LONDON: At a star-studded event marking the 100-year anniversary of Umm Al-Qura — Saudi Arabia’s official newspaper of record — the Kingdom’s acting minister of media, Dr. Majid Al-Qassabi, announced the launch of five new ministerial initiatives to the audience, which included high-level officials, academics and, of course, a large number of journalists.
The initiatives included establishing a Saudi Media National Archives Center and a Saudi Media Museum, holding an Umm Al-Qura Media Forum every two years, launching a “Mediathon” in partnership with the national telecom company STC that aims toward coming up with innovative future media ideas, and finally and most notably, launching the second phase of the Support and Enabling Program for the Saudi Newspaper Institutions for Digital Transformation.
The announcement of a program to support newspapers in Saudi Arabia was the highlight of the evening for the many journalists attending, with the reaction being torn between those expressing relief over a plan they waited years to hear, and others who were skeptical, saying that this will be another failed attempt at a mission almost every media minister in the past recent years has attempted.
“If anyone could do it (save the Saudi newspapers), it’s definitely Al-Qassabi,” one journalist attending the event told Arab News.
Al-Qassabi has been in his role since 2020, as well as the Kingdom’s minister of commerce. One of his first statements upon assuming the role was telling his colleagues at the ministry: “Your performance has not been satisfactory.”
A few months later, he arranged to meet with local newspaper editors virtually, listen to their financial woes and promise to look into the possibility of a rescue plan.
Al-Qassabi is renowned as a seasoned, trusted and influential bureaucrat in the Royal Court, to the extent many junior staff refer to him as “minister of ministers.” Apart from handling the commerce and media portfolios, he also spearheads several committees and handles dozens of crucial government-related assignments.
Read the Research & Studies Unit report: The Myth of Digital Transformation here
However, the topic of saving Saudi newspapers has been a contentious issue in the Kingdom since the collapse of oil prices in 2015 that had an adverse effect on both government and corporate advertising and subscriptions.
The main sources of revenue for local dailies took a beating and thus expedited their decline in line with the global trend at the time, where newspaper companies were shuttering every day in almost every country due to the impact of the digital revolution.
Since then, every media minister who has been appointed has tried to introduce initiatives to save the industry, yet none have been successful and several of the Kingdom’s newspapers have either had to lay off employees, delay or reduce salaries or stop printing altogether.
Contrary to what many might think — apart from the government-owned Umm Al-Qura — all other newspapers in the Kingdom are privately owned businesses and do not receive financial aid from the government.
In essence, this means — as put in a controversial October 2021 column by the longtime editor-in-chief of the Riyadh-based Al-Jazirah newspaper Khalid Al-Malik — that Saudi Arabia risks seeing “a day in the near future where we will have no journalism and no journalism establishments.”
Al-Malik, who is also the chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Association of Journalists — the closest thing the Kingdom has to a journalism union — criticized the hesitation in finding what he described as a “road map to save Saudi newspapers.”
“We have not, and never will, lose hope that support for newspaper establishments is coming,” he wrote, adding that he believes “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will never accept the death of our journalism … or that reporters and columnists disappear from the media scene in light of a global press crisis that not a single country has survived.”
Government entities only appreciate the role of the media when it praises them for free. But when it is critical, they end up denying newspaper advertising, limiting them with lawsuits, and not replying to inquiries.
Mowafaq Al-Nowaiser, Editor-in-Chief of Makkah newspaper
Al Malik’s and other prominent newspaper editors' repeated demands for a government bailout were rebuffed by Abdulaziz Khoja, a former media minister and diplomat who asked journalists to “stop begging” in a widely shared television interview.
Khoja’s views represent another faction of government advisers who believe that since the majority of newspapers are privately owned businesses, free-market rules must apply; and if they are not able to make a profit, they should simply exit the market.
Such views are aided by the fact that had it not been for the mismanagement of Saudi media companies over the past years, the newspapers would have been in a much better and more resilient place today.
In the Saudi newspaper industry, the term “management” usually refers to CEOs or general managers who make the financial, commercial and administrative decisions, while editors are restricted to making editorial decisions and are responsible for reach and influence.
According to Makkah Newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Mowafaq Al-Nowaiser, a common problem is that CEOs often come in with no media experience or any understanding of journalism’s requirements.
“The walls of newspaper establishments are low, so even a nobody can climb them and throw their garbage in their (newspaper’s) backyard,” he wrote in a column about the matter last February.
In his column, Al-Nowaiser attempted to explain part of the reasons of how newspaper establishments in the Kingdom went from making profits to becoming broke in the last decade.
He explained that Saudi newspapers lived their heyday in the three decades that preceded 2012 due to the “large size of the advertising pie which brought in seven- or eight-digit yearly profits.”
He blames companies’ management for wrong decisions and wasteful spending on everything apart from content, in what he described as “cosmetic investments” such as colored printing and glossy paper.
Many of Al-Nowaiser’s colleagues share his cynical views of the management of Saudi newspapers, arguing that they are the main reason for their destruction.
“We have a real and transparent case of a media company where the management top executives receive salaries and bonuses which are comparable only to Aramco, the world’s largest oil-producing company,” said one longtime editor, who is also a member of the Saudi Association of Journalists (SAJ).
“Disproportionately highly paid board members and C-level executives were and remain a common problem in Saudi media companies, because these same executives are the first to cut budgets of editors and journalists, while they spend bottomless amounts on strategy and management consulting firms,” he added.
In most situations, these consultants are used to convincing boards of recycled strategies that do not work. The SAJ member that Arab News spoke to explained that his worst fear is that these same consultants and media companies’ senior executives end up becoming advisers to the Media Ministry to help rescue the industry.
“That would be disastrous, what we often end up with after pouring millions on consultants is a glorified social media strategy instead of a strategy to save the newspaper,” he added.
“In other words, newspaper companies are paying an arm and a leg to management consultants and their own executives to create a strategy that will only end up making money for the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google who are the source of the problem for newspapers today.”
Read the Research & Studies Unit report: Save the Press here
Such arguments only empower the reluctant factions in government to step in and save the newspaper industry, fearing that with such management on top of media companies, no matter how money is poured, the return on investment would simply be immediate patch up solutions and the problem will resurface in a few years.
For Al-Nowaiser, the problem is far more complicated. To start with, he doesn’t believe that there are enough people — be it in the government or the private sector — who know what they are talking about, or even what “digital transformation” means for the newspaper industry when nearly all Saudi newspapers already have websites, social media accounts, videos and podcasts.
“The term (digital transformation) came up 10 years ago, but nobody paid attention. However, when it came up again with the reforms the Kingdom has been undergoing, it became a public and official demand,” he wrote, arguing that few in the current media scene actually understand what it means.
“I am almost certain that if you ask 100 different stakeholders that have to do with media, be them editors-in-chief, general managers, board members, owners, government officials, practitioners or academics about the concept of digital transformation, we will not find any consensus among even 10 of them,” he concluded in his February article.
So what exactly does the Media Ministry initiative to support and enable the digital transformation for Saudi newspapers actually entail?
Arab News attempted to contact Dr. Abdullah Al-Maghlooth, official spokesperson for the Media Ministry, but received no comment or explanation.
“I wish that there was more explanation from the ministry or the center of government communication,” Al-Nowaiser told Arab News, adding that it is remarkable that as a newspaper editor himself he knows nothing of the details of this program.
“For instance, the initiative indicates its the second phase of the program, here I can’t help but ask: What were the deliverables of the first phase that were completed which led us to move to phase two?”
However, for Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, discussing digital transformation before discussing journalists’ rights and responsibilities, an agreed freedom of information act and updating the legal framework and government media guidelines would amount to putting “the carriage in front of the horse.”
“The truth of the matter is that we are in the content industry. We can talk a lot about digital transformation and about platforms, but these are all means to an end. The end is the content or the information that we produce, and what we desperately need from the Media Ministry and the government as a whole is more access and more transparency so that we can produce more meaningful and useful content for our audience,” he added.
Significantly, in a recent interview with The Atlantic, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signaled that he would like the media in the Kingdom to challenge the government more.
“I believe the Saudi media should criticize the government’s work, the government’s plans, whatever, because that’s healthy,” he had told the US magazine.
Yet, it seems for journalism to be revived in the Kingdom, it is going to require a significant booster shot. Most journalists Arab News spoke to said money is important, but the more important aspect is government officials who understand media and how it works, paired with media company executives who actually have experience in running media companies.
What we desperately need from the Ministry of Media, and the government as a whole, is more access and more transparency so that we can produce more meaningful and useful content for our audience
Faisal J. Abbas, Editor-in-Chief of Arab News
On March 19th, Al-Nowaiser wrote another column titled “Do our ministries trust our media as much as the Crown Prince does?”
In it, he elaborated on how most government entities “only appreciate the role of media when it praises them for free.” However, when journalists do their job and are critical, then these government entities end up “denying them their share of advertising, limiting their authority with lawsuits, not replying to inquiries and referring them to the center of government communications.”
“To be honest, without access to information you really can’t build a successful news outlet,” added Abbas.
“If you look at the success of major sites like WikiLeaks, BuzzFeed or even something as simple as Craigslist, you will realize that it is all about the content not about the digital transformation, design or applications.
“Of course, debts need to be paid and a restructuring of media companies is needed, perhaps the industry should also consider some mergers and acquisitions. However, if all we will be getting are different platforms that will all copy and paste the same content posted on the Saudi Press Agency, then why bother?”
Meanwhile, other journalists told Arab News that it is good that part of the ministry’s initiative was building a museum, “because if this new ministerial initiative for digital transformation doesn’t work, that’s where all the newspaper brands of Saudi Arabia will are going to end up,” said one journalist as he scrolled through his endless Twitter feed.
• Tarek Ali Ahmad is the head of the Research & Studies Unit at Arab News and co-author of two reports on the subject: ‘The Myth of Digital Transformation’ and ‘Save the Press’ - Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad