How COVID-19 crisis changed the scene for Middle East news media

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Updated 18 March 2022

How COVID-19 crisis changed the scene for Middle East news media

  • Expert panel analyzed “News media business after print?” as part of the Media Leaders eSummit
  • Participants said the pandemic presented the case for faster adoption of online business models

DUBAI: Publishers in the Arab world unpacked the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their industry in a virtual conference on Tuesday.

During a panel discussion titled “News media business after print?”, as part of the Media Leaders eSummit, they analyzed how the health crisis changed the scene for publishers in the Middle East.

Abdulsalam Haykal, chairman of Majarra in the UAE, mentioned several ways in which the changes to media content were brought about.

“It forced people into solitude,” he said. “So that new mindset and framework of ‘working from home’ elevated technology to a position of a partner. It was a strategic tool we used, but now it’s a partner we rely and depend on, so life happens now through technologies.”

This change also brought about a new need for instant information and knowledge among consumers. For Haykal, a collaborative approach emerged towards combating the pandemic, with a need to understand their role in that approach.

“We wanted to know how other people were dealing with it, the skillset and the tools, and to learn as we lived through it,” he said.

COVID-19 also presented the case for faster adoption of online business models that made room for new upgrades in technology infrastructure, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, and introduced new practices such as the subscription business model.

According to Haykal, these elements combined present a golden opportunity for publishers in the region to look to subscription models.

However, he added that any move in that direction will require a great degree of trust between publisher and consumer.

“Trust in our business is to have information, knowledge and news that are reliable, to have a user experience so that people can move through that knowledge and information smoothly and consistently,” he said.

“(It) is necessary for us, as publishers and content creators, to elevate our own content and user experience to that level as well.”

He said that news is a commodity around the world, and many publishers are looking to move beyond just the news and allow consumers to understand what it means for their lives, giving consumers the entire online news and analysis experience through brand association with different organizations.

“The challenge is people compare us with any app where they have a better experience,” he said.

“The expectation from the online world is much higher. This is a chance for every publisher, in the region specifically, to make that leap into what is almost a white space.”

Mohamad K Alayyan, chairman and publisher of Al-Ghad Newspaper in Jordan, said the modern world is a village where “everything is out there” and comparison has become easy for consumers. This challenge, he added, has forced publishers to step up their game.

“The wake-up call from COVID-19 is that print no longer pays the bills, it can no longer sustain us and help us thrive in this sector,” Alyayyan said.

“But what helps us is having a brand that’s known for good quality content. No matter what, the need for quality content remains strong — people want good quality content and that’s where the starting point should be.”

Using good quality content and brands will help organizations overcome any disruption in technology.

Alyayyan’s said newspaper currently has a plan in place for such a transformation by diversifying its revenue through advertising and television.

“That’s only to make up for the lost revenue from the paper,” he said. “Then we went online, and we joined old publishers in Jordan in selling online advertising. After we secured the least damage in what COVID-19 has done to the revenue of the paper, now we have to look at what paywall we should do.”

The group is looking at where its data can help advise on readers’ preferences. This review, he believes, will set the foundations for a paywall’s starting point.

For Ahmad Al-Hammadi, CEO of press sector at Dubai Media Incorporated in the UAE, the link between COVID-19 and the media is very complicated, as the pandemic changed the media industry in its entirety, along with its behaviors and products.

“Three or four years ago, we were saying that one day, the newspaper will disappear and what would we do and going to the next stage technology wise,” he said.

“The question was there, and we weren’t taking any action. Suddenly, COVID-19 came to us, and we said we had to go through the experience, even if you don’t succeed.”

DMI halted newspaper printing during the pandemic, following more than 40 years in the market. Although it faced some difficulties, the DMI team believed it could reach the next stage and manage itself.

“But the revenue was totally dead,” Al-Hammadi said. “You cannot compare the revenue, which is the fuel of the company. Our digital platform is number one in the market here in our category by far, but COVID-19 changed all of our mindsets in the company.”

He said, however, that revenue from digital in the region is not to the level publishers are looking for, adding that some of the difficulties the market is facing is people’s mindset, media training centers that are lacking maturity, a lack of copywriters and insufficient revenue.

For Al-Hammadi, paid content is necessary for success and the group is currently in the process of following that path.

“All these obstacles are there, and people are trying to change,” he said.

“The industry is mature enough; we have to have a plan and not blame ourselves or each other. We have to try to solve the formula — everybody is trying, people are on the right track if they believe digital is yesterday, not the future.”

Vice to lay off hundreds of staff, close website

Updated 23 February 2024

Vice to lay off hundreds of staff, close website

  • Company is ‘no longer cost-effective and will transition to studio model’: CEO 
  • Unclear how decision will impact group’s presence in Riyadh

LONDON: Vice Media is set to lay off hundreds of staff and discontinue publication on its website.

An internal memo leaked to the media and later confirmed by Vice CEO Bruce Dixon said that the layoffs would begin early next week.

Dixon announced on Friday that the company is transitioning to a “studio model,” in a decision that was “not made lightly.” Affected employees will be “notified about next steps early next week.”

The decision is a result of Vice Media’s digital content distribution no longer being cost-effective, Dixon said.

The outlet will “look to partner with established media companies to distribute our digital content, including news, on their global platforms, as we fully transition to a studio model,” he added.

Dixon said that Refinery29, a Vice-owned women’s lifestyle-focused site, will continue to operate independently.

“Our financial partners are supportive and have agreed to invest in this operating model going forward. We will emerge stronger and more resilient as we embark on this new phase of our journey,” he added.

Reports of the layoffs come less than a year after Vice Media, whose assets include Vice News, Motherboard, Refinery29, i-D and Vice TV, was rescued from bankruptcy by a consortium of buyers from Fortress Investment Group.

Dixon said that the group is in “advance discussions” to sell its business and expects to “announce more on that in the coming weeks.”

Valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, Vice, once a prominent media company geared toward a younger audience, operated digital, television and film outlets.

In January last year, the media group announced the opening of a new regional office in Riyadh in an effort to expand its presence in the Middle East.

It remains unclear how the layoffs will impact the group’s presence in the Middle East. Experts say that the company employs about 900 people across all divisions.

Eurovision scrutinizes Israel’s song lyrics amid Gaza furor

Updated 23 February 2024

Eurovision scrutinizes Israel’s song lyrics amid Gaza furor

  • Text of “October Rain” by Eden Golan appear to refer to the Oct. 7 attack
  • Eurovision organisers greenlit can disqualify contestents who violate the non-political rule of the contest

JERUSALEM: Eurovision Song Contest organizers are scrutinizing the Israeli submission after lyrics leaked to the media appeared to refer to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that triggered the Gaza war.
Eurovision, which this year will take place on May 7-11 in the Swedish city of Malmo, bills itself as a non-political event and can disqualify contestents deemed to have breached that rule.
Israel’s entry, “October Rain,” is a ballad sung by female soloist Eden Golan.
According to the Israel Hayom newspaper, it includes lines such as “There’s no air left to breathe” and “They were all good children, each one of them” — apparent allusions to people who holed up in shelters as Hamas gunmen carried out a killing and kidnapping spree at an outdoor music festival and other sites.
The song also contains a reference to “flowers” which, Israel Hayom said, is military code for war fatalities. A source in national broadcaster Kan, which sponsors the Israeli entry, confirmed to Reuters that the leaked lyrics were accurate.
In a statement, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes Eurovision, said it is “in the process of scrutinizing the lyrics, a process which is confidential between the EBU and the broadcaster until a final decision has been taken.
“If a song is deemed unacceptable for any reason, broadcasters are then given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, as per the rules of the contest,” the EBU added.
Kan said it was “in dialogue” with the EBU about the issue.
Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar said in a post on X that any decision to disqualify “October Rain” would be “scandalous.”
He denied that the song is political, saying it “gives voice to the feelings of the people and the country nowadays.”
Israel’s participation in the contest was greenlit earlier this month by the organizers, following a public outcry from 400 celebrities who signed an open letter advocating for its inclusion amidst calls for exclusion due to the Gaza conflict.
The annual Eurovision contest has been won four times by Israel, where it is popular and often viewed as a barometer of the country’s standing internationally.

With Reuters

Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Updated 22 February 2024

Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

  • New committee for press freedoms established
  • 100-day plan endorsed, several proposals to start immediately

RIYADH: The Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board approved on Wednesday an executive strategy which will see several new committees established and a number of proposals fast tracked over the next 100 days.

The move came during the board’s second meeting, led by Adhwan Al-Ahmari, the association’s chairman, which took place on the sidelines of the Saudi Media Forum, held at the Riyadh Hilton Hotel.

Newly established dedicated committees will oversee the implementation of the association’s approved plan. These include an Executive Committee, responsible for setting interim targets and addressing urgent issues, and the Review and Performance Committee, tasked with monitoring performance, assessing committee effectiveness, and ensuring target fulfillment.

The Press Freedoms Committee will establish frameworks, implement plans, and collaborate with international media organizations to safeguard press freedoms.

In order to provide the association with a more robust foundation for its operations, the board has also decided to form a Committee for Developing Financial Resources, which will explore methods to generate income and ensure sustainability.

The Members and Relations Committee will manage the members’ affairs, while the Training Committee is tasked with crafting short-term and long-term training programs, as well as fostering partnerships with local and international universities and training centers.

The Events Committee will create executive plans for the association’s events and will develop a standardized criteria for internal and external activities, while the Content Committee is responsible for establishing a comprehensive editorial policy for all postings, as well as overseeing and improving the association’s website.

The board of directors endorsed a 100-day plan for the implementation of all proposals. The plan will be revised during the board’s next meeting.

The meeting of the board also discussed forming a club for journalists, which will be headquartered in Riyadh and operated by the association.

The board examined legal protection for media workers who are members of the association, in line with its regulations.

The board members emphasized the significance of expanding membership to include media students and trainees, providing them with a special membership to learn from professional journalists.

The meeting also discussed securing funding sources and establishing governance for the association’s fund for supporting journalists.

Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Updated 22 February 2024

Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

  • Hasan will be regular commentator with first column Wednesday urging US president to end Gaza ‘genocide’
  • MSNBC cancelled ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ in January amid widespread criticisms

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is moving to The Guardian US following his sudden exit from the network last month.

The British-American writer and broadcaster, known for his award-winning work, will be a regular columnist for the American online presence of the British newspaper.

Its US editor, Betsy Reed, said Hasan’s addition would enhance the publication’s political commentary, advocacy for human rights and free speech, and accountability for those in power.

Hasan’s debut column, published on Wednesday, urged American President Joe Biden to pressure the Israeli government to end what he described as the “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hasan said: “I have been poring over columns in The Guardian since I was a teenager. Now I get to write some of my own, in what is perhaps one of the busiest and biggest news years of my lifetime. It’s a huge honor and a privilege.”

The move came after Hasan’s MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly cancelled by the network. While his programs did not always draw large audiences on MSNBC, his passionate monologues and incisive interviews earned him a significant online following, often leading to viral clips.

The timing of the show’s cancellation raised eyebrows, coinciding with Hasan’s criticism of Israel’s actions during its conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Media analysts and fellow journalists have raised concerns that ending Hasan’s show had left American audiences without a crucial voice in the corporate news landscape during times of ongoing conflict.

The Guardian US has been expanding its team, adding prominent columnists and an investigative unit, reflecting the growing interest in British media among American audiences.

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

Updated 21 February 2024

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

  • Words ‘indicate US complicity’ in suffering, experts warn
  • Controversial video emerged as US vetoed UN ceasefire resolution for 3rd time

LONDON: A US congressman has sparked outrage after claiming “we should kill them all” in reference to Palestinians in Gaza.

US representative for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district Andy Ogles was approached by a group of pro-Palestine activists in Washington on Tuesday.

He was told by one activist: “I’ve seen the footage of shredded children’s bodies. That’s my taxpayer dollars that are going to bomb those kids.”

Ogles responded: “You know what? So, I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It’s time to pay the piper.”

The shocking video of the Republican congressman has sparked widespread condemnation across social media, with experts warning that Ogles’s words are indicative of Washington’s complicity in suffering in Gaza.

“For those of you wondering how the Nazis, Daesh, etc. can kill people indiscriminately, now you are witnessing leaders and prominent people in the so-called enlightened democratic societies demonstrating that blind adherence to any ideology can make ordinary people into evil monsters,” lawyer, author and human rights activists Faisal Kutty said X.

“These people have all sold their souls to the highest bidder,” he added.

Ogles, known for his staunch, unconditional support for Israel, previously voted to censure congresswoman member Rashida Tlaib over allegations she had supported the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Ogles has also proposed legislation preventing Palestinians from entering the US.

The outrage over Ogles’s comments comes as the Biden administration faces growing criticism over its vetoing of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. It marked the third veto by the US since Oct. 7.

UNICEF has warned of a potential surge in preventable child deaths in Gaza due to malnutrition and disease. Save the Children’s Jason Lee described the situation as “astronomical” and warned that words cannot capture the scale of death and destruction in the enclave.

Israeli forces have reportedly killed more than 12,400 children in Gaza since Oct. 7, with more than 600,000 children now trapped in Rafah. Save the Children highlighted the alarming rate of amputations, with more than 10 children per day in Gaza, on average, losing one or both of their legs since October.