Is Middle East print media dead?

Much has been said about the precarious state of the print media industry in the GCC and the Middle East. The meteoric rise of digital and social media, advertisers cutting back on ad spend (the lifeline of newspapers and magazines) and subdued subscription-led growth have all but left regional print media shaken to their foundations.

Worse still, behind these bad tidings are rumblings about the rocky future of newspapers and magazines, coupled with the fear about whether the print media will even survive in this region, known for its long-standing love of newspapers.

This fear is not unwarranted. Last year, the UAE’s free tabloid newspaper 7DAYS closed down; media reports revealed that Khaleej Times, the longest-running paper in the UAE, slashed jobs. Are the golden days of print journalism in the GCC over?

Traditional vs new media

Despite all of the doom-saying, a closer observation would reveal that it’s not print media alone that bore the brunt in the region. Digital news, radio and even TV felt the heat in equal measure, if not more. For instance, news website Emirates 24/7, run by government-owned Dubai Media Incorporated, shed staff as part of a restructuring.

Dubai-based GN Media closed down popular stations Radio 1 and Radio 2 in June. Later in September, the media group closed its two remaining radio stations, Josh and Hayat. Further, Doha-based Al Jazeera media network announced in March 2016 that it was cutting 500 jobs. Earlier in the year, it had shut down its English-language channel in the US, Al Jazeera America.

But the decline in print circulation and ad spend is not uniform; the trend is inconsistent across titles and genres. In the GCC region, new and emerging ways of news production and dissemination through digital media have certainly dented the growth of the region’s newspapers and magazines. This, combined with the decline in print ad spend, proved to be a double whammy for publishers. However, experts downplay the fear that the print media will vanish from the region.

“Reports of the expiry of the print industry may be premature in our region. It is true that a few titles are closing and others are downsizing, but this is normal in a downturn economy, which the entire world is witnessing,” maintains EVP – Group Trading and commercial managing director at Publicis Media Middle East, Amer El Hajj.

The regional head of strategic planning at FP7/MENA (a part of McCann Worldgroup), Tahaab Rais, echoes this: “As the older generation continues to engage with print newspapers and magazines (and constitutes a significant proportion of the audience consuming content), there will be a customer base for the coming years. So, all the talk about the death of print is a little bit premature.”

Writing on the wall?

It goes without saying that the Internet and social media are definitely impacting the way readers in the region and globally consume news. But can print catch up, or will it die a slow death?

At the recently held Annual Meeting of The Global Future Councils in Dubai in November 2016, the minister of Federal National Council Affairs, chairwoman of the Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi and twofour54, Her Excellency Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, said: “Despite the challenges that traditional media is facing in competition with digital media, the journalism career will not vanish any time soon. Traditional media still enjoys some advantages over its digital rivals – most notable of which are credibility and reliability. Editors need to correctly categorise the news and be fully aware of who their target audience is and how to reach them.”

On the same note, the director-general of the Government of Dubai’s Media Office, Mona Al Marri, asserted that there is a gap in terms of accuracy and transparency between the news that traditional media cover and what social media and citizen-journalists deliver, insisting that traditional media remain a more reliable source of information.

Money spinners

The crucial question is: with ad spends going down, combined with layoffs and closures, how can the Gulf’s publishing industry survive? Experts suggest three steps that can keep print media afloat – going digital, tailoring content and having the right branding.

“As mobile becomes the source for headlines for current middle-aged and younger generations, newspapers and magazines need to future-proof their businesses,” reasons Rais of FP7. “At 32, I consume most of my content on mobile or my laptop. The younger people across my teams have stopped looking at print altogether.”

“Being creative with digital channels – specifically, digital content – is going to be the way to survive for the current newspaper/magazine brands. Honestly, just like any other industry that’s in the content business… It is critical that newspaper and magazines look at themselves not as newspapers and magazines but as content brands,” he adds.

Taking the digital front forward, the head of sales for the MENA region at InSkin Media, Toby Daniell, says: “Traditional print publishers need to embrace the development of consumption behaviour and see this as an opportunity to create a 360 offering that users can access on different platforms at their convenience. They need to pursue a digital-first strategy and do so quickly.”

However, he advises caution on the digital ad front as this might raise the risk of ad-blocking.

“They [traditional print publishers] also need to ensure that their digital ad inventory is properly priced, place less advertising on the page and resist the urge to sell unsold inventory for bargain-basement prices on programmatic channels. Quality content costs money, so it makes no sense to sell the advertising next to it for next to nothing and then fill the page with more and more ad formats to increase the page yield,” Daniell explains.

“Users will either turn on the ad-blockers or turn off completely. Publishers need to convince advertisers that ‘less is more’ when it comes to advertising on their digital properties and hold firm on higher rates for good-quality advertising. They need to experiment with more high-impact and effective display formats that are in view to the user for longer, as well as native advertising and content,” he adds.

Looking up

Thankfully, analysts expect this year to be better than 2016. Advertising budgets will be slashed this year, but this is not expected to be as severe as in 2016.

Zenith, the ROI agency, has forecast a 7.3 per cent drop in ad spend in the MENA region in 2017, lesser than the 11.8 per cent drop it forecast for 2016. Ad spend cuts will get lesser each year till 2019, it forecasts. Another forecast by information and analytics firm IHS Markit expects global advertising revenue to grow to $590 billion in 2017 from $532 billion in 2016. The strongest growth will come from the Middle East and Africa, followed by Asia-Pacific.

All in all, while the Internet and social media will continue to grow their user base, they’re less likely to replace print media, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. This is simply because readers’ profiles and content consumption patterns on these two formats are poles apart.

More importantly, digital news will take much longer to be accepted as a universal and credible substitute for print media. There have been and will always be readers loyal to print across age groups, despite having easier access to faster alternatives, such as radio, TV or Internet.

The Internet and social media channels are bursting with information – and misinformation and fake news – making it difficult to gauge the truth or reliability of information in cyberspace. Print, on the other hand, has been and will remain the ultimate source of verifiable and authentic information, despite the onslaught of technology. But it shouldn’t sleep over it.

Change is the new constant for print media, which means newspapers and magazines, if they have to face the digital onslaught, will have to keep up with technology and put more emphasis on quality and reliability to attract and retain readers.

From advertisers’ point of view, print will remain a real and proven medium for branding, especially when the current economic cycle takes an upturn. That’s the real raison d’être for the print media, whether it is the GCC, Middle East or globally.

Hajj of Publicis Media notes: “There are many ways for press publishers to expend their activity and recuperate their margins. They just need to put their golden age behind their back and look into creative solutions to grow revenue.”

– By Sunil Kumar Singh

A detailed version of this article appeared in the Feb 2017 issue of Gulf Marketing Review. To subscribe please call: +971 4 369 7573


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