Bikram Vohra has been editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Bahrain Tribune, Emirates Evening Post and helped in setting up Gulf Today
The UAE’s English language newspapers have failed to invest in quality journalism and are ill-prepared for the looming world of multiple apps, argues Bikram Vohra
“The former CEO of Rolls-Royce was once interviewed by a reporter from a local English daily. Sir Ralph Robbins clutched desperately at his slipping smile when he was asked if he was considering making a new model of the Silver Sprite. He gracefully explained that his company was making power plants and working on the Trent series of engines. The reporter responded: “So is that an advanced version of the Rolls and do you have a picture?”
Not much has changed where content and expertise are concerned. While the English language newspapers hurtle towards new technologies and designs and probably trump the rest of the world on how their papers ‘look and feel’, that tactile affection has not been transferred to the written word. Investment in good writers or specialists has not kept pace with money spent on shiny newsprint and awesome photo reproduction.
The stable of writers in the current battalion of papers have few thoroughbreds and good writing is still largely imported. The occasional high- profile journalist doesn’t stay long enough to make a lasting impression, so easily is he defeated by the demanded standard, or absence of it. There are not enough staff analysts who can take an issue and dissect it in the vital and relevant fields of economics, banking, aviation, oil and gas, education, technology, sport and UAE-centric arts and culture. Syndicates from abroad and other sundry arrangements still rule.
Honey, I’ve shrunk the paper
If the Gulf News did not set the virtues of its newly shrunken edition to shrill music and just let it be, the already impressive lead it has over the rest of the field would lengthen even further. By dinning into its readers’ heads the extravagant miracle of becoming a Berliner, it gives rise to the generous suspicion that something is out of sync. In a lifestyle where largest, tallest, biggest are labels of achievement, going the other way is a calculated risk. But when the competition is so far behind, there is no need for such stridency in the advocacy of that move. Let it go, it will work, the paper gives so much for so little the sizing becomes secondary.
Waiting for the kiss
The Khaleej Times, meanwhile, chugs along its circular track, happily disbelieving that its rich history and its regal position as number one for many years has been so totally usurped. It is now consigned to a lily pad outside the palace walls, waiting for the magic kiss that will transform it back to the prince it once was. Not likely to happen. KT, as she has been fondly called, is now an accountant’s newspaper where the members of the fourth estate are merely tolerated as an inconvenience taking up a very large space that could be used for so many more lucrative exercises. If they could be dispensed with entirely the number crunchers would be delighted. Seldom has an editorial team been held in such lofty contempt as the KT team is, and more’s the pity.
The National, as everyone agrees, is the paper with pedigree. By far the best layouts, the best local photography, and undoubtedly way ahead in the realm of using the Queen’s English correctly (no true facts and total annihilations) the paper is praised by intellectuals and wannabes with equal enthusiasm. And yet, in a quirky paradox, it has not swamped the market. No one quite understands why. By now The National should have been thundering down the straight instead of confusing its supporters by its blurred positioning. Perhaps the best argument is that it intimidates the average reader, who sees it as aspirational but won’t buy it because part of them is afraid of being caught out as unworthy. Upmarket can have a downtown twist to it. Like with a Great Dane, better to pet it from afar. Perhaps The National should stop worrying about nationalities, not change its target audience sporadically between Emiratis and Westerners and Asians and arbitrarily categorise newspaper buyers. It deserves far more a share of the market. What it has not yet grasped is that mystique called rapport between product, writer and reader.
Hanging in there despite…
Gulf Today just is. And has been alive for nearly 15 years, defying every single sliver of logic. By rights it should have kicked up its legs and gone belly up 14 years ago. But it hasn’t. Not only does it come out every morning, but is very much like the bumble bee who defies the laws of aeronautical science and, despite its stubby wings, flies – and makes a little honey too. This paper inundates airport lounges, hotel rooms and restaurants and is, ironically, the primary newspaper introduction for the visitor to our shores. It also makes no pretense of saving the world and settles for coverage and photo ops of an eclectic middle class community and its questionably dreary events, thereby earning itself much goodwill in the bargain. If it spruced up its image and sprayed away the stench of failure with some investment in talent it could close the distance effectively.
From the penalty spot
The one that has defied the gloom merchants is Sport360. It had no business surviving. All the mandarins of media had killed it before it began. But it is there, in your face, clean, neat, strong, promising the latest coverage of major events, enjoying a niche profile that nobody dislikes, for to not like it is to not like sport. And that is a ridiculous premise. The hard part is over and the scoreline shows that nothing is impossible if you have the moxie to go for it and the gravel in the gut to believe in what you are doing.
Phantoms of this opera
As for 7Days, I am thoroughly convinced it is a lab experiment run by robots. It is like who are these people, where is their office, are they real or just phantoms in a phantom editorial office scribbling phantom stories pulled from the ether? Because never has a news team been so unknown. Have you ever met someone who says they are from 7Days?
All these papers have one thing in common. It is actually a diabolical bond, a Bouncing Betty that could hurt them three feet up when it goes off. And it will go off. They are unready for the sudden shift to multiple apps platforms. It will happen overnight, striding in dramatically and, like the DVD did to the VCR, taking over so completely and ruthlessly that it will leave the industry gasping. Advertising will shift in one big iceberg-like split and the lemming effect will then take over as the bits and pieces follow.
In one fell swoop the fad will become a fact. There will be a stampede for the e-paper that already has its ducks in a row. At present it’s more a coconut shy with the masquerade limited to replicating the printed pages or simply flinging in random updates. Unless you move from news to views and have the skill and wherewithal to do that there could be a sixth horseman in the wings, straining at the bit. Bet on it.”