that some newspapers are trying new methods to better reach and engage with their audience, but in my opinion this is not enough to cut through.”

As well as attracting more advertisers, another obvious option for UAE newspapers to generate revenue is to follow the example of The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and introduce a pay wall, but a recent spate of layoffs at the latter two show this is far from a bulletproof solution.

“Newspapers in the UAE should continue to find new alternatives to sustain their business model. Digital subscription is one route but it should not be the only one,” says Ghazal.

“The most obvious, yet not capitalised on, method, is investing in content. Newspapers should focus on creating unique content and selling it not necessarily on newspapers only, but also on TV and other video platforms. Economic columnists, for instance, can develop fast- paced vignettes
or even produce a six-part documentary covering a year in the economy, and monetise them accordingly.”

Content marketing is another area for monetisation, says Antoine Challita, regional business director, at UM MENA. But the best results will come from a more “aligned” business model throughout the news companies themselves.

“News publishers struggle if they rely on their mass approach to market, get carried away with their fixed-cost structure, get stuck in selling physical newspapers and ads and/or distort their focus to creating random revenue streams that might not be sustainable or relevant to their core business,”
he says. “This is versus accessing a more targeted segment, digitising their product, adapting their capital structure, and ensuring that their corporate, marketing, finance, and operations strategies are aligned and working to the same effect.”

He adds: “There is hope. There is no contesting that the news and content that newspapers deliver has quality that could be appealing to consumers; what really is contested nowadays is how they can make it available and whether they have evolved to adjust their model with current technology to reap the productivity and the benefit of quick information access.”

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