National obsession

nationalobses_1_baseLeading the charge in the UAE’s newspaper boom is The National. Time Out spoke to its editor Martin Newland about its launch, censorship, advertising, what he thinks of their rivals – and why the forthcoming paper war will be a good thing for the country.

What were you told by your new proprietor about the vision for the paper when you were brought out here?
Nothing at all. They didn’t say what they did or didn’t want, other than a quality paper that looks world class. I came up with the notion that it should be national, a broadsheet and so on and at no point did anyone say ‘no’ to anything.

Before the launch you said ‘you would be finding out’ whether censorship from the Abu Dhabi government would be a problem. What have you discovered so far?
That it hasn’t been [laughs]. You have an idea of where you want to pitch the journalism but the test is when the papers are out there and so far the reaction has been positive, both from the ordinary punters and the people who sign the cheques.

You’ve also said that ‘Government figures are on record as saying: “Test us. We’ve given you a dagger. Now use it.” I intend to.’ What story so far would you say has been most critical of the government?
You can’t look at it as critical and uncritical – that’s not the same as pushing boundaries, which seems to be the catch-all phrase for papers. Pushing boundaries shouldn’t be confused with doing a ‘red-line’ story or evading censorship.

What we’ve done is to introduce a lot of well-sourced government stories in the fields of education, health, transport, and all of the things that make up the rhythm of ordinary life here. And we’ve applied a critical Western coverage of them both in terms of news coverage and commentary. If you look at the paper you’ll see it’s not there picking fights and running around burning tyres, but it’s a newspaper that’s modern and challenging and is getting some questions out there.

There was a piece in the UK Press Gazette quoting you saying that: ‘We are not here to fight for press freedom… We are here to produce a professional, commercially viable newspaper.’ But other UAE newspapers were criticised in the past for not addressing certain issues such as prostitution, human trafficking, worker’s rights and so on. Will you tackle those things?
This has been linked to some memo I wrote that was leaked to the press. What I’m saying is there’s more to national life in the UAE than the traditional red-line stories such as foreign politics, human trafficking, labour and so on. Those are important stories and have to be covered, but there is something else happening here.

The be-all and end-all of operating a newspaper is not going headlong for red-line stories like Mel Gibson with his claymore – you have to start in a more subtle way than that with the building of institutions and the positioning of the UAE within the Arab world as a unique voice and the unique point globally as a voice between East and West. There’s the formation of national institutions such as a national healthcare system, the beginnings of a universal education system and the rule of law, and you need to report far more sophisticatedly on the emergence of the nation. Don’t let it just be defined by that what human rights watch thinks it needs to be defined by.

This is not a ‘chicken out’ thing because papers of this scope and size have to be here to do something, they have to put fire in the belly, otherwise they are just receptacles for advertising, supermarket handouts. For us we are asking, what is this nation trying to do as a country? How are its national institutions developing? How is it maturing geo-politically?

I’ll give you one example: We had the broadcasting charter at the Emirates Palace and a lot of publications did just one or two pieces on it, but this is a huge story.

We did an aggressive front-page story, a whole page of coverage inside, a leading article saying that we don’t like it one bit, two opinion pieces saying the same thing, so this is not a paper that is shy, retiring, or afraid to make itself known.

What do you make of your rival newspapers in the UAE?
They are doing different thing and they’re based on different premises. The dream here at The National is to place Abu Dhabi within the country, the region and the world, while many other newspapers have to make a lot of money. While we will have to break even, it’s not the top issue.

To have pitched ourselves at Gulf News directly and done what they do would have been folly, because they’ve got it sewn up and are very good at it – when you’re trying to get into a room, you don’t walk up to the biggest bloke and punch him in the stomach. We had to cast ourselves differently to Gulf News. We want far more rarefied readers – the ones who make the decisions – and we expect to be able to charge a reasonable rate for getting advertisers in touch with those readers.

I’m not criticising Gulf News and saying that we are quality and they’re not, but it would be bloody stupid to go after them, 30 years in the market as a formidable marketing and commercial operation. We have to find another place, but, that said, the market is growing at a fast enough rate so we can all have a slice of the pie [laughs].

The market is booming, the papers are growing and I don’t think our arrival means Gulf News’ departure by any means.

You speak of just breaking even financially. Does this mean you don’t have the commercial pressure that has affected the editorial freedoms at other newspapers in the past?
We will have to make money, make no mistake about that, but what has to be got right first with The National is not the commercial side, it’s the political and social side and the signs are pretty good so far.

One of the problems with the press is that ordinarily you construct advertising on the basis that advertisers would want to be associated with your content. But when you’re wrapping your entire content around in advertising you’ve got the cart before the horse. What we are trying to do is to say, ‘no we’re journalists, we have this vision, and you advertisers please come along for the ride.’ And it’s in that order.

If you look at some of the newspapers here it’s 80 per cent advertising for the first five pages and you think, ‘Is it a newspaper or is it a commercial operation? What is it first?’

I also think that a lot of the problems surrounding newspapers being pressurised in their operations tend to be commercial and not political. Companies calling up saying they’re unhappy that you said they’re not doing a good job and then pulling all their advertising – that’s far more devastating than what political censorship there may or may not be.

A lot of it comes from the PR level anticipating what the top men may or may not think. That’s the same the world over, it just seems to be moreso here.

It’s seemed quite Abu Dhabi focused so far, will that change in time?
I don’t know that it has. Obviously we’re closer in with the crowd here but not through intent – we see ourselves as national and the other emirates are just as important to us. I always do a Dubai versus Abu Dhabi placeline count and it’s about 50-50, but I’m not too concerned.

The Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune are setting up here very soon as well. What do you make of this publishing boom in the UAE?
Well, our formula was based on a higher quality packaging, with the feel of The Telegraph or The Guardian, tailored to the local story. Until they can do that to the extent that we can I’m not worried. I think the FT have three reporters here and are printing twice a week, while we have 45 national reporters going six days, soon to be seven days, a week.

Where do you see the media going in the UAE, five to 10 years down the line, given all these changes that you’ve been talking about?
It’s going to get a voice. Along with the FT, the IHT, ourselves and the constant re-launch of newspapers, there’s an evolutionary momentum that I think is unstoppable and it’s great news because we get to make a lot of money on the way [laughs].

There will be newspaper wars. When I was in Canada we started one and the whole thing was horrible to be involved with, but what we noticed three years in was that journalism got better, the remuneration of reporters doubled, and the country benefited because it was having areas of discussion that it hadn’t had before and that’s what newspaper wars do.

I’ve had direct experience of this in some of the most aggressive markets in the world – Canada, the USA and Fleet Street – and it can get bloody, but it’s good for journalism and good for the country. It’s started here and I don’t think anybody can stop it. I would urge everyone out there, instead of saying [adopts comic whiney voice] ‘Ohh The National is going to take away our market share’, or ‘They’re a bunch of elitist Westerners’ they should be saying ‘good news – game on!’

For Time Out magazine

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