MENA media outlets mull the future of paywalls, subscriptions and free content

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Updated 17 March 2022

MENA media outlets mull the future of paywalls, subscriptions and free content

  • Expert panel discuss “leading digital transformation in the Middle East” at virtual Media Leaders eSummit
  • Revenue from subscriptions and paywalls is the solution as ad-spend slumps, say MENA media leaders

DUBAI: The vexed question of which form of digital business model to adopt for the Middle East and North Africa region was under discussion at a major media conference here, with participants supporting subscriptions and pay walls for their content rather than free access.

However, startups have had a harder time attracting subscriptions because of their lack of loyal users, it was revealed during a panel discussion titled “Leading digital transformation in the Middle East — What’s next?” This was on the third day of the Middle Eastern Media Leaders e-Summit 2022 on Thursday.

According to Hamoud Almahmoud, chief content officer at Majarra, subscriptions were first considered about 15 years ago, with the technology giants making the move to this model.

“It was (the case) for Europe and the United States, which were the early adopters of this subscription business model, because they have a different environment, they’re more liberal markets, and they don’t have any subsidies or funding for media.”

He described the region as making a lot of “noise” about the subscription-based business model because a lot of funds are directed towards the media from governments, private individuals, and non-profits.

“It isn’t all negative, but it’s very difficult in our region,” he added.

Majarra was one of the early adopters of subscriptions in the region, after it began exploring the concept in 2011. “We knew it was the future,” Almahmoud said. “Valuable content is valuable, and people will pay for it.”

With advertising shrinking as a source of revenue, he described such a model as an absolute necessity, with the organization having identified it at the right time. Almahmoud said many media outlets will not make the shift until they get burnt.

“Now, we have a lot of conversations with media trying to enter this field and they’re asking questions we asked and answered not less than five or six years ago,” he added.

“We’re happy to be joined by other media because together we can create this momentum and benchmark — we need the subscription business model to be part of people’s mindsets and monthly bills. Good quality content is worth it.”

Almahmoud said the company segmented content and people, and noticed a large amount of “fly-by” or irregular users, while there was other less but more regular users.

Those 20 to 30 percent of users were identified as loyal consumers and considered Majarra’s core audience, which the team focused on so that they could understand and provide them special treatment, including monetizing interactions, he said.

For Meher Murshed, executive editor at Al-Nisr Publishing, his company made the cardinal mistake in the past of offering their digital information for free. “We committed as a community, as an industry, and there was a cost back then,” he explained. “From that perspective, it was a long time coming.”

He said the media world has changed and companies were left with little option but to adopt a subscription-based model, especially because advertising revenues had dwindled, with print not generating the income it had previously.

As a result, Gulf News took the strategic decision about five years ago to begin studying its audience in detail. “We knew exactly back then what we were getting into, and we started the registration process back in 2020 to see what the propensity was and that boosted us even more,” Murshed said. “We realize we have a loyal audience and that’s translated into digital as well.”

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

The company launched its paywall in 2021, in what Murshed described as a logical step based on what it had learnt from its audience’s needs. “It was very calculated,” he added. “Our team is the most important thing and we’re very proud of where we are today.”

Younger media outlets, however, have not had the smoothest of sailing. Mohamed Khairat, founder of Egyptian Streets, said that many media startups are not well known and struggle to attract subscribers.

He said that Facebook in the US last year introduced a subscription newsletter for high-profile personalities to make available for their fans, but this sort of product was not possible for those without the giant tech company’s profile and “reputation.” For companies in their infancy, there was a greater reliance on various “forms of advertising and social media ads.”

Over time, however, that has not been sustainable. Khairat said that for those operating in the Middle East, the value of a reader from Egypt is a lot lower than one from the US, despite the fact that the operating cost is the same.

“So naturally, media startups in the Middle East are particularly disadvantaged,” he noted. “That makes us need to explore new ways of revenue sourcing.”

Although digital subscriptions are seemingly an efficient way of distinguishing between fly-by-night users and those who are loyal to your brand, allowing them to contribute to your growth and make them feel like they are part of your community, this was easier said than done, said Khairat.

Although Egyptian Streets has not introduced any form of digital subscription yet, it is currently looking at doing so gradually. “It’s still difficult from my perspective as a younger media organization to rely solely on digital subscriptions,” he said.

“I would prefer to see greater integration of social media — news publishers are essential to social media publications, yet they don’t get rewarded enough by them.”

He believes the future is not the traditional digital subscription model, but one that can effectively merge with social media.

For Wasim Chougle, head of digital products at Al-Nisr Publishing, users come first for media outlets and it was crucial to ensure the experience was seamless and users understand why they want to pay. “We defined what a user gets out of it,” he explained. “We receive a lot of feedback from our users, and we keep on evolving and optimizing the journey, and ensuring we provide a good user experience.”

In that context, data plays a vital role, as it becomes necessary to determine how users behave on the organization’s website.

“You need to make sure the person using the website is engaged with the content and from that engagement, you need to create a habit and make sure he returns,” he added.


Vice to lay off hundreds of staff, close website

Updated 1 min 13 sec ago

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.