The National’s new offices are not a place for hay fever sufferers on the week the Abu Dhabi daily relaunches.
Wellwishers have ben sending their best wishes, the newsroom is full of flowers, and newly announced editor in chief Mina Al-Oraibi’s desk looks like a garden centre checkout.
The offices abut the Park Rotana in the UAE capital’s Twofour54 media freezone. The paper’s new masthead is emblazoned on the side of the building, where the newsroom takes up space that used to be a gym for other tenants.
But the new editor has grand plans for The National.
Al-Oraibi officially took on her role on July 1, although her role has been common knowledge in the market for a while. She has been in Abu Dhabi working on the relaunch since the beginning of March.
For 10 years, from 2005-10, Al-Oraibi was at UK-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat, where she was deputy editor in chief from the end of 2011 until she moved to the US to become a fellow at Yale and then to join the Institute for State Effectiveness in Washington, a non-governmental think tank.
The National was first launched in 2008. It was published by government body Abu Dhabi Media (ADM) until in November its ownership was transferred to International Media Investments (IMI).
IMI is a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC), the private investment firm that partnered with Sky News to launch Sky News Arabia. ADMIC is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, half-brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
The acquisition came amid job cuts and rumoured management struggles within the newspaper.
“On the job losses thing, you can’t shy away from saying ‘I’m going to put together the best team I think is possible under my leadership to take The National to the next level,” says Al-Oraibi. “And yes, I’m sorry, because I appreciate that when somebody loses their job that is a livelihood, that is residency, and it’s other things. I completely don’t want to either shy away from it and not take responsibility for it or say that it’s not significant.”
However, she points out that the new National has retained 75-80 per cent of its old staff. “That does not happen with a whole new company taking over an entity,” she says.
It is difficult to compare staffing numbers between the old and the new Nationals, though, as the ADM paper shared functions such as human resources and IT with the rest of its parent company.
Also, roles at the new National have changed.
“We have had to create departments that didn’t exist for The National previously. We have our own team for that,” says Al-Oraibi. “Also, for example, they had one multimedia editor; we now have four. We created new jobs, but there are other departments we needed less of, and every single person we assessed to see if they had the job skills that would transition. A significant number of people who used to do a certain job are now doing a different job.”
Those who have transferred from ADM to IMI have reported having to renegotiate their packages.
“I would be blind if I said every single person here is happy and they think I did everything right,” says Al-Oraibi. “You have to trust me and see how The National goes, but I think genuinely it has been a positive move. Our offices are beautiful, we have lots of natural light. People are generally positive, and they have been amazing because people have worked really hard.”
The new print product will be leaner than the old. It has only one main section during the week, and two on Fridays. It does not publish on a Saturday.
“We are also very focused on our website and other digital platforms; as we grow them there will be other parts of it,” says Al-Oraibi. “For example, at the moment our website has a UAE homepage and an international homepage, which The National previously didn’t have.”
Of The National’s mission, Al-Oraibi says, “We want to inform, to be a media leader. But also to shape people’s thinking.”
She says: “Comment is very important for us, to bring fresh views and perspectives. … And to be a leader in terms of media outlets here in the region and, hopefully, internationally.”
However, she is keen not to come across as “too grandiose” in this last respect.
“My thing is that I’m the best paper I can be, and I’m the best journalist I can be,” she says. “That’s just my approach, and I think that’s the approach of the staff at The National. We are going to be the best that we can be. What differentiates us is that we are out of Abu Dhabi and we are at the heart of news.”
Although the July roll-out of the redesigned National and the official news of Al-Oraibi’s appointment can’t exactly be called a soft launch, more is coming by the end of the summer.
“September will allow us to take it up to the next gear; if we were in third gear now, we are steady and then we will go up to fifth gear,” she says. “The reason I say that is that there have been so many changes at The National – in terms of my presence, in terms of how we are approaching news, in terms of our focus on regional matters.”
However, much of her day-to-day concerns focus on the nuts and bolts of the newspaper. The content management system has changed, for example, and the newsroom has shifted from using Macs to using PCs. She explains: “It’s pedantic, but it’s important, it’s what people’s lives are made of. We’ve changed every system that they use. We’ve improved it actually, not changed it but improved it, and people appreciate the improvement. But it’s changed, so there’s a lot to take on. We want to be really comfortable where we are, and then we take it to the next level.”
There have been teething problems. The new-look website has had its glitches, with The National’s archive of articles returning errors when users try to read them. The day before Campaign meets Al-Oraibi, The National has launched a new podcast. “It’s out,” she says. “But, again, nuts and bolts. It’s on AudioBoom, but we are waiting for iTunes to kick in today or tomorrow. So again it’s one of those things where, again, its’ small-picture. I want to talk about the big picture, but our lives are engrossed in small-picture stuff.”
The relaunch makes the paper feel like a start-up, she says. And some hiccups are to be expected. She says: “It’s one of those things where there is no way we’d know until we launch. So we try to make it as perfect as it can be. I’ve been in newspapers where they’ve had new systems, new websites, other things. There are problems; these happen. They are teething problems, but they are not even problems. It’s like you expect them to come out. There are bugs in the system.”
By September we should know not only who the new CEO of IMI will be but also who the editorial advisory panel will be for The National. “I don’t answer to them, but I take their advice and they take it seriously,” says Al-Oraibi. The advisory committee will consist of both Emirati and non-Emirati experts, and is likely to include The National’s original editor, Martin Newland, who has been “really helpful” as Al-Oraibi re-establishes the newspaper he set up a decade ago.
Government-owned news brands don’t necessarily have to make money. The soft power they afford the state is reward in itself. And the same often goes for privately owned papers, especially when the owner is so closely related to the country’s leadership.
But Al-Oraibi says there is a timescale in place for making The National profitable. Two timescales, actually.
“There’s my timescale and there’s the company’s timescale,” she says. “Mine is longer. It is longer partly because I think we will get much more interest for digital advertising. We will get the print advertising and so forth, but I think as we grow digitally, that will also become a strong presence for us.”
At a time when news brands are struggling the world over, The National may yet blossom again.