Can Saudi newspapers be saved?

Special Can Saudi newspapers be saved?
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Updated 07 April 2022

Can Saudi newspapers be saved?

Can Saudi newspapers be saved?
  • Ministry of Media’s new initiative to enable digital transformation of the local press met with skepticism in the journalism community
  • Newspapers in the Kingdom are private businesses and are on the brink of bankruptcy, with many editors blaming their own CEOs and consultants

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.




At an event marking the 100-year anniversary of Umm Al-Qura, the Kingdom’s acting minister of media, Dr. Majid Al-Qasabi, announced the launch of five new ministerial initiatives to the audience. (SPA)

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. 

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Read the Research & Studies Unit report: The Myth of Digital Transformation here

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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.”

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Read the Research & Studies Unit report: Save the Press here

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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


Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight
Updated 16 sec ago

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight

Alaska Airlines faces discrimination lawsuit over removal of Muslim passengers from flight
  • The two men were escorted off an aircraft in Seattle after a fellow passenger told flight attendants they had been talking and sending text messages in Arabic

LONDON: Two Muslims have filed a lawsuit accusing Alaska Airlines of discrimination for allegedly removing them from a flight prior to takeoff because they were “talking and texting in Arabic.”

According to Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, the incident occurred after they boarded a flight from Seattle to San Francisco in February 2020. They said the airline’s staff humiliated them “before their fellow passengers by unnecessarily deplaning (them) and allowing (other passengers) to observe plaintiffs surrounded by uniformed law enforcement personnel.”

The men said that they had been talking and texting in Arabic in the first-class cabin when a fellow traveler informed flight attendants about the text messages. They allege that an Alaska Airlines employee subsequently removed them from the flight due to a “ticket issue.”

This is not the first time that Arab passengers have complained about the way they were treated by airline staff in the US. In 2019, for example, Issam Abdallah said he was “humiliated” when an American Airlines flight to Texas he boarded in Alabama was canceled because crew members felt “uncomfortable” with him on the flight.

In 2016, Khairuldeen Makhzoom, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic and saying the phrase “inshallah” (which means God willing) during a telephone conversation.


Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles

Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles
Updated 21 min 4 sec ago

Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles

Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles

SAN FRANCISCO: The Disney+ streaming service saw its number of paying subscribers leap beyond expectations in the last quarter, as rival Netflix’s client count ebbed, results showed Wednesday.
The number of people subscribing to Disney+ topped 152 million, up some 31 percent from the same period a year earlier, the entertainment giant said in an earnings report.
Disney’s bottom line was also boosted by rising revenue from its theme parks, which showed signs of recovering from stifled attendance during the pandemic.
Better-that-expected earnings reported by Disney came as many of the tech titans that flourished during the pandemic curb costs in the face of inflation and people get back to living life in the real world instead of online.
Disney shares were up more than 6 percent in after-market trades that followed release of the earnings figures.
“We had an excellent quarter, with our world-class creative and business teams powering outstanding performance at our domestic theme parks, big increases in live-sports viewership, and significant subscriber growth at our streaming services,” said Disney chief executive Bob Chapek.
The 14.4 million Disney+ subscribers added in the recently ended quarter raised the overall number of subscriptions to its streaming services, which include Hulu and ESPN+, to 221 million, Chapek added.
The overall number of subscribers to Disney streaming services topped those of Netflix for the first time.
“Investors will breathe a sigh of relief from Disney’s robust fiscal (quarterly) earnings,” said Insider Intelligence principal analyst Paul Verna.
“The streaming figures will be seen as an indicator of the health of the market, especially after lackluster subscriber figures from Netflix and Comcast.”
Disney also announced that an ad-subsidized version of its streaming television subscription service will be offered in the United States starting December 8 at a monthly price $3 less than the ad-free offering.
Taking a page from Netflix’s playbook, Disney has been investing in shows created in places outside the United States.
The company plans to “step up” investments in such local original content, Chapek said, pointing out a film concert and docu-series focused on South Korean music sensation BTS.
He expressed confidence in Disney theater films in the works, including an eagerly anticipated “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” addition to its Marvel superhero line-up.
A trailer for the Black Panther film logged more than 170 million views in the 24 hours after its release, Chapek said.
“Disney still faces economic uncertainty and intense competition, but performance should at least temporarily put to rest some of Wall Street’s gloomier perceptions about the company, and more broadly about the entertainment industry,” said Paul Verna, an analyst at Insider Intelligence.
Rival Netflix has reported losing subscribers for two quarters in a row, as the streaming giant battles fierce competition and viewer belt tightening, though the firm assured investors of better days ahead.
The loss of 970,000 paying customers in the most recent quarter was less than expected, leaving Netflix with just shy of 221 million subscribers.
“Our challenge and opportunity is to accelerate our revenue and membership growth... and to better monetize our big audience,” the firm said in its earnings report.
After years of amassing subscribers, Netflix lost 200,000 customers worldwide in the first quarter compared to the end of 2021.
Netflix said in its earnings report that it had expected to gain a million paid subscribers in the current quarter.
Netflix executives have made it clear the company will get tougher on sharing logins and passwords, which allow many to access the platform’s content without paying.
In an effort to draw new subscribers, Netflix said it will work with Microsoft to launch a cheaper subscription plan that includes advertisements.
The ad-supported offering will be in addition to the three account options already available, with the cheapest plan coming in at $10 per month in the United States.


Universal Pictures International partners with Majid Al Futtaim Distribution in new deal for Arab world

Universal Pictures International partners with Majid Al Futtaim Distribution in new deal for Arab world
Updated 10 August 2022

Universal Pictures International partners with Majid Al Futtaim Distribution in new deal for Arab world

Universal Pictures International partners with Majid Al Futtaim Distribution in new deal for Arab world
  • Partnership comes amid rapid cinema growth and strong box office results in Saudi Arabia and Middle East
  • Under the deal, Majid Al Futtaim Distribution will release Universal Pictures’ titles, including the M. Night Shyamalan thriller “Knock at the Cabin”

LONDON: Universal Pictures International and Majid Al Futtaim Distribution on Wednesday announced a partnership that will see the Emirati-based distribution company release Universal films in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt.
“This is a very exciting time for cinema in the Middle East with the investment and audience interest at unprecedented levels. We are thrilled to be partnering with Majid Al Futtaim, one of the most ambitious and forward-thinking groups in the region,” said Paul Higginson, executive vice president, EMEA for Universal Pictures International.
News of the partnership, which will take effect on Feb. 1, 2023, comes as Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East experience rapid growth and strong box office results.
Under the deal, Majid Al Futtaim Distribution, one of the largest film distributors in the region and a subsidiary of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment & Cinemas, will release Universal Pictures’ titles, including the M. Night Shyamalan thriller “Knock at the Cabin,” the Super Mario Bros movie and “Renfield” starring Nicolas Cage.
“This strategic partnership reaffirms Majid Al Futtaim’s commitment to deliver compelling content and the ultimate cinematic experience to cinemagoers in the region,” said Ignace Lahoud, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment & Cinemas.
“We are proud to collaborate with Universal Pictures International, which has a long legacy of producing commercially successful and critically acclaimed movies. We look forward to bringing their impressive slate of blockbuster films and popular movie franchises to the big screen and working together to grow the Middle East’s cinema industry with films that attract a large and diverse audience,” he added.
Niels Swinkels, EVP and managing director of Universal Pictures International, said that the company will continue its distribution relationship with Four Star Films in Lebanon and Cyprus.
He said that Four Star Films “has been our trusted and exemplary partner in the region for over 40 years.”


Kerning Cultures’ new podcast tells ‘forgotten tales’ from around the region

Kerning Cultures’ new podcast tells ‘forgotten tales’ from around the region
Updated 58 min 6 sec ago

Kerning Cultures’ new podcast tells ‘forgotten tales’ from around the region

Kerning Cultures’ new podcast tells ‘forgotten tales’ from around the region
  • Arabic-language show ‘Masafat’ aims to bridge ‘gap in media coverage,’ host says

DUBAI: Kerning Cultures Network has released a new show “Masafat” that aims to tell overlooked and forgotten stories spanning the Middle East region — from Jerusalem and Palestine to Egypt and Morocco.

Inspired by the network’s first English show “Kerning Cultures,” “Masafat” was launched because “we believe it’s important to have the same narrative style podcast in Arabic, telling stories in our native language — especially stories that are often overlooked or even forgotten,” Heba Afify, managing editor for Arabic content, told Arab News.

The show’s 13 episodes explore various topics, such as women in mahraganat (a popular form of street music in Egypt), Al-Quds Radio and how it contributed to the cultural and art scene in Palestine, block painting in Syria and reclaiming public spaces in Lebanon.

Afify, who also hosts the show, said: “There’s a gap in the media coverage when it comes to representation of what life looks like in our region, away from the politics and the sensational takes that often constitute the majority of media attention the region receives.”

She said the company was keen on “producing every episode with the perspective and knowledge of a local producer who knows the place and topic inside and out. So besides our diverse team, we collaborated with freelance producers from the countries that we cover in each episode.”

Although podcasts are a relatively new medium, they have grown in popularity with 67 percent of listeners in Saudi Arabia tuning in at least once a week, according to a 2021 report by Rising Giants Network.

“‘Masafat’ is built on the understanding that podcasts as a medium offer a safe space for stories that often don’t get featured or picked up by mainstream media,” said the network’s marketing director, Bella Ibrahim.

“Podcasts especially resonate with younger listeners that don’t feel seen or represented in mainstream media,” she added, with more than half of podcast listeners aged under 22, according to Mohtwize’s latest report.

The goal of “Masafat” is not only to tell overlooked stories but also to shine a light on the true nature of the region by exploring the “lost pieces of our history, the complex realities behind flashy headlines, inspirational journeys and the multifaceted unique realities of living in each corner of this region,” Afify said.

“Such nuanced coverage of our region grounded in deep knowledge and experience and an authentic and sympathetic approach is very much lacking and is crucial in correcting misrepresentation and giving our stories a place to be told.”


Taliban gunmen attack Al-Hadath TV team during live broadcast in Kabul

Taliban gunmen attack Al-Hadath TV team during live broadcast in Kabul
Updated 10 August 2022

Taliban gunmen attack Al-Hadath TV team during live broadcast in Kabul

Taliban gunmen attack Al-Hadath TV team during live broadcast in Kabul
  • Journalists were covering the UN’s aid distribution
  • Cameraman attacked with a whip, reporters pushed around

LONDON: Several armed Taliban members attacked an Al-Hadath TV team on Wednesday during a live broadcast while they were covering the Food and Agriculture Organization’s humanitarian aid distribution in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.

In the video of the incident, Al-Hadath’s Kabul correspondent Christiane Baissary and her camera crew are seen being pushed around by men carrying guns, while the camera pans away.

Baissary is then heard saying “they attacked the cameraman,” while the camera focuses on two men waving their hands and guns at the TV team.

Al-Hadath’s correspondent then explains that the men are Taliban members in civilian dress.

“Some said we could film here, but others said we cannot,” explains Baissary. In the video, one armed Taliban man waves the camera away, and then forces the cameraman from the scene.

Baissary reiterates that one man has allowed them to film the FAO’s food aid distribution, but that another has attacked the cameraman with a whip, which is seen in his hand.

Baissary is then heard saying that they have to leave the scene, with the camera still rolling.

As the team members climb into their car, another Taliban man with a gun approaches the vehicle and the reporter is heard saying: “They entered the car and they are armed.”

The armed man then speaks to the driver and they drive off.

Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have cracked down on press freedom in the country, prompting several watchdogs to increasingly voice their concerns about the safety of media workers.

According to the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Afghanistan ranks 156 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press.

At least 12 journalists were arbitrarily arrested in Afghanistan in May, according to Reporters without Borders, despite the Taliban announcing the creation of a system for protecting media personnel.