Face the facts, by MIS Gulf’s Marwan Kai

By Marwan Kai, CEO of Media International Services Gulf.

Think of any big global event of your lifetime and you almost always immediately recall where and when you saw it on TV. For me, as a young man it was the live reports of Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and others as they reported live from Baghdad in 1991. That war was defining for my generation, and it was important for people to see and hear updates of what was happening. We were glued to the screen for days on end as we sought real-time facts and information.

Fast-forward 29 years to another important event in our region and you again see the power of TV but in a different context. This time it was the tragic blast in my hometown of Beirut. Unlike 1991, information was immediate via social media, but it was overwhelming, muddled and shrouded in uncertainty and disinformation. What had happened, and what had been the cause? As news consumers now, we are addicted to our phones, but when something of that magnitude happens you quickly know to turn away from social media and look to trusted news on TV or online to find exactly what I had needed all those years before – facts and information. We are in a different world, of course, with all kinds of access to information, but we still need facts from a source that we can trust.

In a way, these two examples highlight the enduring power of news. A brand like CNN, which I have been proud to work with for nearly 20 years, may not be just TV news anymore, as the networks spreads across linear, on-demand, digital, mobile, social and even audio platforms. But the heritage and the trust that come with a legacy media brand like CNN and others matters. It matters when consumers make their choice of who they turn to when they need facts most.

This trend doesn’t just relate to me but is much broader. The last year has seen record audiences turn to trusted news sources as they tried to make sense of the pandemic and its impact. This is borne out in the data, with the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 finding that trust in media was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms or messaging services when it came to information about Covid-19.

Consequently, credible news sources saw large uplift in ratings and traffic throughout the last year, with US cable news networks dominating the ratings. In our case, CNN was number one in all of cable this January, making it our biggest month on record and including the most-watched day in our history. In digital, comScore showed record audiences across credible sources, but again CNN was the number one global digital news source. These are, of course, historic highs, and ratings do fluctuate, but they illustrate the power of news when it matters most.

The impact of Covid-19 goes well beyond how people choose their news sources. It has dramatically changed how we use technology in our everyday lives and has taken people out of their comfort zones when it comes to experiencing media in new ways. At CNN, downloads of audio content went up over 75 per cent last year and subscription to newsletters was up over 90 per cent as people wanted more personalised news in a way that fitted in with their increased use of other media, such as podcasts.

And the types of stories that people are consuming is changing as well. As the world re-evaluated many long-held norms, people looked for more stories about sustainability, social justice and purpose, and diversity and inclusion. The hunger for this content reflected a desire for wider social change – something that we in the Middle East have seen for some time now amongst our increasingly young and progressive populations.

The world of business has also been re-set. Macroeconomics are changing at a rapid pace and companies that were in start-up or incubator mode 12 months ago are now becoming established household brands. Zoom became a verb as its stock price surged from $67 at the start of 2020 to peak at $559 in October.

This isn’t just a narrative that news organisations are taking note of. The brands and government entities that I work with are tapping into these very same trends as well. As the world opens up in a mid-and (hopefully) post-Covid world, brands want to be where the audience is and businesses want to position themselves at the heart of digital and social transformation. The context of where their messages appear has become even more important.

Many challengers have come on to the news scene over the years, but the last year has proved that while the consumption and distribution of news has changed beyond all recognition since 1991, the values of quality news have not. It is this legacy and commitment to facts first that will ensure the enduring relevance of news to consumers and advertisers however and wherever we choose to experience it.