Why Gulf News is going behind a paywall

Launching a digital subscription is not a trend but reality media houses must accept, says Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Gulf News CEO, editor-in-chief and executive director of publishing.

Launching a digital subscription is not a trend but reality media houses must accept. Gulf News will soon innovate again and launch an online paid subscription model.

Major news websites the world-over charge for their content as the advertisement-based model is no longer viable. The international publishing industry has been faced with increasing costs and has seen dwindling ad revenue. News websites have had to change strategy and adopt subscription models that suit their businesses.

Gulf News, being a market leader in the region, has decided to launch a digital subscription. Gulf News CEO, editor-in-chief and executive director of publishing, Abdul Hamid Ahmad, elaborates on the decision in an interview. He explains what it means for the business, the media in the country and the impact of being the first in the regional market to take this step.

Q: Why has Gulf News decided to go behind a paywall? And why now?

The decision to go behind a paywall and to charge for our online content was taken a while ago. It is no longer possible for us or for that matter any other news organisation to carry on offering their content for free, while we witness, regionally and globally, an increasing decline in revenues coming in from advertising.

Yes, it would be possible, if the publishing house is supported by the government or by external revenue streams. Without that financial support, nobody can continue without going behind a paywall.

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This is not a mere trend but a reality that media houses have to accept and are forced to comply with.

As a leading news organisation for the past 42 years, Gulf News has always sold content through its print editions. And we continue to do so.

We were offering our high-quality content online for free for the longest time, when the print revenue gave us the freedom to do so. But, that is on the decline, as can be seen the world over. This is the prime reason that publishing houses across Asia, Europe and the US are all either launching online subscriptions or have already done so.

As the new challenge of the coronavirus pandemic arrived, we found that innovation was the only way forward. We had to change, adapt and speed up our plans for the subscription process.

Q: Subscription means the reader will expect value in return – so, what does this decision mean for him or her?

When it comes to readers there are a few key factors that will define your success as a media house, top among them remains content. This is why we always say, ‘content is king’. As we competed for years with our print editions and always stayed number one when it came to readership, credibility and quality of content, similarly we have, over the past few years provided our online readers with news that is first to market complemented by in-depth multi-media coverage and information-packed stories which go beyond the news.

We know for a fact that our readers appreciate and like it. The evidence of that is our growing traffic – month after month, day after day,

Our page views now average 230 million and unique visitors 15 million, monthly. We find that we have what you call ‘sticky online readers’, people we are proud to call our loyal Gulf News readers.

I understand that these facts alone are not justification for us to go behind a paywall and charge the reader because when he or she comes online, they need to see something unique, something that gives them even higher value for their money. And that’s what we are doing by adding extra content, which is highly relevant and will be a must-read for any subscriber in the UAE and beyond.

All this newly added niche content will continue to be based on the same ethics of journalism that we have believed in and always followed as journalists – fact-checked, verified, credible and easy to read. Essentially, we are continuing with our tradition of quality journalism.

Q: What are your expectations as a news organisation from this decision?

We can’t state our expectations now, because these are uncharted waters. A new frontier – as this is the first time ever in the region, wherein a big newspaper like Gulf News has opted to go behind a paywall. But, we are confident that, as always, we will learn from this, as we have learned previously when achieving market leadership. We will learn and build on it for the future.

And I am sure that other media houses will follow suit, if they have to survive, unless, of course, they are supported by external entities.

It’s a turning point for our business and we understand from others, globally, that it will take time to reach our goals but there is no other option but to go for an online subscription. This is true, especially because of media giants such as Google and Facebook, who are eating into our revenue streams while cannibalising our content.

Q: What does this move by Gulf News mean for the sales and advertising industry, and what will be its impact on media in the country?

When it comes to paid content, the sales and advertising industry is always sceptical. In fact, we have seen that despite incredibly high digital traffic, the commensurate revenue has not come in, it has not helped. And this is having an impact on the quality of advertising too. But, I have a positive market outlook when it comes to the paywall, it will work well. Once you have paid subscribers, it will mean a targeted market that advertisers can optimise and utilise more effectively.

As for the media in the country, this is a giant step. Gulf News has always been a leader and driving changes in the media industry within the country through history, by introducing or taking several first steps such as launching the tabloid newspaper format to evolving into the Berliner, and from glossy to full-colour pages. Now we are stepping into a new era of the digital world, where we are leading – we have an engaged social media audience of over 5.4 million.

Q: What can users expect in terms of subscription price and payment options?

We have studied our market carefully and the profile of our readers. We have also taken into account the fact that the pandemic has affected people’s finances. We care for our readers and hence will have very affordable pricing. There will be excellent discounts for those who register with us early, before we go behind a paywall soon.

This pricing, I reiterate, is unmatchable, which will encourage our readers to go for the subscription. Exactly what we have done with our discounted annual print subscription of Dh350, slashed from the previous Dh500. We feel that our prices are in sync with the ground reality of people’s lives.