Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world

Caroline Faraj, vice president for Arabic Services at CNN. (Supplied)
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Updated 10 May 2021

Interview: CNN’s Caroline Faraj talks journalism in a digital world

  • Caroline Faraj, Vice President for Arabic Services at CNN, shares the news channel’s growth and strategy

DUBAI: With more and more people consuming news online, it has become increasingly important for news outlets — print or TV — to digitize their offerings.

CNN, one of the biggest news outlets in the world, broke all records last year with CNN Digital reaching its largest and most engaged global audience. In the region, CNN Arabic registered its highest year on record for average monthly unique visitors, which was up 34 percent from 2019 largely driven by record-high levels of mobile consumption which grew by 24 percent from 2019.

Arab News spoke to Caroline Faraj, vice president for Arabic Services at CNN, to learn more about the growth story and future strategy of CNN Arabic.

Can you share how much of the traffic is organic, versus from other sources such as social media?

It is a significant strength and differentiator that the vast majority of CNN Digital and CNN Arabic’s traffic comes to us directly. CNN is one of the few remaining destinations on the Internet where people seek out our home page or coverage of a particular story as they associate us with trusted news and information. While it is important for us to have a social presence, we are much less reliant on traffic referral from those platforms than other media due to the strength of our brand, both globally and with CNN Arabic.

What is the strategy to drive growth?

CNN Arabic is the Middle East’s leading independent news platform. What makes us stand out is that independence and our credible, authentic, factful reporting and the huge trust in the CNN brand which has tremendous value for our audience. We offer a global perspective, both on international news and on stories that are more regionally relevant or focused.

Being part of the world’s largest news network, with journalists working on stories from every continent, is an enormous asset in terms of the renowned quality of our journalism, the resources and wealth of talent in our teams and the recognition and confidence that the audience has in us. As we’ve seen with the record audience numbers, CNN is more essential than ever before in providing trusted news.

Our audience is powerful; the caliber of our audience differentiates us from other news media. Political leaders, CEOs, celebrities and people at the top of their industry, actively share, reference and act upon our reporting. We reach these audiences at scale including opinion-formers, change-makers, high-spenders, travelers and business decision-makers.

Having an impact, creating change and being an essential trusted news source is key to maintaining and driving growth among our influential audience and reaching new and younger audiences.

Analysis from a recent brand study that we conducted showed that with the news events of 2020 and the outlook for 2021, 91 percent of consumers from the Middle East and Africa region feel the role of international news media is now more important than ever.

Our strategy is based on constant innovation and responding to the audience and their consumption habits, the formats and the stories that they’re engaging with. The closer we are to our audience the better we are in offering and curating the content they are interested in.

Underpinning everything is a data-led approach that analyzes audience trends and behavior to give insight on where we can grow and serve our audience even better in the future. For example, our analysis shows that our Arabic audience expands well beyond the region and there are growth opportunities with Arabic speakers in the US. Along with breaking news, we know that business, technology, travel, sports and entertainment are key areas of interest for our audiences.

Another area for growth is in our products such as audio and newsletters. Globally downloads of CNN audio content increased by over 75 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and there’s been a huge demand for CNN newsletters as subscriptions grew by 90 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. We’re currently developing concepts for Arabic audiences.

How did CNN Arabic adapt to digital and mobile?

CNN Arabic has been a digital destination from the outset when we launched almost 20 years ago. As a digital-first brand, we have been well ahead of many of the competitors. Mobile has been at the core of our offering ever since the introduction of the smartphone. It will remain a focus, in line with the Middle Eastern audience’s preference, as we’re currently seeing the majority of traffic on mobile, which is at almost 90 percent in some cases.

What are your plans for the future?

We are listening to our audience’s needs and making changes as part of our commitment to them. Plans include expanding into audio and newsletters, which as I mentioned we’re seeing huge growth in globally. The product portfolio will grow, content formats will evolve and become more immersive and we’re exploring a move into events.

An area that I am very passionate about is training the next generation of journalists. For many years we’ve offered internships at CNN Arabic; we’ve had more than 120 interns from around the world and have provided training courses in the region. This has been formalized this year through the CNN Academy Abu Dhabi, which I was proud to be part of. As we look to the future, I am keen for CNN Arabic to bring this level of training for Arabic speakers that want to learn about the skills of our trade.

From a commercial perspective, we are also looking forward to working with more brands. CNN Arabic is the ideal platform if an advertiser wants to reach Arabic audiences at scale in a premium environment. We work closely with our commercial partners to develop innovative solutions and ensure that their messages cut through in sponsorships, digital advertising and audience targeting.

How has news media changed in the past few years – especially during the pandemic – both from a user consumption perspective as well as from a media owner perspective?

People can get news in numerous different ways and are surrounded by so many of sources of information. The pandemic has certainly prompted behavioral changes and accelerated the need and appreciation for factual, trustworthy and accurate reporting. With the growing prevalence of information sources, people are turning to brands they trust for news and information. We’ve seen that with our record-breaking traffic. Even though there are more sources than ever, and more platforms than ever, we had our best year on record.

We’ve also seen changes in consumption habits with round the clock engagement as audiences are regularly checking in on the latest news on their phone and we’re seeing high demand for video content.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between news media and companies such as Facebook and Google and the consequent idea of these companies compensating publishers?

We work with all the major platforms, and last year we partnered with Facebook on a campaign about maintaining community and connection during Ramadan.

When working with any of the platforms, publishers need to have a path to revenue. It’s important for us to have a presence on various platforms, but our focus is on our owned and operated platforms, such as with the move of the Go There show from Facebook onto our own website and mobile apps.


Spotify launches Greenroom, which allows users to join live discussions or to host their own

Updated 18 June 2021

Spotify launches Greenroom, which allows users to join live discussions or to host their own

  • Greenroom is the Swedish online music streaming giant’s answer to the popular platform Clubhouse

NEW YORK: Spotify on Wednesday launched a live audio app called Greenroom, the Swedish online music streaming giant’s answer to the popular platform Clubhouse.
Greenroom allows users to join live discussions or to host their own.
Spotify launched Greenroom after acquiring Betty Labs, the company behind the popular sports-focused audio platform Locker Room.
Along with podcasts, social audio has taken off over the past year with the San Francisco-based Clubhouse leading the way.
Since December, Clubhouse has been downloaded over 18 million times, according to the site AppMagic.
Other tech giants have also jumped into the live audio sector with Twitter launching Spaces in December and Facebook hosting Live Audio Rooms.
Questions remain, however, over the ability of the various platforms to monetize their content.
They will also have to compete with Discord, which has been offering live audio since 2015 and has more than 140 million users although it has been more focused on video game players.
Spotify has the advantage of already being an audio platform through its focus on music and, more recently, podcasts.


Chinese apps could face subpoenas or bans under Biden order

Updated 18 June 2021

Chinese apps could face subpoenas or bans under Biden order

  • US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will decide which apps to target for US action
  • Apps linked to other adversaries such as Iran or Venezuela are already blocked under broader sanctions

President Joe Biden’s executive order aimed at safeguarding Americans’ sensitive data would force some Chinese apps to take tougher measures to protect private information if they want to remain in the US market, according to people familiar with the matter.
The goal is to keep foreign adversaries like China and Russia from gaining access to large amounts of personal and proprietary business information.
The US Department of Commerce may issue subpoenas to collect information about certain smartphone, tablet and desktop computer software applications. Then the agency may negotiate conditions for their use in the United States or ban the apps, according to people familiar with the matter.
Biden’s June 9 order replaced former President Donald Trump’s 2020 bans against the popular Chinese applications WeChat, owned by Tencent Holdings Co, and ByteDance Ltd’s TikTok. US courts halted those bans.
US officials share many of the concerns Trump cited in his order banning TikTok, according to one person familiar with the matter. Notably, they fear that China could track the locations of US government employees, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail and conduct corporate espionage.
While the new order does not name companies, it could end up capturing more apps than the Trump bans and hold up better if challenged in court. Reuters is the first to report details on how the Biden administration plans to implement the order, including seeking support from other countries.
US officials have begun speaking with allies about adopting a similar approach, one source said. The hope is that partner countries will agree on apps that should be banned.
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will decide which apps to target for US action, but they must meet certain criteria. For instance, they must be owned, controlled or managed by a person or entity that supports the military or intelligence activities of a foreign adversary such as China or Russia.

WeChat, TikTok may be reviewed
If Raimondo decides an app poses an unacceptable risk, she “has the discretion to notify the parties” directly or publish the information in the government’s official daily publication, the Federal Register, a Commerce Department spokesman said.
Companies will then have 30 days to object or propose measures to secure data better, the Commerce spokesman said.
The process stems from a May 2019 Trump executive order for reviewing information and communications technology from foreign adversaries.
Apps from China are most likely to find themselves in the Commerce Department’s crosshairs given escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Chinese government’s ability to exert control over companies and the number of Chinese apps used by Americans.
WeChat, TikTok and eight other apps targeted by the Trump administration in its last months are eligible for review by Biden’s team, one source said.
The Trump targets also included Ant Group’s Alipay mobile payment app, WeChat Pay, Tencent Holdings Ltd’s QQ Wallet, Tencent QQ, CamScanner, SHAREit, VMate published by Alibaba Group subsidiary UCWeb and Beijing Kingsoft Office Software’s WPS Office.
Some of the apps named by Trump have serious data protection issues, while it’s unclear why others pose a heightened risk to national security, according to another person familiar with the matter.
The order will apply to business apps, including those used in banking and telecommunications, as well as consumer apps, the first source said.
Apps linked to other adversaries such as Iran or Venezuela are already blocked under broader sanctions. 


Spotify launches Greenroom, a Clubhouse competitor

Spotify has the advantage of already being an audio platform through its focus on music. (AFP)
Updated 17 June 2021

Spotify launches Greenroom, a Clubhouse competitor

  • Spotify launches Greenroom, a live discussion app similar to Clubhouse.
  • Other tech giants have also jumped into the live audio sector with Twitter launching Spaces in December and Facebook hosting Live Audio Rooms.

NEW YORK: Spotify on Wednesday launched a live audio app called Greenroom, the Swedish online music streaming giant’s answer to the popular platform Clubhouse.
Greenroom allows users to join live discussions or to host their own.
Spotify launched Greenroom after acquiring Betty Labs, the company behind the popular sports-focused audio platform Locker Room.
Along with podcasts, social audio has taken off over the past year with the San Francisco-based Clubhouse leading the way.
Since December, Clubhouse has been downloaded over 18 million times, according to the site AppMagic.
Other tech giants have also jumped into the live audio sector with Twitter launching Spaces in December and Facebook hosting Live Audio Rooms.
Questions remain, however, over the ability of the various platforms to monetize their content.
They will also have to compete with Discord, which has been offering live audio since 2015 and has more than 140 million users although it has been more focused on video game players.
Spotify has the advantage of already being an audio platform through its focus on music and, more recently, podcasts.


Facebook AI software able to dig up origins of deepfake images

Deepfakes are photos, videos or audio clips altered using artificial intelligence to appear authentic. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 June 2021

Facebook AI software able to dig up origins of deepfake images

  • New artificial intelligence software will identify deepfake images and locate their origin, reveleaed Facebook.
  • Facebook’s new software runs deepfakes through a network to search for imperfections left during the manufacturing process.

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook scientists on Wednesday said they developed artificial intelligence software to not only identify “deepfake” images but to figure out where they came from.
Deepfakes are photos, videos or audio clips altered using artificial intelligence to appear authentic, which experts have warned can mislead or be completely false.
Facebook research scientists Tal Hassner and Xi Yin said their team worked with Michigan State University to create software that reverse engineers deepfake images to figure out how they were made and where they originated.
“Our method will facilitate deepfake detection and tracing in real-world settings, where the deepfake image itself is often the only information detectors have to work with,” the scientists said in a blog post.
“This work will give researchers and practitioners tools to better investigate incidents of coordinated disinformation using deepfakes, as well as open up new directions for future research,” they added.
Facebook’s new software runs deepfakes through a network to search for imperfections left during the manufacturing process, which the scientists say alter an image’s digital “fingerprint.”
“In digital photography, fingerprints are used to identify the digital camera used to produce an image,” the scientists said.
“Similar to device fingerprints, image fingerprints are unique patterns left on images... that can equally be used to identify the generative model that the image came from.”
“Our research pushes the boundaries of understanding in deepfake detection,” they said.
Microsoft late last year unveiled software that can help spot deepfake photos or videos, adding to an arsenal of programs designed to fight the hard-to-detect images ahead of the US presidential election.
The company’s Video Authenticator software analyzes an image or each frame of a video, looking for evidence of manipulation that could be invisible to the naked eye.


Major banks, airlines hit in new global online outage

A message on the ANZ app told customers: 'Sorry, something went wrong. Please try again later. If you need help, give us a call anytime'. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 June 2021

Major banks, airlines hit in new global online outage

  • Another global online outage hits major banks and airlines in the US and Australia.
  • It is the latest incident to draw attention to the stability of economically vital online platforms.

SYDNEY: Major banks and airlines were among businesses hit by a fresh global online outage Thursday, with the problem traced to US-based tech provider Akamai.
An hour-long blackout hit a number of US airlines and several Australian financial firms as well as other companies dotted around the world, with angry customers unable to access websites and mobile apps.
“We are aware of the issue and actively working to restore services as soon as possible,” an Akamai spokesperson told AFP.
American, Delta, United and Southwest airlines were among those affected, while the issue appeared to be more prolonged in Australia — where problems struck in mid-afternoon as much of the rest of the world slept.
Australia’s largest financial firm Commonwealth Bank told AFP that it and many of the country’s major lenders had been hit.
The outages, which began around 2:10pm Sydney time (0510 GMT), also hit Australia’s postal service and Virgin Australia.
The airline said in a statement that it “was one of many organizations to experience an outage with the Akamai content delivery system.”
A spokesperson for ANZ bank told AFP the incident was “related to an external provider” but that “connectivity was restored quickly and the most impacted services are back online.”
Westpac and ME Bank also reported problems with their mobile apps or online banking products, while customers for St. George and several regional banks reported they were also down.
It is the latest incident to draw attention to the stability of economically vital online platforms, and the key role that a handful of mostly unknown companies play in keeping the web running.
Last week US media and government websites, including the White House, New York Times, Reddit and Amazon were temporarily hit after a glitch with cloud computing services provider Fastly.
Fastly offers a service to websites around the world to speed up loading time for websites.
Akamai offers a range of similar IT products designed to boost online performance and security.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company did not specify what product the problem came from, but one company reported it used Akamai for “IT network authentication.”
A series of high-profile hack-for-ransom attacks have also left corporations around the world jittery over cybersecurity risks, although there was no indication the latest problems were caused by malicious actors.
Colonial Pipeline was briefly shuttered after an attack in May, and JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, was forced to stop operations in the United States and Australia.
Both firms reportedly paid ransom to get operations back up and running.
The issue of cybersecurity was at the top of the agenda when US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Geneva on Wednesday.
Washington believes hackers who have extorted hundreds of millions of dollars from Western governments, companies, and organizations operate from Russian soil.