Roadmaps of transformation
drawn at the Wan-IFRA
13th Middle East Conference in Dubai

News media companies worldwide are succeeding in driving digital revenue by betting on quality journalism. How are they achieving this? With examples from the Telegraph Media Group (UK), The Times of India (India), The Guardian (UK), Styria Media Group (Austria), Sayidaty Magazine (UAE) and many more, the recent WAN-IFRA Middle East conference at Dubai (UAE) presented specific strategies around products, business model transformation, digital subscriptions, newsroom management drawing new roadmaps of transformation for news media firms.

The 13th edition of WAN-IFRA Middle East Conference at Dubai revealed how media companies could learn from the leaders and chart their pathways to a profitable and sustainable future. Welcome address at the conference was delivered by Ibrahim Badei, member of the Board of Directors, Dar Al Hayat (UAE) along with a host of speakers: His Excellency Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence of UAE; Majed Al Suwaidi, Managing Director, Dubai Media City (DMC), Dubai Studio City (DSC) and Dubai Production City (DPC) (UAE); Dr Saleh Al-Humaidan, Chairman, WAN-IFRA Middle East Committee, KSA; and Mechthild Schimpf, Director Middle East, WAN-IFRA (Germany).

Opening of the conference was commenced with the session ‘Transformation in a Disruptive Market – Successful Strategies’ from the keynote speaker Gunilla Asker, VD/CEO, Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden). In 2012, the Swedish media market was hit hard by the country’s deflated economy. Print advertising and circulation both dropped rapidly and Svenska Dagbladet was forced to make drastic changes. Taking into this account, Gunilla Asker described the paper’s journey from formulating its multichannel strategy to highlighting its digital innovations and internal implementation.

Media trends and outlook

In this session, Thomas Jacob, Chief Operating Officer, WAN-IFRA (Germany) presented the global trends and the outlook for news media companies that WAN-IFRA research has identified. He narrated about the latest technological developments that are impacting the media industry and how publishers are responding.

News business in the age of platforms

What do the latest changes in Facebook’s News Feed mean to publishers? Digital platforms such as Facebook and Google have dominated users’ attention and become getaways to media content on the internet. Paired with superior technology, the platforms have dominated digital advertising markets worldwide, and effectively decoupled content from ads. Grzegorz Piechota, Research Associate, Harvard Business School and Oxford University (UK) explained how should publishers respond, changing the competition dynamics, referring innovative business models of news media houses in Asia, Americas, and Europe.

Publishers, Platforms, Profits and Promises

Joe Morrison, Director of Digital TV at Muscat Media Group (Oman), in his speech highlighted the Middle Eastern view on how Print Media organisations should be using video content and the role of platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. He elaborated the elusive art of creating short form content, live broadcasts, TV shows and turning print journalists into presenters.

Bold pricing move

How much will people pay for quality? Responding to this question, Astrid Jørgensen, Head of Subscription Sales and Marketing, Politiken (Denmark) narrated how the newspaper moved a bold 400 percent price increase. The Danish leading newspaper introduced a metered model in 2013. After a couple of years of experimenting, they decided to radically change its entire paid content strategy with a shift to the premium model and a massive monthly price increase: from 10 euros to 40 euros. In his speech, Astrid took the audience through the learning, mistakes and successes of their bold pricing move.

Combining content and commerce

Mohammad Fahad AlHarthi, Editor-in-Chief, Sayidaty, Al Jamila and Arrajol Magazine – SRPC (Saudi Arabia), in this session talked about Sayidaty Mall succeeded in bridging Sayidaty, a leading online magazine for women in the Arab world with an e-commerce platform where readers can easily find and purchase high-end clothing, elegant accessories, and glamorous jewelry.

Digital Media Awards

Official announcement of the winners of the Middle Eastern Digital Media Awards 2018 were made on the sidelines of the conference. The awards recognised publishers who have adopted digital media and mobile strategies as part of their total product offering to meet the major changes in how people consume news and information today.

Al Bilad EST (Saudi Arabia) won the Best News Website or Mobile Service 2018. Al Bilad EST, a Smart Newspaper project, which one jury member summed up as “great synergy of technology, content and design, creating an engaging user experience.”

Hia Magazine (UAE) bagged the Best in Lifestyle, Sports, Entertainment Website or Mobile Services 2018. The winner not only dazzled visually and in terms of interaction but notably impressed the judges on the issue of growing the audience and generating more revenue. As one judge put it, “The presentation gives a good account of the strategy for making this magazine more successful – and from the figures supplied, it certainly seems to be working with the target market.”

The National (UAE) picked the Best Use of Online Video 2018 award with video that was not only carefully chosen and shot for aesthetic and emotional impact, but also well thought-out for use across different platforms in social media and mobile. One of the judges called the entry “Solid and engaging”.

Khaleej Times (UAE) won the Best Data Visualisation 2018 award, with a VAT calculator that the judges felt transformed a story about a new VAT rate into a workable tool for users and a great point of engagement for the publisher. The newspaper also won the Best Innovation to Engage Youth Audience 2018 award. The second win for the newspaper, and another well-deserved one for its boldness in engaging with a younger audience, in this case around a subject that might not be expected from the Dubai-based publisher.

Rudaw Media Network (Iraq) was awarded Best in Social Media Engagement 2018 in recognition of the effective use of the chosen social media platform(s), and remaining faithful to the tone and voice of the parent news brand across the new platform. “This is a stunning entry and deserves to win. Great content and real journalism have been tailored impressively for different social media platforms,” one judge commented.

Sayidaty Magazine (UAE) won Best Digital News Start-up 2018. Since the industry lives off new approaches, Sayidaty Magazine is a welcome addition to the publisher’s stable with its new web portal for Saudi women. About Her ( impressed one of the judges as being “an innovative and interesting site. The tone of the writing is relentlessly positive.”

Hia Magazine (UAE) bagged another award, Best Digital Marketing Campaign 2018, joining Khaleej Times as the second double winner for a joint project between and Tiffany & Co. Clear messaging, an effective social media dimension, brand voice and demonstrably efficient targeting were the key factors in its success.

Ethos Interactive (Saudi Arabia) won the Best Branded Content Project 2018 award in recognition of the company’s growing importance of native/content advertising, which is set to grow in importance with judges looking for joint projects that demonstrate strong branding and generate effective engagement.

Road to transformation

Second day of the conference infolded with Anthony Tan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, talked on the topic ‘Road to Transformation’. While the structural changes impacting the news publishing industry are globally the same all around the world, every media company faces the challenge to formulate unique answers, perfectly fitted to its brand, culture, content mix, audience and market conditions. Anthony shared an inspiring story on how Singapore Press Holdings got transformed itself.

Spread the facts! How to increase your reach was launched in July 2017 and quickly became one of Norway’s most popular sites. Owned by the four largest online news providers in the country, is showing a new and comprehensive approach in the battle against so-called «fake news» and «alternative facts». In this session, speaker Silje Sjursen Skiphamn, Senior Fact Checker, (Norway) said, “The cooperation between competitors and the way we distribute and spread our fact-checks is the key element that has drawn attention and headlines from across the world. In order to increase our reach, we simply give away the fact-checks for free to everyone who wants to print or publish them on their own platforms.”

Age of participatory content

Hayat Social Network ‘Preparing for an Age of Participatory Content’—this is the topic of discussion in this session with speaker Bashar Mezher, Head of Culture Management, Dar Al Hayat (UAE). In a time of declining public trust in news and content, loss of advertising revenue, and an increasingly participatory, self-expressive and digital media culture, journalism is in the process of rethinking and reinventing itself. Taking this into account, Bashar Mezher explained how Hayat Social Network works as a tool of participatory content where the content is gathered, selected, edited and communicated by professionals and amateurs, and by producers and consumers alike.

Is AI a positive force in journalism?

So far, many researchers believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) will soon be able to mimic human intelligence in a truly generic sense. The news industry has the kind of broad-based and deep data that is needed for AI to truly fulfill its promise. In return, AI will help the news industry to become super productive. AI will assist and augment capability of news creators to focus more on quality journalism and not just reporting – broad coverage, in-depth analysis, investigative journalism. AI entrepreneur Parankusha S in this session explained how AI will replace humans in the newsroom and on-field, and the way AI could be implemented to solve fake news menace.

Power of print ads

Since the media landscape is getting more and more complex, advertising decision-makers have an increasingly difficult task. Buzzwords sometimes hide existing concepts or cause confusion. Then there’s the growing problem of ad blocking by users across digital devices. In this respect, Ulbe Jelluma, Managing Director, Print Power Europe, Brussels (Belgium), said that print media still proves to be an ongoing force in the advertising mix. “Although lower in volume than it was 10 years ago, advertising in printed newspapers has the power to address readers directly and amplify the effects of other channels.”

In the similar context, Ulbe Jelluma, Managing Director, Print Power Europe, Brussels (Belgium) and Prof Dr Neil Thurman, Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication Studies and Media Research, LMU Munich (Germany) talked about the advantage of print in the followed up session titled ‘It’s Time to Talk Metrics: Audiences, Attention, and the Persistent Power of Print’. They narrated that some recent reports seem to indicate that print is in better shape than previously thought, pointing at their business and how it would contribute to the revenues going forward.

Learning from movies

Films are all about captivating storytelling. Is there something media companies could learn from that, like Saving the Cat? In the session, Niko Ruokosuo, CEO, Al Abkaria Holding Company and GM Nebras Films (Saudi Arabia), talked at length about some inspiring endeavors. After that the closing session of the conference came up. In the session, Alfonso De Gaetano, Director of Global Partnerships at Google for Emerging Markets, Dubai (UAE), in his keynote speech talked about ‘collaboration’ which is crucial to news industry’s future. He explained that in a fast-moving digital age, it has never been more important for tech companies to collaborate with the news industry to have a sustainable news ecosystem, as new business models are emerging and news consumption is increasingly fragmented, collaboration across content creation, distribution, monetisation, data and infrastructure is the way forward for the news industry.

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