Arab Media Forum discusses the future of print

Newspapers in the region need to reinvent and adapt themselves, not merely reporting on technology, but implementing them in the newsroom, in order to survive the current onslaught of digital media, senior editors of three major Arab Newspapers said today.

They were speaking during a discussion on ‘The Future of Print Journalism’ as part of the 18th edition of the Arab Media Forum (AMF). The two-day conference is being held from March 27-28 at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

While a majority of the panel was skeptical about the long term prospects of the print medium, it was also argued that the only way for the medium to survive could be to adopt a multi-pronged strategy focusing on audience engagement, quality and nature of the content and a dedicated workforce.

Othman Al Omeir, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of the London based Elapha digital newspaper says newspapers in the region, which started decades ago, have not changed in style or concept during the past 50 years.

“We are still following a 50-year old system. I still remember the statement I made about eighteen years ago when I said that newspapers are dead. I had surprised and shocked many with my judgement. To be honest, it is not about the newspaper as a medium. It is about the industry and tools used by the media,” he said.

Journalism, he argued is not confined by geography or space. “We have to link the development of journalism and skills with the development of newspapers in itself,” he argues.
 
Nayla Tueni, Editor-in-Chief of Lebanon-based Annahar Newspaper says the print media in her country is going through a similar phenomenon. “In Lebanon, we are losing so many newspapers. Journalists are losing jobs. The reasons are many from financial situations to market conditions and change in advertisement policy.”

Admitting that the print journey has been a struggle, she said, “Although we have readers waiting for the print copy, there are many factors going against us. We have headwinds. Therefore, it is really important to understand the trends and move forward,” she argues.

Explaining the mobile first logic she says, “The news pattern today is that the news first goes into a mobile platform and then into the website and then to newspapers. Therefore, it is very important to develop the content in a similar fashion,” she said.

Her newspaper, Annahar, last year published blank pages as a protest against political paralysis in Lebanon.  “It was an initiative that was very different. We wanted to communicate something and the public started to talk about it. We have noticed that the reader is keen on reading the news in the print format. At a certain stage they will realise the absence of a newspaper,” she said.

In an effort to advance print readership she says the media organisation has established relationships with various academic institutions and universities. We are encouraging the young to participate in the reading experience and to write. Amidst all this, the digital initiatives are going in parallel.”

Mona Bu Samra, Managing Editor-in-Chief at the Dubai-based Al Bayan Newspaper, an ardent supporter of the print medium said, “I am a firm believer that the print media is not dead and will survive. Having said that I also believe that if you do not reinvent yourself, you will struggle.”

Speaking about the initiatives at Al Bayan, she says, “Three years ago, we launched a new plan. We developed a parallel digital strategy and focused on advancing our capabilities. We have developed multiple platforms that allow our readers to get news on time. Innovative platforms and enhanced video content have all added to our digital engagement,” she says.

“We are also going back to the radio. With podcasts, we are aiming at audiences that want to have an audio experience of content and news. For example, the audio version of the book, “My Story: 50 Memories from 50 Years of Service” by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum can be found on Al Bayan,” she adds.

Technology, she says, has advanced rapidly and the media industry has to be up-to-date. “We are in a world of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and blockchain. It is entering the newsroom as well. We have to keep up with this trend. The media industry has to be proactive. It is not important to cover technology news. We have to implement them as well,” she says.

Al Bayan which used to publish 100 pages daily is now reduced by about 50 per cent. “We are trying to change the image of the newspaper. We are also targeting the young, and we have to develop content that is suitable for such an age group,” she says.

Some of the tech solutions implemented by Al Bayan allows users to voice search on a topic and dig out all news from the platform on the subject. “Similarly, we are looking at how AI can be incorporated into the newsroom. It is a challenge as well as a responsibility,” she says.

“We are also allowing users to create a customised profile and news page where news will be delivered based on their interest,” she adds.

Newspapers she argues should make sure that in order to be relevant and thrive, they need to come up with more exposes and analytical content.

“I love the traditional newspapers. Just to think that there could be no printed newspapers in the years to come makes me feel very sad,” she said.

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