x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

In a modern news cycle, old media face new challenge

With revolutions rippling across the Middle East, the whole region has been glued to the news. And as it tunes in, it is finding a mixed bag of media offerings, writes Anees Sultan.

On a visit to an uncle recovering from open heart surgery, I met a group of ladies who were also there to wish him a speedy recovery. Rather incongruously, their conversation was not about what his new lifestyle or eating habits should be.

Rather, they were comparing notes on the new Al Jazeera channel, since service on the old one had been temporarily interrupted. In the background, Al Arabiya was broadcasting, shaping our newly acquired understanding of modern Arab history.

The whole region has been glued to the news in recent weeks. And as the region tunes in, it is finding a mixed bag of media offerings.

The first order of business for office workers is to surf news websites in the morning. News outlets that experienced internet blackouts in the darkest hours of unrest left a gaping hole in the flow of information. Indeed, we've come to rely on the steady pace of news and information pouring from our computers, TV sets and newsstands.

As many of us have found, however, news is not created equal. This is especially true for local offerings.

At the top of the local news heap is television. It permeates every aspect of our lives, saturating even the most unexpected surroundings, such as airport and clinic waiting rooms. The emerging Arab channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, dominate the coverage and do so with skill. Local channels often merely rehash the news.

Indeed, many local journalists seem to offer little more than single-syllable noise. They may play up the sensational elements of a story, but they rarely convey the complete picture.

Not that they always get it wrong. But as anyone who has tuned in to a major regional or international news channel in recent weeks knows, great journalists are best regarded for their intelligence and wit. Sadly, local competition rarely comes close.

That said, these days of media madness in the Middle East are presenting regional outlets with an opportunity to grow.

Last week, I had the chance to talk to a local journalist who was writing a piece on jobs for the local workforce. She was particularly proud that she'd read the text of a law on a certain contentious issue and said she now had an "answer". Digging deep and going back to the facts gave her that answer. Her newspaper was able to write about more daring stories and ask people their opinions as a result.

It's a good start. But it's only a start. Hard-hitting news, like that being broadcast by Al Jazeera and others comes packed with insight and analysis. As long as local publications fail to offer an opinion, they will be treated as second-rate papers and readers will seek their answers from other sources.

So what's the best way forward? Local news outlets should take their cues from business fundamentals, which offer facts and straightforward analysis. For instance, stock markets have not been timid in their reaction to recent unrest, as my broker's text messages remind me daily. Oil prices have certainly not been shy in their rise, nor does gold show any respect for the laws of gravity.

Old-school newspapers can report movements on these indicators, but intelligent news consumers appreciate analysis, and not just sound bites that kill time.

Predictions of the death of newspapers may be premature. Certainly the growing penetration of the internet and proliferation of news channels offer new challenges to the medium. But these new outlets in turn have to match the quality of traditional journalism. There will always be a demand for quality, in whatever form.

Perhaps with a little imagination, however, newspapers will weather the change. In the meantime, my uncle should tune in to the news stations in his room as much as he can.

 

Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman