Saudi Gazette and the end of print for the Gulf’s papers

The Saudi Gazette has been a print paper for four decades. Going forward, the paper will be digital only.

It’s started. The first major paper in the Gulf has shifted to digital only. Last week, the English-language daily Saudi Gazette announced that it’d be printing a paper copy for the last time. You can see the full announcement here. I’m also quoting from the article.


This is the last hard copy of your favorite newspaper.

No, this is not a requiem for Saudi Gazette. We are not saying Adieu.

We are greeting you with “Hello tomorrow!”

This, in fact, is a new dawn for the newspaper.

Change is the law of nature. Those who do not keep pace with change lag behind.

The newspaper industry has also undergone a sea change in recent years. News no longer breaks on the pages of newspapers.

The reading habits of readers have also changed. They scan headlines on the go and read what interests them at the time and place of their convenience.

While journalism will not die, print is definitely in its death throes. Many big banner newspapers have ceased publication.

In the US more than 500 local newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019. In the UK, some 245 newspapers have ceased publication since 2005. In Canada some 27 dailies have stopped printing.

These include big names like The Independent, The News of the World to name a few.

So in keeping with the times, Saudi Gazette too is going totally digital. This will give us a better and faster platform to keep you abreast of the developments taking place around you and around the world.

We are no longer restricted by column length and width. Now the canvas is wide open.

As we focus on digital dissemination of news, we assure you of exclusive quality content.

The references to Western media who have gone online only are, to me at least, misleading. We’re in a different market, where advertisers are spending less online than their counterparts in the UK or the US. Consumers here are increasingly wanting digital offerings, but they’re not paying for these services, unlike papers such as The Times or the Washington Post. And would the region’s readers pay for the content that the local papers are producing?

For the majority of newspaper publishers in the Gulf, print still makes up the majority of their revenues. And print matters as well when it comes to recognition. No self-deserving publisher in the Gulf would forego print if they had the choice (there’s long been talk of that number of UAE-based publications would go digital only).

I wonder who is next. Now that the Saudi Gazette’s publisher Okaz has crossed the Rubicon of announcing that they’re dropping print, who will be the next print to go online only. And what will this mean for their editorial. If a Gulf newspaper can’t make ends meet with a paper edition, there’s no way they can afford the same editorial staff with digital-only sales offerings.

My feeling is that this also reflects the views of certain individuals in government, who want to invest primarily in a single publication as a means to get their message out. While there’s still plenty of money which is being invested in publishing by these individuals, there’s less interest in media plurality. It’s neither helpful to promoting certain narratives, nor is it lucrative.

What does it mean for the PR industry? At its best, more focus on improving online media outlets, including more accurate numbers when it comes to readership and reach. At its worst, it means fewer journalists to work with as online-only publications slim down and focus on translating news from Arabic to English and vice-versa.

I love the Saudi Gazette, and I’ve worked with many of its staff. I hope that they are able to find a way to thrive in this new environment, both editorially and financially. As for the rest of the media industry, expect more digital-only announcements sooner rather than later.

The need for clear communications – Saudi’s drive to balance the books

lazy-saudis

Saudi’s social media scene has been on fire over the past week due to a number of controversial issues regarding government officials. This is a news story from the Times on a comment made by a minister regarding Saudi inefficiency.

This week has been an interesting one for Social Media watchers in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudi nationals have taken part in online campaigns/used popular hashtags relating to three high-level government officials who have either made controversial statements or who have been accused of using their influence on behalf of family members (you can see media coverage on two of the issues from Saudi Gazette here and Arab News here). The campaigns follow a decision a month ago to cut benefits for Saudi government employees. The decree, which was made in light of low oil prices and a rising Saudi budget deficit, is biting hard; this week Reuters reported that the Saudi central bank had asked retail banks to reschedule property loans for those affected by the cuts.

One of the campaigns began after a government document was leaked online, with personal details including name, position and salary. It’s only logical to assume that many government officials in the Kingdom are angry at seeing their pay cheques shrink; they’ll become even more angry when they see what they feel to be others not doing the same. In this environment, it wouldn’t be hard to also imagine officials being able to take a picture via their smartphone of a document which may reveal an embarrassing situation and then sharing it via social media (or, more likely, dark social).

I had the pleasure of listening to a senior Saudi journalist this week. He made a pertinent point when he said, “We can spend billions on consultants. We could have spent millions on a PR agency to convey the message behind the cuts and why they were necessary.”

In times of hardship, good communications becomes even more important. Saudi’s citizens need to understand the logic behind government decisions. They need to feel that they are engaged and are part of the debate. And they need to see government’s leadership doing just that, namely leading by example (as I’ve said before, actions are much more powerful than words in shaping perception).

We may see more issues coming to light in the Kingdom over the coming months, and more skeletons being revealed in government closets. When it comes to the government’s engagement and communication with its people, the transparency, clarity and consistency (or lack of) will either help get many Saudi citizens on board, or it may alienate them further. I for one hope it’s the former, rather than the latter.

 

Arab News, Molouk Ba-Isa, the Axact scandal and how the Arab media lost a world exclusive in 2009

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

Molouk Ba-Isa broke the Axact story five years before the New York Times. And then her story was pulled by the management of Arab News two weeks after it was published (image source: Saudi Gazette)

While there’s plenty of media titles in the Middle East region – by all accounts the Gulf is the one part of the world where print is still making a profit – there’s few occasions I can remember where the region has had a world exclusive.

There’s always an exception to the rule, and unsurprisingly the person who has been in the limelight recently is a Saudi-based journalist called Molouk Ba-Isa. For those who know her, Molouk is a no-nonsense reporter who often tackles items of interest to her readers and who produces original news rather than copying and pasting news releases.

Molouk’s name was mentioned in the New York Times, as the journalist who first broke the Axact fake diploma scandal. To quote from the first piece the New York Times wrote on the story, in which it broke news of the scandal:

Heavy scrutiny by investigators, politicians and the fractious Pakistani media sector has mounted over the past week for Axact, a Karachi-based software company that has made millions selling fake degrees through a sprawling empire of school websites.

Axact, which has its headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, ostensibly operates as a software company. Axact runs hundreds of websites, many of which purport to be online universities and high schools based in the United States.

Axact has thrived for more than a decade on its ability to hide links between its operation in Karachi and hundreds of fictitious online schools, many of them claiming to be American. But more such links are coming to light in the days since The New York Times published a detailed account of the company’s operations.

The Axact story wasn’t broken by the New York Times, but rather by Molouk Ba-Isa, who was writing for the Arab News back in 2009. Again, to quote from the New York Times:

For years, former employees said, Axact’s diploma certificates were shipped to customers across the globe through a courier service in Dubai, to give the impression of being based in that city’s free trade zone. But that facade nearly collapsed in 2009, when a technology journalist from Saudi Arabia started looking more closely.

The journalist, Molouk Ba-Isa, was following up on a report that Rochville University had awarded a master’s in business administration to an American pug named Chester. Although Rochville’s physical location was a mystery, Ms. Ba-Isa learned from a courier company official in Dubai that the degree originated from Axact’s office in Karachi.

But when The Arab News published her report, naming Axact, she said her editors received a strongly worded legal threat from company lawyers, and the article was removed from the Internet. This week, Ms. Ba-Isa said in an email that she felt vindicated.

In her weekly article for the Saudi Gazette, Molouk wrote about her Axact story which was published both in print and, even more importantly for a company which sells degrees via the internet, online.

On October 7, 2009, I received an email from Abdul Karim Khan & Company with a subject line “Cease and Desist.” The email was sent from akkc2005@yahoo.com, copied to legal@axact.com.

Abdul Karim Khan & Company, claimed to be “Advocates, Attorneys and Legal Consultants,” located at Suite No. 1108, 11th Floor, Kashif Centre, Sharah-e-Faisal, Karachi.

The email stated that the lawyers represented Axact (Pvt.) Ltd and they were putting forward a Cease and Desist Letter authored by Fahim ul Karim.

The letter demanded that the article published on October 6 be removed from arabnews.com or prosecution would proceed. Arab News was also included and threatened in the Cease and Desist Letter.

Immediately, I was asked by senior Arab News staff to provide evidence for all allegations in my report. I turned over my notes and the taped interview with Vicky Phillips, the founder of GetEducated.com, whose dog had been awarded the degree.

I provided telephone numbers for the shippers in Dubai and images of the shipping label. Within a week of the first email, the legal documents arrived from Pakistan to Jeddah by courier.

Once the article had been up on the website for two weeks, senior management at the newspaper made the decision to take the report down to stop any lawsuit.

However, no apology was issued and my report was never retracted. I continued to dig for information about Axact’s illegal activities.

While Molouk should be praised for her pioneering work, why didn’t the management at Arab News and its publisher defend her reporting and keep it online? Did they really fear a court case? Do they bear responsibility for those who have been defrauded by Axact in the five years since that initial piece was published by Molouk? And what does this say about investigative journalist in the Middle East?

A global scoop which never was… Molouk, you did a fantastic job. If only our publishers are as brave as our journalists, maybe this piece would have had a different ending. Ultimately, I’ll leave the last word to Molouk.

My thanks go out to all those who have helped to publicize Axact’s alleged malfeasance. Keep up the good work.

The launch of LinkedIn Arabic – Did LinkedIn miss a messaging opportunity?

If you're going to launch in Arabic where would you choose? Dubai or Riyadh? (image source: Reuters)

If you’re going to launch in Arabic where would you choose? Dubai or Riyadh? (image source: Reuters)

I love LinkedIn. It’s possibly my favorite social media network. LinkedIn has transformed how professionals network (and get jobs) online. No recruiter could do without LinkedIn.

The network has grown steadily in the Middle East since it opened up an office in Dubai back in 2012. Over the past three years LinkedIn has grown its user base from five to fourteen million. The UAE is LinkenIn’s largest market with two million users according to The National. The two largest Arabic-speaking markets in the region are Egypt, with a population of just over 82 million, and Saudi.

The Kingdom is, or should be, LinkedIn’s largest potential market. Saudi doesn’t only have a sizable Arabic-speaking population (28 million and counting), but it also has the spending power. Saudi’s gross domestic product for 2013 was just under 750 billion dollars. Saudi is home to some of the region’s largest corporations, as well as a majority of the country under the age of 25. Add to the mix high internet penetration and smartphone usage, Saudi is LinkedIn’s Arabic-language market.

However, when LinkedIn launched its Arabic-language site last week the management team chose Dubai as the preferred location. There was a guest advocate, in the shape of Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. Bizarrely, LinkedIn’s press materials also included a press statement from Saudi’s Minister of Labor, which was carried extensively in the Kingdom’s media (the quote in full is below and is sourced from Saudi Gazette).

Eng. Adel M. Fakeih, Saudi Arabia’s minister of labor, said: “LinkedIn has been working with us to match talent in the Kingdom with the right opportunity, and with Arabic, this benefit can be rolled-out to a much wider member base.

LinkedIn will continue to be a useful tool for us as we use technology to communicate the need for nationals to up-skill themselves and take advantage of the strong economic climate and significant job-creation in the Kingdom.

Being a part of a global network also helps youth identify the key demand areas, and build their qualifications accordingly.”

Would LinkedIn have been better served by launching Arabic in Saudi, rather than in the UAE (where it could be argued that the lingua franca is English). Would this activation have been more in line with the message that LinkedIn was trying to convey, namely that we are now in Arabic and we want Arabic speakers to use our service.

It’s a small observation, but it seems that LinkedIn missed an opportunity to push home a message through a launch that was misaligned with its target audience. Saudi isn’t the easiest country in terms of getting things right on the ground, but if you’re going to do something then, as the saying goes, if it is worth doing then do it right.

And for more details on LinkedIn in the Middle East have a look at the infographics below, which are in English and Arabic.

#Hajjselfie, Whatsapp and smartphones – how is technology changing Islam and Muslims?

We’re a funny bunch in how we can change so quickly and then justify how we’ve changed 180 degrees. I remember how up until ten years back, camera phones were banned in Saudi Arabia. And today, the hot topics are #Hajjselfie and how modern technology is making its mark on Saudi society.

The beginning of October was the timing for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a mandatory religious duty for Muslims. During Hajj Muslims are to abstain from all temptations which may lead to sin; in essence, the pilgrimage is a time for renewal for the two million plus Muslims who take the rite of passage annually.

This year, one of the major stories which broke at Hajj was the #hajjselfie. You’ll probably know of the selfie, a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone and then shared online via social networking services. This year, the selfie was introduced en-mass to Hajj. To quote from Saudi Gazette and AFP.

Raising his arm, Yousef Ali hugs his elderly father near the Grand Mosque in Makkah as they grin for a selfie — a craze that has hit this year’s Haj. But not everyone is happy about young pilgrims from around the world constantly snapping “selfie”, photographs taken of one’s self, as they carry out Haj rights.

From Tawaf — circumambulating the Holy Kaaba — to prayers atop Mount Mercy in Arafat, and stoning of the “devil” in Mina, the key stages of Haj have all been recorded on cameras and smartphones for posterity, and for instant sharing through social media.

“As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me,” Ali, 24, told AFP, snapping a picture of himself with a green sign reading “Big Jamarah”, which refers to a wall where pilgrims ritually stone the Satan.

“Wherever I go, I take pictures, especially since nowadays we have these little cameras… that offer a full view of the area,” the bearded Kuwaiti said with a smile.

The increasingly popular phenomenon has sparked controversy among conservatives, however, with some taking to Twitter to criticize pilgrims who take selfies.

“When we went for Umrah in the mid-90s, Dad nearly had his camera confiscated to shouts of ‘haram!’ Now, #HajjSelfie is A Thing. What a world,” wrote one Tweeter.

Another user named Kahwaaa wrote: “It’s a time to connect to Allah and purify my soul. #hajjselfies selfies shouldn’t be taken.”

But others said the issue was being blown out of proportion.

“People creating a huge issue about #hajjselfies. If photos are allowed during Haj then what is wrong with selfies?,” asked Abdul Mufeez Shaheed.

Nothing at all, says Ali’s father Mohammed Ali, 65.

“A person taking such pictures is documenting a rare event”, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many Muslims, he said, wearing a traditional white robe.

“This is a symbolic place representing history,” Mohammed Ali added, pointing to the three sites which pilgrims began stoning on Saturday at the start of the Eid Al-Adha feast of sacrifice, which is celebrated by Muslims worldwide.

Two women covered in traditional black abayas and veils hurried toward the Big Jamarah wall, but not without stopping for a quick self-portrait along the way.

“My daughter and I are taking selfies to show our Haj pictures to our family in Paris. It’s also a nice memento,” said one of the women, a Saudi pilgrim from Jeddah who gave her name only as Umm Abdallah, 44.

Her daughter Wafaa Ahmed, 19, said: “I love taking many selfies wherever I go to keep them for myself, as well as to show them to my friends and brothers.”

Speaking to AFP by telephone, a professor of Islamic Shariah law Riyadh said that “if photographs are only for personal memory and not for disseminating, then no problem.

“But if they were for the purpose of showing off, then they are prohibited, such as the photography that takes place at the (Haj) rites.”

The scholar requested anonymity.

“It is better for Muslims to avoid them,” he said of selfies.

For the teenage pilgrim Wafaa Ahmed, “this is not a convincing view” because taking selfies “has nothing to do with religion”.

The elderly pilgrim Mohammed Ali also discounts the scholar’s opinion.

He says the camera “is a tool such as mobiles, used even by religious scholars who have not prohibited them, so why prohibit another tool of the modern era?”

As he speaks, a group of young Saudi men gather for a group selfie in front of a Jamarah wall before they stone the “devil”.

Analytics of #Hajjselfie by Topsy. The trend peaked on October the 4th.

Analytics of #Hajjselfie by Topsy. The trend peaked on October the 4th.

The #hajjselfie wasn’t the only social media story coming out of Saudi Arabia this month. A recent piece in Saudi Gazette bemoaned the erosion of traditions surrounding the vacation among Saudi nationals.

“Take for instance the recent Haj holidays where it was common practice to visit relatives but several people did not do so,” said Omar Yousif Tobbal, a senior projects manager in a government firm.

He said that these occasions allow families to spend time together but people are increasingly resorting to calling or texting their relatives to extend their greetings instead of actually visiting them.

“If it hadn’t been for modern technology, families would meet, dress up and generally enjoy themselves,” he said, adding that before the advent of technology, Saudis had more time for each other and talked for hours on common themes of interest. However, there are some who still observe the occasion in accordance with tradition, he noted.

It’s not all for the worse however. One positive which came out of the combination of social media and Hajj this year was the appreciation show to the security teams who were working to ensure the safety of the two million pilgrims through the use of the hashtag #thanks_security_men. This time from Arab News.

Photos and videos of security officers from various military sectors assisting and providing services to pilgrims during the Haj season have been trending across social networking sites, such as Twitter. A number of religious leaders and media personnel have devoted their pages to discussing the positive role of security authorities in Saudi Arabia in the success of this year’s Haj season.

Active users on social networking sites produced various hashtags, notably #thanks_security_men, to express their gratitude and appreciation for their humanitarian efforts and positive representation of Saudi Arabia.

What are your thoughts on the above? Do you think #Hajjselfie is halal or haraam? Let me know your thoughts, especially if you were on Hajj. And have a look over the #hajjselfie images below from BuzzFeed, from what is one of the most amazing spectacles on earth.

@saudigazette’s reader voices and does the Kingdom have an image problem?

Saudi Gazette's new Voices column aims to give readers an opportunity to share their own opinions

Saudi Gazette’s new Voices column aims to give readers an opportunity to share their own opinions

Saudi Gazette has launched a fascinating project to give its readers an opportunity to write more than a letter to the editor, but rather pen a guest column. The first column, named Voices, features the thoughts of former Saudi journalist and doctoral candidate Najah Al-Osaimi. The piece by Najah looks at Saudi’s image and how it is perceived abroad. It makes for an interesting read, even more so when considering its publishing in Saudi Arabia.

Let me know your thoughts on Saudi Arabia and its image problem abroad. And thank you Saudi Gazette for another wonderful idea. If you are interested in writing a column for the Saudi Gazette then email your contribution, no less than 300 words, to voices@saudigazette.com.sa.

Saudi women raising the bar – Somayya Jabarti becomes the first female newspaper editor in the Gulf

Somayya Jabarti has become the first female editor-in-chief in the Gulf region. She’ll be leading the Saudi-based Saudi Gazette following Khaled Almaeena’s departure (image source: metrotvnews.com)

Saudi Arabia often gets a bad wrap when it comes to how it treats its women. However, for those of us who have lived in the Kingdom, we know of the strength and abilities of Saudi women. They’re tenacious, eloquent, hard working and, in my view, a wonderful bunch. The latest media announcement coming out of the Kingdom has made headlines the world over.

On Sunday, the English-language newspaper Saudi Gazette announced that its editor-in-chief Khaled Almaeena would be stepping down from his role with immediate effect. Almaeena, who joined the Saudi Gazette in October 2011, penned his own farewell letter which was published on the newspaper’s front page. It’s a wonderful read and spells out Almaeena’s views on how a newspaper should be run and why editors should be pushing the boundaries when it comes to reporting contentious issues.

Unarguably the most important announcement made by Khaled and the Saudi Gazette that morning was the promotion of Somayya Jabarti to the top editorial position in the newspaper. I’m going to quote directly from Khaled’s piece:

Today I proudly leave my nominee, a female journalist — Somayya Jabarti — who will take the helm of the paper. She has been associated with me for almost 13 years, and I’ve had the goal almost as long of wanting to see a Saudi woman enter the male-dominated bastion of editors-in-chief. It was not a question of gender but of merit that decided and earned her this opportunity. I am proud to have played a role in her career. She is determined and dedicated, and I can assure her and the team that I will be there to assist and advise, so that Saudi Gazette further advances as a media unit in a highly competitive and digital age.

I’ve known of Somayya for many years and I’ve interacted with her on a number of occasions. She’s tenacious, independent and determined that she and her team cover the news without self-censoring the editorial (this is still a common trend in the Gulf). I’d go further however, and say that Somayya is representative of today’s Saudi women. Saudi women are often viewed from outside the Kingdom as oppressed, as in need of help and support.

However, my own experiences have often shown the opposite to be true. If anything, Saudi women are the most independent in the Gulf when it comes to wanting a career and earning a living. If anything, Somayya is proof of what Saudi women are capable of and how the Kingdom is changing. For me, what’s most telling is that this first didn’t happen in other Gulf states which often tout how they’re advancing women’s rights, but in Saudi. I often feel that the pressures Saudi women face mold them, make them become stronger and more focused. Saudi women have learned to fight and they’re no longer willing to wait for change or to accept what they’re being given with platitudes.

In the Kingdom all top editorial positions at the country’s newspapers are approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture and so Somayya’s appointment would have been given the government’s blessing. I’ll leave the last word to the lady herself, for an interview she gave with Al-Arabiya. I’m sure she’ll do her fellow Saudi women proud!

“There’s a crack that has been made in the glass ceiling. And I’m hoping it will be made into a door. This is a first for a Saudi daily… A mold has been broken where editors-in-chief of Saudi daily newspapers are concerned. Being the first Saudi woman [newspaper editor] is going to be double the responsibility… One’s actions will reflect upon my fellow Saudi women.”