DOHA // Erika Widén is thinking big. With her new initiative, the director of business development at Qatar's leading English-language daily newspaper aims to rescue the country's print media and help build a skilled workforce in the Gulf. "Not too many people are interested in reading the news around here anymore - they are checking their BlackBerry, maybe getting Al Jazeera on their mobile," she said at the offices of The Peninsula.
"We want to get these kids interested in reading, interested in the news, and also help them write. There are not a lot of opportunities like this for young people in this region." Ms Widén and the Peninsula editor-in-chief, Khalid Abdul Rahim al Sayed, have just launched the Young Peninsula Journalists (YPS) programme, a free journalism training scheme for middle and secondary students. YPJ hopes to engage citizens in news, impart valuable work skills and steer local youth towards a successful career.
On the first day of classes last weekend, the Peninsula offices bustled. Dozens of the programme's 300 seven to 12th grade students mingled in the halls. Teenage girls in headscarves talked about photography on couches in the lobby. Adolescent boys discussed journalistic integrity. "Some papers are trying their best to cover the real news," said 13-year-old Vignesh during class. "But some are just publishing news that is not there at all."
Ethics and accuracy are among the topics of discussion, along with writing, reporting and various media-related concerns. The students come up with their own story ideas - on sport, society, arts, business and more - but are advised to focus on what's happening in Qatar. Starting in early January, a YPJ newspaper - with student reporting, photography, graphics and cartoons - will be inserted every Sunday into The Peninsula. The best student work will receive awards.
Over the year-long programme, the students will receive 60 hours of training in the job skills that are much needed in Qatar and across the region. In the UAE, a government body tasked with finding jobs for young Emirati nationals has found the private sector is willing to hire, but often cannot because of a lack of skills. The Arab Labor Organization estimates unemployment at nearly 15 per cent in Arab countries - the highest for any region.Without intervention, the problem is likely to fester.
"The GCC will remain an unusually young part of the world," said a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit called The GCC in 2020, which was released last week. "Much will depend on the extent to which the young population can be harnessed as an effective labour force." That goal dovetails with one of YPJ's lead sponsors. Silatech, an organisation created by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned in 2008, engages public, private and civil society sectors to create jobs and opportunities for Arab youth.
"This helps young people inside Qatar that give back to Qatari society and enhance its growth," said Ahmed Younis, director of strategic partnerships and communications at Silatech. "It's important for the development and growth of the Middle East and North Africa region to be sure young people have a robust set of skills in journalism, public policy, and writing, and this is what we're hoping to achieve."
More than half of the YPJ students are Arab, 15 per cent to 20 per cent of whom are Qatari nationals. About 40 per cent are from South Asia, along with a handful of westerners. The initiative will also train 20 students with special needs from The Shaffallah School. "This is the way the world works today, with people from all different places working together," said Ms Widén, who put advertisements for the initiative in local Arabic and English-language newspapers. "We want all these different students to be integrated."
Still, students will learn writing and interviewing skills, the role of a reporter and the value of news. The first class began with the basics - "What is Journalism?" - and ended with an assignment: write the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) about a recent event. The Palestinian triplets Yosra, Mohammad and Latifa, all 14, left class together, notebooks in hand. "We want to know more about newspapers, how they work," said Latifa. She is doing her assignment on natural disasters, while her sister Yosra will focus on crime.
Their brother could not decide what to write about, then he brightened. "I know," said Mohammad. "I'm going to write about the Algeria-Egypt football match." Email:email@example.com