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Technology is no match for the might of the press

By Anthony Richardson

PRINT'S IN With the huge influx of immigrants to the region, Arab media has a big opportunity to appeal to a broad audience (H SITTON/ZEFA/CORBIS)

Newspapers in the Middle East must capitalise on the advantages they have over digital and broadcast media in order to maintain rising sales, an international print media expert has said.

Reiner Mittelbach, CEO of print media organisation Ifra, told Emirates Business 24|7 it is vital that newspapers gain brand loyalty by investing in editorial quality and providing the in-depth analysis that readers demand.

Newspaper circulations and advertising revenues in many developing regions including the Middle East are rising, but this trend may not last forever as internet penetration rates catch up with those in more developed countries, Mittelbach warned.

He said: “We believe consumers in the future will suffer from constant information over-flow, with people being bombarded with information – a lot of it unnecessary. This will mean a lot of people who don’t have a particular brand loyalty will be looking to trusted sources for information.

“So, it’s up to newspapers to invest in editorial quality to gain that loyalty – it’s a newspaper’s job to control the quality of the product. Newspapers are not as immediate as TV, radio and online sources, but they have the benefit of offering in-depth analysis. If your circulation is going down, don’t blame the internet or mobile technology or anything else – blame the quality of your product. If you do find your sales are declining, you have to relaunch the product in order to better meet the demands of your readers.

“In this region, you have growing newspaper circulations and low internet penetration currently, but knowing what’s going on in the United States and Europe, declining circulations will eventually come here as internet penetration and new technology grows.”

It is estimated that print media circulation in the UAE is rising at an annual rate of one to two per cent. Spending on advertising in the print media recorded a 70 per cent increase to Dh2.15 billion in 2005.

In the GCC, Saudi Arabia leads newspaper circulations with a projected expansion of five per cent. In other markets, particularly the US and western Europe, a downward trend in circulations and advertising spending is being seen, as more and more consumers abandon newspapers in favour of digital and mobile information services.

Read the market

Ifra is currently conducting a research study called Where NEWS? which is aimed at predicting changes in media consumption in the coming five, 10 and 15 years, which in turn will help newspapers formulate their business development strategies.

British newspaper editor and current affairs television presenter Andrew Neil believes newspaper companies in the Middle East region do not place enough emphasis on design. He told Emirates Business: “Newspapers in this market need to become less dependent on wire sources and they need to gain some elegance and style – I’d like to see more emphasis on design. Look at British newspapers: they are the best designed in the world. You just have to look at the style and elegance of them – papers here just don’t have that, unfortunately. I would like to see more local columnists and established voices to lend their analyses and opinions to issues being written about in the newspapers. You see a fair bit of expert comment in the papers in this region, but often it’s brought in from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. They need to develop four or five very strong voices who can write authoritatively on regional affairs.”

Neil, who became the chief executive of The Spectator in 2005, believes digital and print media have a symbiotic relationship, each unable to survive without the other. He said: “I’ve never seen it in terms of digital versus the print medium because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We hear commonly in the newspaper world that you can’t do print without digital, but I don’t think you can do online news without print either. We find that the people who use our internet news services the most are generally people who have also bought a newspaper already that day. People turn to newspapers for more detail and analysis of the breaking stories that they might have already heard about through other media like television, radio and online.

“I believe print news will always have a place, because it has the advantage that you can choose when you read a newspaper, when you put it down, when you pick it up again to read more. And I think a lot of people will always enjoy the newspaper experience – sitting in front of the fire or at the breakfast table with the paper in front of you. That will always have a place. Of course newspaper sales will gradually decline, there’s no avoiding that. But I don’t see it dropping below a certain threshold for the reasons that I have just outlined.”

Mittelbach said research shows the consumer generally trusts newspapers more than other media and turns to print for the kind of detail and analysis that is not always offered by online and broadcast services.

A definite future

“I think a newspaper has to complement the role of online information sources and mobile services – each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I think newspapers have to build on this and make sure they have a platform that compensates for the weaknesses of the internet.” he added.

“Printed newspaper is usually slow and is not really the medium for breaking news, because you have television and mobile platforms which can deliver news more immediately. So to compensate for that, newspapers offer something else. In most countries, television is not the most trusted source – the statistics show that normally the newspaper is the most trusted source.

“Analysis and commentary is another strength of the newspaper, along with the fact that you can select the time that you read it – it doesn’t have to be at 6am or 6pm, like the television news.

“In the Arab world there are a lot of immigrants, and people want information about what’s going on in their home countries. This presents a big opportunity for newspapers, because local news bulletins don’t tend to have anything relating to people’s countries of origin.”

The future of print media will depend on the changing habits of media consumers and how media companies adapt to these changes. Ifra’s research to date has identified several different emerging categories of consumer including ‘couch potatoes’ and a new breed called ‘civil’ or ‘citizen journalists’.

“A typical media couch potato would be someone who is not actively involved in exchanging opinion with the media but wants everything brought to him,” Mittelbach explained. “Then we will have someone who is constantly interacting with the media, who is perhaps into the blogging scene: we call these people civil journalists.”

He said that the declining circulations of paid newspapers worldwide is compensated by the growing popularity if free newspapers. “There will be a lot of news publishing companies that will be around for many, many years,” he concluded. “Newspapers have a lot of choices to make and they have a long lifetime ahead of them if they really find their communities.”

Ifra, headquartered in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt in Germany, is an association for the newspaper and media publishing industry dealing with all issues related to the production of newspapers and to new media as well as media strategy and business models. The organisation’s services – offered primarily to Ifra members – include trade exhibitions, conferences, seminars and training as well as consulting and various publications.

The power of print

Contrary to popular belief, newspaper circulations overall are still on the increase, despite a boom in internet news sources. Worldwide circulations rose 2.3 per cent in 2006 while newspaper advertising revenues showed substantial gains, according to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

WAN found that global newspaper sales were up by 2.3 per cent over the year, and had increased by 9.48 per cent over the previous five years. Newspaper sales increased year-on-year in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, with North America the sole continent to register a decline. Indian newspaper sales increased 12.93 per cent in 2006 and 53.63 per cent in the five-year period.

When free dailies are added to the paid newspaper circulation, global circulation increased by 4.61 per cent last year, and 14.76 per cent over the past five years. Free dailies now account for nearly eight per cent of all global newspaper circulation and 31.94 per cent in Europe alone.

Advertising revenues in paid dailies were up by 3.77 per cent last year from a year earlier, and up 15.77 per cent over five years, WAN said. No figures were available for free daily advertising revenues.

“Newspapers in developing markets continue to increase circulation by leaps and bounds, and mature markets are showing remarkable resilience against digital media,” said Timothy Balding, CEO of the Paris-based WAN recently. “Even in many developed nations the industry is maintaining or even increasing sales.”