In the digital era, where are MENA’s news media outlets going wrong?

“We do not have to cut out thousands of trees for print issues,” Al-Atraqchi says

The digital evolution is taking the world by storm, and the MENA region in particular is no exception. In recent years, the rate of internet and social media penetration has remarkably increased, making the number of people online unprecedentedly high.

The estimated population of the MENA region in the first quarter of 2017 was 250 million, and the rate of internet penetration was 57 percent, as per statistics recently presented by vice president of Business Development at digital advertising solutions provider ConnectAds Ramy Riad.

Hence, the rate of people in the MENA region relying on digital media is quite high, indirectly forcing media organizations to shift towards digital and multimedia content in order to reach people who constantly use digital media.

In a rapidly changing mediascape, news outlets’ engagement with social media is not only a way of “keeping up”, but it is also a way to ensure their survival, senior media lecturer Katheryn Bowd writes in “Making Publics, Making Places”, published by the University of Adelaide Press.

The newspapers that have been there for 100 and 150 years must adapt or die

Firas Al-Atraqchi, chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC) tells Business Forward that this is where the media is inevitably heading, stating that “we do not have to cut out thousands of trees for print issues.”

Where do newsrooms in MENA stand from the digital evolution?
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) carried out a study entitled “The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms”, providing insights on the progress of digital journalism in newsrooms globally, including MENA, based on responses from more than 2,700 journalists and managers from 130 countries.

Newsrooms in the region have a rather high percentage of posting their stories on social media (68 percent); however, only 41 percent regularly use social media to engage with their audiences. Where the region is mainly lagging behind is in posting stories across multiple platforms (29 percent).

On the bright side, news organizations in MENA see the need of catching up with digital trends, as the region ranks second worldwide in using on-the-job digital training and leads along with South Asia in the percentage of newsrooms that have technology teams. However, the two regions lose their lead with more advanced functions, such as multimedia, data analytics, and product/application development.

“You cannot take someone who has been a  journalist for thirty years and put [them in charge] of online [departments] unless they have been in touch and engaged with the changing trends over the past three decades,” Al-Atraqchi emphasizes.

Courtesy of International Center For Journalists (ICFJ)

What needs to be done?
Newspapers in Egypt quickly jumped online more than 10 years ago, according to Al-Atraqchi. “Probably 15 years ago we started to see major newspapers having an online presence. But they treated their online [channels] as a mimic of their print versions,” he says, which does not correspond with the audience that is found online.

Content creation must become more creative, shorter and less text-intensive, and the not-so-unspoken rules and parameters of online media must be heavily considered, since “it is no longer about going to a press conference and throwing something online,” he states. Viewership trends and audience behavior are key to adapting to the digital evolution, and studying this data can help newsrooms figure out the best use of language, content direction and approach in general.

Digital entrepreneur and media business developer Ayman Salah tells Business Forward that “big players [such as state-owned Al-Ahram and Akhbar Al-Youm] in the media field should renovate their newsrooms and try to incorporate more multimedia and visuals in their work and empower their journalists through digital training.”

Salah believes that it is easier for small newsrooms to help their journalists adapt to using multimedia and digital journalism. “[Small newsrooms] know the challenges already and the high need to incorporate digital journalism. Hence, they consider using digital journalism before they decide to penetrate the market,” he explains.

Al-Atraqchi adds that in small media institutions, there is no red tape and less bureaucracy to deal with, which also boils down to having less people to convince that they should use a certain approach.

“The evolution of media outlets is a never-ending process, and technology is part of this process. Today, people use media vigorously. For example, not having printed newspapers does not mean that media is dying. It does not die; it just takes new shapes and forms. Technology will cause a breakthrough in the media industry and will help it become more effective,” Salah concludes.

“So let’s say Ahram in 1990 had a certain audience. In 2020, its audience will not be the same. What happens when your old audience dies out? You are going to die with it. The newspapers that have been there for 100 and 150 years must adapt or die,” Al-Atraqchi adds.

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