Interview: Gulf News chief editor reveals paywall strategy, explains why it is key to saving journalism

Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Gulf News’ CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Publications
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Updated 24 April 2021

Interview: Gulf News chief editor reveals paywall strategy, explains why it is key to saving journalism

  • Gulf News is the UAE’s main English language daily, its decision is a first for an Emirati newspaper

DUBAI: In an online universe awash with websites publishing free but inaccurate information, and social media sites offering megaphones to unfiltered opinion, it is no surprise that trusted news media around the globe are facing one of their toughest choices to date — whether to erect a paywall.
Gulf News, the leading UAE English-language daily, is the first to adopt a paywall strategy, asking users to subscribe to one of three currently discounted packages that will allow access to content.

“People think that when you go behind the wall, you’re preventing readers from reading. No, in fact, you’re opening a gateway for them for trusted journalism,” Gulf News’ CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Publications, Abdul Hamid Ahmad, exclusively told Arab News.

“That’s important, you know, and in today’s world, you don’t know how many websites there are, how many on social media, how many of this false, fake news. We are here to give the good journalism, the trusted journalism,” he said.

Indeed, at a time when many international news outlets have been lowering their paywalls to allow users access to crucial COVID-19-related news, the question must be asked: Why now?

“Our whole point was that we have high traffic, and we want the engagement with our readers. We have a very strong, loyal readership and, therefore, when we went into the paywall model, we’ve given everybody an opportunity to come through gulfnews.com to get COVID news,” Meher Murshed, Gulf News executive editor of digital, told Arab News.




Meher Murshed, Gulf News executive editor of digital

“If you come through the site, it gives you the flexibility of scanning the entire site without coming upon a wall. You can read the full site, you know, and get your news, and then move on if you wish.”

The UAE daily competes with media outlets such as The National, Khaleej Times and a host of other publications that currently do not require a paid subscription, and the editors believe that their unique readers will not migrate from the platform to others due to the paywall.

“That’s our strength — the audience that we have is an engaged audience, it’s a local audience and expatriates who want news on the home country and the opinion,” Murshed said.

Currently, the news industry relies heavily on advertising revenue to remain afloat, and while Gulf News averages 230 million page views with 15 million unique visitors monthly, subscriptions will not become the paper’s main source of funding.

INNUMBERS

15 million monthly users

230 million monthly page views

Over 5.4 million engaged social audience

He added: “It’s not that we blocked anyone out, or anything like that. In fact, if anything, the engagement level has gone up, even during these times.”

However, both Ahmad and Murshed believe that this will fine tune the types of ads with which readers interact.

“You have to respect the reader — you have to give them a good experience when they read and not bombard them with too many ads and disrupt their reading,” Ahmad said.

“If you respect the reader, the advertiser will respect you and will come to you.”

Murshed echoed Ahmad’s comments, saying: “I think the advertising and the readers go hand in hand. They always have and always will. I don’t think you can choose one or the other.”

The paywall decision required a lot of research, Ahmad and Murshed said, before deciding on a unique model to offer readers an engaging experience — subscriber or not.

“It’s not a model that you see anywhere in the world, because we have a unique audience, and I think we are catering to them,” Murshed said.

While a dip in readership is expected, as is the case when any paywall is set up, the editors are unfazed by the challenge and, if anything, are confident even more readers will sign up.

“It’s a milestone for us, certainly, and at every milestone you have to face certain challenges. Now the challenge for us is really to keep the content as good as it is — it matters to the reader. When the reader feels that you have the content that others don’t have, they’ll come to you,” Ahmad said.

“So, if you keep providing the reader with good content, they will come to you, and stay with you and trust you,” he added, “But when you say good content, it also has to be verified, fact-checked and credible. It also has to be told in a way that is attractive.”

Established over four decades ago, Gulf News has now expanded, with sections on personal finance, parenting and food that cater to a wide UAE readership.

“For 42 years, we’ve been providing content, very strong content, reliable, and we are continuing to do so. Gulf News has been looking to strengthen and innovate all along the way,” Murshed said.

“So, I think, you know, we will give the audience what we do best — what they want, what they’re looking for, and we will strengthen it further and evolve. That’s our journey,” he added.


Dutch journalist held in Greece for sheltering asylum seeker

After spending the night in a police cell, Beugel said she was put on a ferry to a court in Piraeus, handcuffed to Fridoon. (File/Twitter)
Updated 18 min 51 sec ago

Dutch journalist held in Greece for sheltering asylum seeker

  • Dutch journalist, Ingeborg Beugel, faces a year in prison and a hefty fine in Greece for sheltering an Afghan asylum seeker.
  • Beugel had been trying to help her 23-year-old Afghan guest Fridoon, who had been picked up by Greek police earlier in the day.

ATHENS: A Dutch journalist faces a year in prison and a 5000-euro ($6,000) fine in Greece after police arrested her for sheltering a young Afghan asylum seeker, her lawyer said Wednesday.
Ingeborg Beugel, 61, says she spent the night in a police cell earlier this month on the island of Hydra and was taken handcuffed to court under a 30-year-old law designed to discourage assistance to Albanians who came to Greece illegally at the time.
Since coming to power in 2019, the conservative Greek government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has toughened migration and asylum laws.
Beugel’s lawyer Vassilis Papadopoulos told AFP that being convicted for sheltering a migrant would be “very unusual in Greece.”
A correspondent for Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, Beugel was arrested on June 13 in Hydra where she has lived on and off with her children for the past 40 years.
She had been trying to help her 23-year-old Afghan guest Fridoon, who had been picked up by police earlier in the day.
After spending the night in a police cell, Beugel said she was put on a ferry to a court in Piraeus, handcuffed to Fridoon.
Having alerted the Dutch embassy in Athens, she was soon released and her court case was postponed to October.
“The clause in the law is about hiding undocumented migrants. I have never hidden that Fridoon lives with me,” Beugel told De Groene Amsterdammer, which reported on her story.
In an interview with AFP, Beugel said a police officer told her that “angry islanders had called the police, anonymously.”
She added that Fridoon only became “’illegal’ involuntarily” as the Greek Asylum Service was closed for months due to the pandemic and he was unable to meet specific deadlines.
He fled Kabul because his father and uncle were killed by the Taliban, and arrived in Lesbos in 2015, Beugel said.
“He has had two asylum applications rejected because in July 2017 when he had to tell his story to the Greek Asylum Service, he got a translator who wrote his story wrong in Greek. It took years to correct that wrongdoing, and he is now entitled to another attempt,” she told AFP.
In 2017 in a similar case, Cedric Herrou, a French national, was sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of 3,000 euros for sheltering migrants. He was acquitted on appeal in 2020.


British minister urges same rules for streaming services, broadcasters -Times

British minister urges same rules for streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 June 2021

British minister urges same rules for streaming services, broadcasters -Times

  • British government draw plans to make streaming services follow the code of British regulator Ofcom, says Culture Secretary.
  • The government will consult on whether it is time to set the same basic rules for video-on-demand services as is done for traditional broadcasters

June 23 : Britain’s streaming services and broadcasters should be on a level playing field, as traditional broadcasters now compete with “one hand tied behind their backs,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said on Wednesday.
Dowden is to unveil plans for a white paper on broadcasting that aims to make streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ follow the code of British regulator Ofcom, he said in the Times newspaper “Every “linear” broadcaster — BBC, Sky and so on — has to comply with stringent content and audience protection standards,” Dowden said in an article published on Wednesday.
“You might assume the same is true of video-on-demand services such as Amazon Prime and Disney+. You’d be wrong.”
The government will consult this summer on whether it is time to set the same basic rules for video-on-demand services as is done for traditional broadcasters, he added.
“The white paper will also set out proposals on how we ensure public service broadcasters are given sufficient visibility...online, and ensure viewers can continue to find and watch original and high-quality British programs.”
Separately, Britain’s Conservative government said it plans to sell Channel 4, launched 39 years ago as an alternative to the BBC and ITV, to help secure its future as a public service broadcaster.
“In summer I will consult on the sale of Channel 4,” Dowden wrote, adding that he would proceed on the lines that an alternative ownership model retaining the broadcaster’s public service remit would better serve both it and Britain.


Trial of Moroccan journalists raises fears of repression

Morocco’s national press union has called for the provisional release of the two journalists but defended the right of the plaintiff to seek justice in a fair trial. (AFP)
Updated 23 June 2021

Trial of Moroccan journalists raises fears of repression

  • The trail of the two Moroccan journalists accused of sexual assault have raised fears of increasing state repression.
  • Rights activists believe the authorities are using pre-trial detention to target political opponents by applying the law unevenly.

CASABLANCA: New hearings took place on Tuesday in the trials of two dissident journalists in Morocco accused of sexual assault, whose detention rights groups see as evidence of increasing state repression and a push to silence dissent.
The two men, Soulimane Raisouni and Omar Radi, who both deny the accusations against them, have spent a year in pre-trial detention and Raisouni has been on hunger strike for over two months, raising concerns about his health.
The cases have brought into focus fears that the ruling authorities are increasingly intolerant of dissent and will manipulate Moroccan law to silence critics, a group of rights organizations said in April.
“What remains of press freedom in Morocco is under siege, and those who dare to publicly criticize the increasingly repressive regime face prosecution on dubious charges and slander campaigns,” said the groups, which included Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Moroccan government and the judiciary deny that the prosecution is politically motivated. The plaintiffs in the cases accuse the rights groups of ignoring what they call their own quest for justice in a system that has often shielded sexual abusers.
The Minister in charge of Human Rights, Mustapha Ramid, did not respond to Reuters calls or messages but has previously described Morocco as “neither a hell nor a paradise for human rights.”
The government says the judiciary is independent in line with Morocco’s 2011 constitution and that courts implement national law.

OUTSPOKEN CRITICS
Rights activists believe the authorities are using pre-trial detention to target political opponents by applying the law unevenly. Raisouni and Radi are outspoken critics of public policy, the judiciary and Morocco’s human rights record.
“There was no written justification for this pre-trial detention,” said Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch, who was observing the trial.
Several other cases have been brought against prominent dissidents over the past two years, including a historian accused of money laundering and another journalist, Raisouni’s niece, who was convicted of having an illegal abortion.
“The detention of Soulaiman and Omar is vindictive because of their work as journalists and their human rights activism,” said the niece, Hajjar Raisouni, who was pardoned in 2019.
Radi, a journalist and activist, has been held since July last year on charges of raping a woman and spying, which he also denies. The court in Casablanca will on Tuesday hear the core of the charges against him.
Raisouni, a newspaper editor detained in May 2020, is accused of sexually assaulting a man. Hearings on his case have focused on whether he is well enough to stand trial, with the prosecution accusing him of delaying tactics.
His wife and defense team say his hunger strike has left him dangerously ill and that he should be in hospital. Prison authorities and the state-appointed National Human Rights Council have said his health is stable.
Lawyers for the pair said their detention before the trial was arbitrary and “a violation of the presumption of innocence,” adding that both men had provided guarantees of attending the trial.
Raisouni’s accuser, publicly identified only as “Adam,” told Reuters that efforts to cast the case as political were denying his right to justice and accused rights groups of failing to support the LGBTQ community in Morocco.
Radi’s accuser, Hafsa Boutahar, his colleague, said she was “speaking up for all raped women” and accused rights groups of victim-blaming.
Morocco’s national press union has called for the provisional release of the two journalists but defended the right of the plaintiff to seek justice in a fair trial.


People want trusted news, Reuters Institute says

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a research center at the University of Oxford that tracks media trends. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 June 2021

People want trusted news, Reuters Institute says

  • The COVID-19 pandemic pushed people to seek trusted, impartial and objective news, survey finds.
  • Trust in news grew during the pandemic, especially in Western Europe, helping brands with a reputation for reliable reporting.

LONDON: The coronavirus pandemic stoked hunger for trusted news in a time of global crisis and a clear majority of people want media organizations to be impartial and objective, The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said on Wednesday.
Trust in news grew during the pandemic, especially in Western Europe, helping brands with a reputation for reliable reporting, though mistrust was particularly apparent in the polarized media of the United States.
A clear majority of people across countries believed news outlets should reflect a range of views and try to be neutral, the institute said in its annual Digital News Report “We’ve been through a very dark time and much of the public recognize that news organizations have often been the ones shining light in that darkness,” said Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute.
“There has been a greater appreciation of trustworthy news overall,” he told Reuters. “It’s very clear in our research, in country after country, in age group after age group, that large majorities want journalism to try to be neutral.”
The report is based on surveys covering 46 markets and more than half the world’s population.
The accelerating technological revolution means 73 percent of people now access news via a smartphone, up from 69 percent in 2020, while many use social media networks or messaging apps to consume or discuss news. TikTok now reaches 24 percent of under 35s, with higher penetration rates in Asia and Latin America.
Facebook is seen as the main artery for spreading false information, though messaging apps such as WhatsApp also play a role.
But the tech giants also served as an avenue for dissent, The Reuters Institute said, citing protests in Peru, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and the United States.
More people distrusted the news than trusted it in the United States, where Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 US presidential election reduced demand for news.
Broadly, those who felt the media has been unfair were those with a right-leaning political outlook. Young people aged 18-24, Black and Hispanic Americans, East Germans and certain British socio-economic classes felt they were covered unfairly.
But the overall message was that most people want fair and balanced news, and despite deepening problems for the business model of print news, many will pay for it.
“While impartial or objective journalism is increasingly questioned by some, overall people strongly support the ideal of impartial news,” Craig T. Robertson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute, wrote in the report.
“People want the right to decide for themselves.”
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a research center at the University of Oxford that tracks media trends. The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, funds the Reuters Institute.


From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

Biden elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 June 2021

From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

  • US President Joe Biden believes steps are needed to protect privacy, generate more innovation and deal with other problems created by big technology platforms.
  • The huge legislative package from the House Judiciary Committee targets big tech companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up.

WASHINGTON: Without speaking a word or scratching a pen across paper, President Joe Biden drove up the pressure on Big Tech companies already smarting under federal and congressional investigations, epic antitrust lawsuits and near-constant condemnation from politicians of both parties.
Biden last week elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech, antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan, to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission. The surprise move was a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and came as sweeping bipartisan legislation advanced in the House that could curb their market power and force them to sever their dominant platforms from their other lines of business.
The House Judiciary Committee is digging into the legislation in a public drafting session Wednesday, an initial step in what promises to be a strenuous slog through Congress. Many Republican lawmakers denounce the market dominance of Big Tech but don’t support a wholesale revamp of the antitrust laws. Republicans have relentlessly hurled accusations of anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms and may demand targeted legislative sanctions in return for their support.
The huge legislative package, led by industry critic Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., targets the companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up, a dramatic step for Congress to take against a powerful industry whose products are woven into everyday life. If such steps were mandated, they could bring the biggest changes to the industry since the federal government’s landmark case against Microsoft some 20 years ago.
“It will be a really heavy lift,” says Rebecca Allensworth, a professor of antitrust at Vanderbilt University Law School. The complex language that could eventually be laid down may invite fights in the courts by rewriting four decades of antitrust case law, she suggested.
Lauded as engines of innovation, the Silicon Valley giants for decades enjoyed minimal regulation and star status in Washington, with a notable coziness during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. The industry’s fortunes abruptly reversed about two years ago, when the companies came under intense federal scrutiny, a searing congressional investigation, and growing public criticism over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.
Biden said as a presidential candidate that dismantling the big tech companies should be considered. He also has said he wants to see changes to the social media companies’ long-held legal protections for speech on their platforms.
The legislative proposals also would prohibit the tech giants from favoring their own products and services over competitors on their platforms. The legislation was informed by a 15-month Judiciary subcommittee antitrust investigation, led by Cicilline, that concluded the four tech giants have abused their market power by charging excessive fees, imposing tough contract terms and extracting valuable data from individuals and businesses that rely on them.
The four companies deny abusing their dominant market position and have asserted that improper intervention in the market through legislation would hurt small businesses and consumers.
The legislation also would make it tougher for the giant tech companies to snap up competitors in mergers, which they have completed by scores in recent years.
And the legislation asks Congress to boost the budgets of regulators who police competition, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. State attorneys general would get power over companies to choose which courts to prosecute tech antitrust cases in. Some expert observers view those as the less complicated and less controversial parts of the legislation that may stand a better chance of making it to congressional passage.
Democrats control the House, but they would need to garner significant Republican support in the Senate for legislation to pass. The chamber is split 50-50 with the Democrats’ one-vote margin depending on Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker.
The tech industry has known that major antitrust legislation would likely follow the House investigation. And it was known for months that Biden was naming Lina Khan as one of five members of the FTC. But Silicon Valley — and nearly everyone inside the Beltway — was blindsided by Biden’s lightning move elevating Khan to head the independent agency. She was sworn in just hours after the Senate confirmed her as one of five commissioners on a 69-28 vote.
Khan, who has been a law professor at Columbia University, burst onto the antitrust scene with her weighty scholarly work in 2017 as a Yale law student, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” She helped lay the foundation for a new way of looking at antitrust law beyond the impact of big-company market dominance on consumer prices. As counsel to the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, she played a key role in the 2019-20 investigation of the tech giants’ market power.
At 32, Khan is believed to be the youngest chair in the history of the FTC, which polices competition and consumer protection in industry generally as well as digital privacy.
Last October the Trump Justice Department, joined by about a dozen states, filed a ground-breaking antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition. That was followed in December by a big antitrust suit against Facebook, brought by the FTC and nearly every US state. It seeks remedies that could include a forced spinoff of the popular Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services.
European watchdogs, meanwhile, are stepping up their antitrust actions against the tech giants. In the latest move, word came Tuesday that European Union regulators have opened a new investigation into whether Google stifled competition in digital ad technology. The EU regulators have previously charged Apple with stifling competition in music streaming, and accused Amazon of using data from independent merchants to unfairly compete against them with its own products.
EU and British regulators recently opened dual antitrust probes into whether Facebook distorts competition in the classified advertising market by using data to unfairly compete against rival services.