Love of newspapers has a long history in the Middle East, where news publications first began appearing in the early nineteenth century, sometimes as government gazettes for publicizing official business. That was the purpose of, for example, Egyptian Affairs, a gazette launched in 1828 by Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Privately produced publications began appearing in Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, and other Arab cities around the same period. Al-Ahram, still a leading Egyptian paper, was founded in 1875. Saudi Arabia was a pioneer in the Gulf region’s newspaper business, with papers like Al-Madina and Al-Bilad opening in the 1930s. Rising oil revenues in the 1970s led to an expansion of the Kingdom’s print media and today it has around a dozen national newspapers. In addition, Saudis own two of the leading pan-Arab papers, both headquartered in London, Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat.
Today there are almost two hundred newspapers in the Arab world, the vast majority of them published in Arabic; about a quarter are French or English language papers. According to the Arab Media Outlook 2011–2015, published earlier this year by the Dubai Press Club and Deloitte & Touche, total circulation of newspapers in the Arab region in 2012 is 12.8 million. Newspapers will take in around USD1.7 billion in advertising revenue this year, out of total advertising expenditure in the Arab world of around USD4.7 billion. The number of Facebook users in the Arab world has tripled in the last two years and as of June 2012 stands at 45.2 million, according to the Arab Social Media Report published by the Dubai School of Government’ s Governance and Innovation Program.
Unlike their Western counterparts, most Arab newspapers and many magazines are still performing relatively well. Advertising revenue has declined in recent years, but not yet enough to generate a crisis. News consumers in the Middle East still love to hold their newspaper, rustling its pages as they sip their coffee. Glossy women’s magazines remain top sellers at newsstands. Until now, the digital revolution has not presented print publications with competition in online content that is serious enough to disturb editors’ sleep. But the future is quite a different story.
The coming storm
The first thing Mamoon Sbeih does when he arrives at his Dubai office every morning “is read five or six newspapers.” The Arab region manager for APCO Worldwide, a global public relations and communications consultancy firm, adds, “I like the green color of Asharq Alawsat.” In contrast, APCO’s newly hired young employees “never read newspapers,” observed the 43-year-old executive. “They follow journalists on Twitter,” and as a result, “they’re ahead of us because news in the newspaper is a day too late.”
Sbeih added, “[I’m] working very hard to develop my online skills and . . . I’m going to start tweeting because you know what? We’ve started thinking in short sentences . . . and I know that if I don’t get on board with that, I’ll be left alone.”
Like many other media experts in the Middle East, Sbeih sees a rocky future for Arab newspapers: “Print media in the Arab world is not going to die soon,” he said, “but I can tell you it’s going to die quickly when the time comes. Once the young generation of today grows up and [becomes] a majority, they’re going to leave print newspapers behind.”
Print journalism in the Arab world is not immune to the digital revolution, and although it is affecting publications in the Middle East more slowly than in the West, it has already begun to transform news-gathering and delivery, according to interviews with Arab editors and media consultants.
It is not yet entirely clear how this will affect the current advertising-dependent business model of Arab print journalism and media. But what is certain, these experts say, is that if publications want to weather the coming storm they must start to experiment with new digital content, new ways of reaching readers and new revenue streams. “The future is definitely digital; however, it will probably take more time [to arrive] in the Middle East than it took in other parts of the world,” said Jayant Bhargava of Booz & Company in an interview.
A 2011 Booz report that Bhargava helped write, The Advent of Digital News in the GCC, talks about “the creeping digital threat” to the region’s print media. In a poll of more than five hundred news consumers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Booz found that 76 percent already had reduced or stopped reading print newspapers and instead were getting their news online. Given this “alarming” finding, the report warned, traditional media “must prepare for the inevitable or risk losing share of their existing revenues.” It added that this will be no easy feat, given “that the digital landscape is still evolving and that the right business model has yet to be fully defined.”
“[Media organizations] are not sleeping. They see the dangers of the coming days,” said Mohammad Alfal, deputy editor-in-chief of Jeddah-based Okaz, which is Saudi Arabia’s most-read newspaper and has a daily circulation of 150,000. Alfal noted that “electronic media” gets little attention from Saudi advertisers, who still prefer to spend most of their money in newspapers and television. He added, “I think these attitudes will be changed soon. It will not continue like that.”
Digital advertising growing at expense of print
According to the Arab Media Outlook Report, television received the largest share of advertising money spent in 2011, at 40 percent. Newspapers were close behind, garnering 37 percent. The significant point, however, is that newspapers’ share of the region’s advertising revenue has been declining since 2007 (in 2009 it was 39 percent) and is projected to continue shrinking—to 31 percent by 2015. Newspaper circulation growth has also been slowing and recorded its smallest increase in 2011. “The number of newspaper titles has remained relatively flat despite the flurry of activity generated by new launches, shutdowns and continued migration to online,” the report said.
Meanwhile, digital received a meager 4 percent of advertising revenue in 2011—but its future is bright. According to the Outlook, digital media are “the fastest growing platform in the region” and its share of advertising money is expected to increase to 10 percent by 2015—an increase that will be “at the expense of print.” By comparison, the digital share of advertising expenditures in 2011 was 32.3 percent in the United Kingdom and 16.8 percent in the United States, according to the Outlook.
The reasons why the so-called “digital platform” will increasingly grab more advertising revenue are fairly obvious. First, the Middle East is a youthful region, with 53 percent of its population below the age of twenty-five. Young people are comfortable socializing and getting their news online.
Second, broadband capabilities are expanding everywhere in the region, offering faster, more reliable, and cheaper connectivity to the Internet for more and more people. Web-enabled mobile devices are also proliferating. Overall, smartphone penetration in the region is around 18 percent, the Outlook noted. In some countries it is significantly higher: 67.6 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 28 percent in Egypt.
As for magazines, their share of advertising revenue is also declining (from 6 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2011), but those targeting specific audiences are enjoying more stability than newspapers “with new titles emerging in the lifestyle and women’s genres,” the Outlook stated. The “print magazine format still holds significant appeal for advertisers in the region,” it added.
Not yet in crisis, newspapers have some breathing room
The decline in newspapers’ advertising revenue has been, and may continue to be, less precipitous than in other parts of the world for several reasons. For one, says Bhargava, newspapers in the region profit from Arab television’s unusual profile. Despite more than five hundred free channels, a handful of pan-Arab brands dominate the market, such as Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) and Rotana. These large, pan-Arab stations attract the lion’s share of both audiences and advertising revenue. National television stations, mostly state-run, have far fewer viewers.
Thus when large national advertisers, such as banks and telecom companies, want to run national ad campaigns (rather than pan-Arab ones), they turn to newspapers. This has led to an anomalous situation, Bhargava added, where in some Arab countries “you would have over 60 percent of (advertising) expenditure at the national level going to print media, which is not seen in any part of the world. Typically, you would have television and newspapers pretty much head-on with how much share they get from advertisers in a country.”
The region’s strong newspaper culture is another reason why advertisers favor print media. “You still have people who like to hold a newspaper and buy it,” explains Magda Abu-Fadil, director of Beirut-based Media Unlimited, which trains journalists.
“You know, in the West, everybody starts their day by looking at their laptops and searching for news. This is still not the habit in the Middle East,” says Sana Nafia of the London-based Al Khaleejiah Advertising and Public Relations Company. Advertisers know that adults with purchasing power still read print editions of newspapers, she added.
Despite growing broadband capabilities, many people still do not have easy, fast access to the Internet. As Fadi Salem, director of the Governance and Innovation program at the Dubai School of Government, notes, “There is still a future for the traditional and print media given that people connected to the Internet are not the majority yet.”
This is the case in Egypt, where broadband penetration is much lower than in the Gulf: people will continue to read print media for some time to come. Even young people still read newspapers regularly, usually when in transit to work or home, said Khaled Omar, a journalist at Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s largest daily (circulation 250,000). “They are very interested in politics and can’t [get] a good amount from the Internet,” he said.