RIYADH: Later this year, Maaal.com — a Saudi financial and economic news site — celebrates its 10th anniversary.
For those who don’t know it, the project is the brain child of Mutlaq Al-Buqami, a former business editor at the leading pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat in London and its sister publication Eqtisadiyah, a dedicated business daily in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Buqami was also the last editor of Shams (Sun), a short lived Saudi tabloid that was published between 2005 and 2012 — where he said he experienced first-hand the vast potential of digital reach and the limitations of print.
The death of print was still debatable in 2012 and often newspapers or publishing houses that closed down blamed it on mismanagement, as opposed to a collapsing industry (the truth is that most of the time it was a combination of both). COVID-19 in 2020 has since made it clear that the death of print as a medium is more obvious and imminent than ever.
Yet, long before the pandemic, Al-Buqami — who is also the editor in chief of Maaal — foresaw that business executives and investors would welcome news related to their money and decision making faster and through their computers or phones. With that in mind, he worked with his team and partners to launch Maaal.com (maaal is the Arabic for “money”). Given that it was his job to analyse markets and trends, Al-Buqami saw what was inevitable when it came to the publishing industry.
“Those who handle distribution numbers and advertisements in traditional media could foresee at that time the future and importance of digital media,” he told Arab News.
The vision was to have a business title which “kept pace with the economic status of Saudi Arabia, a G20 member state,” he said.
After conducting a competitor analysis, Al-Buqami said the team at Maaal saw that the sector “lacked specialized media, and most of what is available at that time either focused on the stock market only or did not put the economy at the heart of their content.”
Despite this clear vision, Al-Buqami confessed Maaal faced a rough few months when it launched in December 2012. This was mainly due to not thinking with a “digital first” strategy — something they rectified after the project nearly flopped — and it is now a main pillar of their operation.
“Television, radio, and even newspapers have been reduced to smart devices that travel with us wherever we go. The traditional means are no longer the same and the target audience is no longer confined to a limited geographic area. Therefore, if a media outlet does not build its foundation on that, it will not be successful,” he explained.
“We sought to restructure the project and apply standards compatible with the digital language and its target readers and, by doing so, we transformed it from a failing project to a project that managed, during the second half of the year, to stand on its feet and achieve a break-even point.”
Here, Al-Buqami reiterated a point which he said was very important: “If a project is not political with an agenda and goals that those behind it wish to achieve, then it must be built on commercial foundations in the first place to achieve profits.”
But how exactly does Maaal make “maaal”? Well, Al-Buqami said advertising is the primary source of income; however it is not the only one.
“Our other sources of income include providing various media services to some clients, and I really hope that some day the Saudi market will accept paid — albeit clearly marked — advertorials as in major newspapers and global websites.
“Achieving this, unfortunately, does not depend on the media outlet alone. It requires a system that protects, for example, intellectual property rights. And in this regard, I hope the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) will help us and protect media products like in the rest of the world.”
What about other key performance indicators? Al-Buqami points to citations and being quoted in major media outlets as an important KPI.
“We managed to win the trust of international news agencies, television channels and various media outlets until we became the top media outlet that focuses on the economy in Saudi Arabia. Our news is shared and quoted by international media. More than 300 media outlets from China in the east to America in the west and through Asia, Europe, and Africa circulate a story published by Maaal a few hours after its publication.”
As for examples of media outlets that frequently rely on Maaal, Al-Buqami cites Bloomberg, the leading global business news provider, and Reuters, one of the most respected global news agencies.
The business of covering business
Despite being a business journalist for the majority of his career, Al-Buqami suggests there are several issues affecting Saudi business journalism.
He repeats his concern about the disrespect of intellectual property rights of online media in general. He describes those who steal the original reporting of other media outlets as wanting to “use the information (we produce) with a click of a button, and without putting in any effort.”
Another issue that affects business journalism is that most of those who work in the field “are either amateurs who work part-time or are not specialized in business and do not have a good understanding of economic affairs,” explains Al-Buqami.
“This has a great impact on the final product provided to the readers. And in addition to all that, most of the business media outlets in Saudi Arabia suffer from shocks owing to what the advertising market is going through, and this impacts the development or training of media professionals in general.”
“In order for us to progress, the responsible bodies, such as the Ministry of Media, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) and the SAIP, must work on providing an environment that supports creativity and excellence by first protecting intellectual rights, and then setting institutional requirements for the removal of the media outlets that recycle what others publish,” he said describing what he sees as a solution.
“At the same time, these responsible bodies must increase training to develop talents,” he said.