Complex Made Simple

$89bn drop: ‘I don’t see any way back up for print media’

-$152.2 billion were spent on print advertising in 2000
-17 years later, that number dropped to $63.98 billion.

And that’s the state of the print media industry today.

READ: MENA’s media landscape grows smaller

Regional numbers are sketchy but estimates indicate a drop of a massive 80 percent in the last three years alone, according to Publicis Media’s chief investment officer, Amer El Hajj.

“Over the last three years, investments in ad expenditure have declined overall with print media witnessing the most severe drop. Last year, investments into print media declined by 30 percent and this year we are witnessing a 21 percent drop in print investments,” says a spokesperson from Havas.

READ: Slowdown? What slowdown? This sector is booming

A bleak future

“I don’t see any way back up for print,” says Richard Fitzgerald, managing editor and founder of Augustus, the parent company of Lovin Dubai.

The legacy news brands like Khaleej Times and Gulf News have reduced in thickness by at least 10 times. In fact, one industry insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity puts Khaleej Times’ sales revenue loss at “at least 40 percent” in the last two years.

“Many small spending clients don’t see the point of print ads because they can see what that money can do online,” adds Fitzgerald.

The demise of print media – especially newspapers – is a chicken and egg situation, adds the same source.

READ: UAE economy to make a recovery in 2018

Print media houses need good talent and the right investments to survive. But with shrinking revenues, it’s hard to make these investments in both, people and technology.

The inevitable digitization

Today, most – if not all – print publications are present online. But, “You go online and think only page views are important,” points out Fitzgerald. What he means is that ‘digital’ or ‘online’ is no longer about simply having a website and directing people to that website and increasing page views.

That, of course, is linked back to ads because the higher the page views, the more ad dollars.

However, there’s only so long digital publishers can keep at the page views game because it’s bound to result in over saturation and agencies and brands today are much better at detecting fake traffic.

It’s not just about where the money is, but where people are. And more often than not, they’re on social media. “People are consuming news from an 18-year-old on Snapchat in Saudi,” adds Fitzgerald.

READ: The future of energy in the GCC looks bright

Major news outlets including the BBC, CNN and The New York Times have invested heavily in setting up their own studios. Depending on the organization, the studios’ capabilities range from producing in-house editorial content in different multimedia formats to creating – and distributing – branded content.

Most traditional publishers are either slow or bad, or both, at creating multimedia content. With Snapchat pushing its Discover platform in the region, some publishers like Layalina have had to innovate. Layalina’s Snapchat channel brings in over a million viewers daily and it’s no surprise given the investment of a dedicated team of six to eight people creating content exclusively for the platform.

This opens up a whole new world of ‘mobile’ at a time when regional publishers are still struggling with online. “How many publications think about the mobile screen and size,” questions Fitzgerald. Most of the work is written, edited and published on a desktop or laptop but the actual consumption happens on a mobile screen. Lovin Dubai, for example, sees 80 percent of its traffic from mobile.

READ: The best time to buy and where to rent in Dubai

The talent gap

As publishers reinvent and digitize themselves, the need for new, and more importantly, different talent has become more important than ever before. Yes, journalists, writers and editors are important. But, in order to succeed, publishers will need to recruit social media managers, graphic designers, motion artists, video editors and audio specialists – skillsets than until recently were unfathomable for print media houses.

Consider the 2018 Dubai Lynx: “the international festival of creativity”. The Grand Prix for Film went to – not a brand or agency – but to VICE Arabia for “We’re Listening – The Bil Arabi Documentary”, which also won a Gold, 3 Silver and 3 Bronze Awards in a ‘creativity’ festival typically reserved for agencies.

If publishers are to recruit such multi-skilled talent, it means moving away from the traditional idea of a ‘newsroom’ and publishing structure. Of course, it also means investment because these skill sets are more expensive to find.

One ex-publisher speaking on the condition of anonymity questions the ability of regional publishers to truly innovate. Even if they are open to hiring these skill sets, they might want to do a trial run by either getting freelancers or less expensive talent in other countries. “The trial run is doomed to fail from the start because the talents need to be well integrated within the company and work as a team to truly deliver end-to-end content in different formats that capture readers’ attention no matter where they are,” he says. “That can’t be done from a freelancer’s basement in India.”

READ: Top 5 hotels that you’ll want to live in forever

What next?

“I would be focusing on subscription for digital publishing,” says Fitzgerald. The same ex-publisher, however, points out if one would really pay for what is published by regional titles. “If you want to read WAM and SPA and statements from PR companies, sure.”

The lack of talent, in addition to the relative censorship in the region, makes it hard for mass publishers to create content that justifies a paywall or subscription model.

Moreover, with most newspaper content being freely and widely available thanks to social media, there would be no value in charging for that content.

Another model, which has been successful for Lovin Dubai, is branded content. “When we sit down with clients, they’re all moving budgets digital and spending a lot on influencers and social,” says Fitzgerald. “Many small spending clients don’t see the point of print ads – because they can see what that money can do online.”

That model, however, might not work for every publisher, which brings us to the final potential model: Create good, meaningful content that resonates.

READ: Leave Dubai and head to Cairo? The best place to run your business revealed

The days of print are limited; those of content, on the other hand, are not.

There’s more information today than ever before. There’s also more doubt, chaos and confusion than ever before.

In many ways, and even at a time when print revenues are declining, the role of publishers is only becoming more important. The massive information overload has left readers looking toward publishers that help them make sense of the world around them instead of luring them with clickbait headlines and listicles to gain page views.

To paraphrase Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, today, publishers need to pick, news over noise; sense over sensation and credibility over chaos.

And of course, all of that needs to be done online.