If you thought being a publisher was tough in the US or Europe, then try life in the Gulf. Over the past couple of weeks the Editor-in-Chief of the largest English newspaper in the Gulf, the Gulf News, has written two op-eds lambasting the likes of Facebook and Google for essentially taking advertising revenues away from the local papers whilst offering little news in return. Entitled “Stop the local media from bleeding”, Abdul Hamid Ahmad’s first piece spoke of the need to help newspapers from going under due to a decline in ad revenues. In his own words:
In these tough times and the rough waters that all media are treading through — be it the print, online, television and radio — something has to be done to save and secure the future of these media houses.
Here I mean the local media — the one that have grown with the country for the past four decades and established publication houses. They are a part of the UAE’s legacy; they are a part of the fabric of society.
Here in the UAE, we have several titles in Arabic and English – some are owned by the government and others by the private sector.
Most of these are newspapers that have online editions – the online editions being extensions of the print publications.
But looking at them over the past three years makes me feel very sorry and sad.
I am talking about the fact that they are being dried up financially and forced to near closure.
I have been in the business of journalism for more than 35 years now. I have grown from a reporter to copy editor to section head, managing editor to Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director. I have never seen our media in such a miserable situation as today.
Gulf News’ Abdul Hamid followed up this piece with a second a week later, calling for a levy on online ad platforms which could be used to support local media.
I wonder how much Google, Facebook, Amazon and other global titans pay for licence fees in the UAE?
I assume they pay a similar amount like other companies despite the revenue they make from the market…
Amazon pays a similar amount to the grocery next door. And Facebook pays a similar amount to a barber shop in Satwa…
First, we must implement some of the steps that countries such as France have taken — reduce taxes on local media outlets and raise fees payable by these giants that is equal to their stature.
Their giant status and businesses must attract taxes that are commensurate with their size and volume of trade.
Second, governments can step in and support national media in difficult times such as now and help them survive.
This can be done either through direct financing by the government or by instructing big local companies — governmental or semi-governmental — to advertise in local media, instead of changing their structure of payments and giving these giants big money and leaving only a few pennies for local media.
Priority on ad spending should be on the national media and not on international media.
Other steps could also include exempting local media from some taxes.
In fact, in doing this, it will not just benefit newspapers and news organisations, but it will be in favour of national interest and sovereignty.
Because if we do not have our own media, we will not have our own voice when we need it. National media is needed as a matter of national security.
It preserves our identity and social and cultural values — hallmarks of a vibrant society.
Others have joined in, calling for more support for local publishers (have a read of this piece by Aby Sam Thomas, Editor-In-Chief at Entrepreneur Middle East, as well as this piece in the Saudi-based English-language daily Arab News).
On a recent trip to Saudi, the pressures on the local print media were openly talked about. Some journalists spoke of fewer print staff, others that the government would have to step in and subsidize the newspaper industry.
Supporting Local Media
The Gulf’s media isn’t unique in this challenge. Newspapers have been going out of print for years, particularly in places such as the United States; almost 500 newspapers were shut down in the US between 1970 and 2016. Advertising, the main source of revenue, is drying up, and newspaper circulations are dropping. Digital news sites aren’t making up for the shortfall in revenues either.
So, what’s the answer? More and more publications are charging their readers for accessing content. This is a brave decision, especially in a time when the media has become commoditized and services such as Google News offer up the same story.
Charging for content requires publishers to invest in their media staff and produce unique journalism that readers are interested in. This is another challenge that the Gulf’s newspapers will need to face up to. Most of the newspapers are government owned, and they cascade news down from officials to the public. Newspaper management across the Gulf are going to have to start producing content that readers are interested in, as it’s going to be the readers who will pay for that content.
Then, there’s the question of advertisers. Advertisers have shifted online for logical reasons. Online gives them reach at rates that make sense. Online advertising is real-time, the return-on-investment can be more easily measured, and it allows for a simpler path to purchase.
Newspapers such as the Guardian have been quick to adapt themselves to the needs of advertisers, blending trust in their reporting with the requirements of advertisers, to come up with new mediums such as native advertising. If newspapers are to win back advertisers, they’ve got to look to new advertising solutions that readers will also be interested in (if anyone wants ideas, they could have a look at what the New York Times is up to).
An Online Ad Tax?
I doubt that the governments in the region are going to step up and start levying fees on the likes of Facebook and Google, especially when they’re lobbying for these firms to invest more locally to help develop the local tech sector (the operations of these firms are primarily sales).
To date, the only major publication to close down in the UAE was 7Days, which was a privately-owned paper that pushed the boundaries of reporting on more than one occasion. Other privately-held news formats have also struggled, with the owners of the Doha News having to sell their site due to reporting restrictions.
What I have no doubt of is that there’s nowhere near enough investment in journalism, particularly reporting that readers want to see. Consolidation in the industry is inevitable, and it’ll only happen sooner if the media industry isn’t willing to adapt and change. And that will be a loss for us all, particularly for those working in public relations and communications. For me and for anyone who understands communications, print media still matters.