The end of 2016 signalled the end of an era for UAE media as 7DAYS, the nation’s only independent, English-language daily newspaper, shuttered its offices, laying off its 125 employees.
A few months earlier, online new site Emirates 247, fired all but three on its digital news desk.
The English language media offering continued to shrink in 2017, as companies slashed marketing budgets in a faltering economy beset by cheap oil prices and started shift budgets to new online opportunities, industry insiders say.
Even the biggest in the land have not been immune.
Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily newspaper, The National, laid off eight of its 20 reporters on Sunday following its sale to a new owner, International Media Investments (IMI), which is headed by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.
Following closely behind, free-to-air satellite TV channel, City7 TV, told staffers on Monday that they would be ceasing operations and switching off their signal at the end of the week, former employees told Inc. Arabia.
The English-language channel, composed of 20 people was a mainstay of local media, producing local programming on news, entertainment, business, cars, cooking, fashion and family every day since 2004.
Michael Pansini, production manager at City 7, said that in the local advertising market, cash-strapped companies in the UAE look to cut corners by exploiting social media advertising and the rapidly growing social media influencer industry.
“The problem is that commercially English language content is not well supported in the community financially with advertisers and with people who are willing put their money where their mouth is,” said Pansini who headed the channel for seven years.
“It’s always a challenge to be English media in this region, focusing on local content, because it is a little bit niche in terms of advertisers.”
“But I think it’s extremely vital, and there needs to be someone who works out the financial model of it so that it becomes sustainable, because it’s a link between every expat community here. But no-one seems to have figured out the secret to success yet.”
The Secret Sauce
Mark Rix, the former CEO of 7DAYS, said that technology has disrupted the media industry by providing options for marketers that are cheaper than buying a full-page ad in a newspaper.
“Fundamentally, legacy print based media organizations have traditionally quite high cost-bases with printing presses and distribution operations for their newspapers.”
Fleets of delivery vans for distribution of newspapers are no longer a viable business model in the digital age, where content can be posted online for free, he said.
For a channel or print publication to flourish, they have to work out the secret sauce of being profitable, he said.
“If you consider what’s happening at The National, they’re having to adapt, as we had to try and adapt at 7DAYS, and other publishers have to adapt, to potentially low revenues.”
He said print media isn’t dying, but it has to find its place in a new landscape, where there are a plethora of opportunities for marketers to spend their marketing dollars.
“That’s the challenge, that’s the struggle facing every single media owner on the planet.”
A new paradigm
Media owners need to build a new digital environment to operate in, and adapt their cost base to that, Rix said.
“At some point, I don’t think it has happened yet, there will be a tipping-point, where digital revenues will overtake print. So if that happens, you can’t have the cost base of a print world,” he says.
“It’s about migrating your business to the digital world without losing your revenue. But it’s difficult. I don’t know if anyone’s actually cracked it yet.”
Advertisers in the UAE were slower to adopt new digital opportunities than developed economies, despite the Middle East being a young population and early adopters of technology, Rix said.
“Print remained stable for a lot longer than in North America or Europe, or Australia, but eventually the change has arrived, and marketers now are embracing alternative media.”
It does not help, according to Pansini, that people and entities who hold the keys to the regional media kingdom, are also distrustful of English media.
There is always an apprehension of English-language media and what they say and don’t say, he said, indicating that since the Arab Spring, when channels like Al Jazeera became too influential, Gulf States are not too confident in English-language media.
Dubai and the UAE could be the center of English-based media and journalism for the entire region, he opined.
“They need to have a bit more vision about English media and how beneficial it could be for everyone in the region. They should be putting a lot more in to support it.”
Claire Sharrock, former Managing Editor of 7DAYS, said: “A shrinking media is never a good thing for a forward thinking nation.”