x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Investments in media require a patience few can afford

Finding new sources of revenue and establishing how professional journalists fit in the vast ecosystem of part-time volunteers will be a tough, painful process.

Newspapers are dying left right and centre, television channels are laying off staff and media businesses are in a disorganised retreat. Why is Abu Dhabi making huge investments in media? Few investors would consider opening an expansive broadsheet newspaper in 2008, as the emirate did, and even fewer are still ploughing money and effort into launching new television stations, radio channels and film funds. But Abu Dhabi is doing all that and more, even bankrolling one of the media world's best attended conferences this week.

The reason for this seems simple to me. Anybody who spends time surfing the web can agree: people like media. We like seeing something that makes us smile, or think, or better understand some new facet of the world. We like media so much that we spend much of our online time magnifying the reach of the media we enjoy - sharing it, publishing our reactions to it, remixing it and gathering it and publishing it on our blogs, our Facebook pages and our Twitter accounts. On occasion, we will even share it through that antique technology our parents might call e-mail. For old times' sake.

It isn't just professionally produced media that captures so much of our mental space. An engrossing magazine article or a spot on newspaper report will often form the seed of a digital spurt of sharing and discussion. But it could equally be a photo shot by a concerned citizen on their phone camera, or a home video of mischievous toddlers shot by an adoring mother. The role of media professionals - reporters, photographers, writers or artists - is now one that millions of people willingly play on a volunteer, part-time basis. The thrill of a scoop is no longer something only experienced by journalists; that same feeling is enjoyed by those "breaking" news content to their friends and social networks, whether they created it or not.

For the online natives of today, the joy of discovering a new song, film trailer, photo or rare web gem is logically followed by sharing it, "breaking" it to your friends in much the same way a newspaper food reviewer would "break" the discovery of an obscure restaurant to her readers. People familiar with social media will recognise the reporter-like behaviour of their friends and connections. An event on the street will be quickly photographed, uploaded and shared, re-shared and built upon by others. Public events like traffic conditions or television broadcasts will be observed, discussed and debated.

It seems ironic then that this mass adoption of media industry practices has led to many proclaiming the death of media, the death of newspapers or the end of the professional journalist. Media has never been as important to as many people's lives as it is today, and the reach, in sheer eyeballs, of great media, has never been larger. What is in crisis is the business model of producing and distributing media for a profit, which as we all know has been shaken to its foundations by the internet. The epic inefficiencies of the media industry, incubated by decades of healthy profits and semi-protected local monopolies, continue to this day, even in media organisations that lose millions of dollars every month.

Coverage of Rupert Murdoch's keynote speech at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit this week was a good example of this inefficiency in action. More than 50 journalists gathered to report on the speech, representing news organisations from across the UAE and the world. Mr Murdoch read a prepared speech, the text of which was e-mailed to the media minutes before he began speaking. He did not take questions following the speech and spoke to no reporters. Dozens of stories were filed on the speech, all using the text supplied as their primary source.

Effectively, more than 50 well-paid professionals had travelled from around the world to sit together and interpret an e-mail. There was almost no reason to physically be there, other than the sense of being there, which is a difficult feeling to assign an economic value to. This inefficiency extends across the news business. Tens of thousands of media professionals are sent to cover the Olympic Games, hundreds gather to hear prepared comments read aloud at press conferences, dozens of camera crews are sent to film a static event that could be easily covered by a single team.

Ending these inefficiencies, finding new sources of revenue and establishing how professional journalists fit in the vast ecosystem of part-time volunteers will be a tough, painful process for the media industry. Many companies will die, many more will become ghosts of their former selves, and new powers will rise. But it is difficult to imagine that a better, more profitable and more influential media industry will not emerge on the other side. Putting your money behind the smartest and most innovative media entrepreneurs and businesses today is backing a horse that seems destined to win.

Abu Dhabi is making a name for itself as an astute strategician. It is putting big money into industries that need patient investors, and backers that believe in the long-term story of their business. The semiconductor industry is the best example: it requires massive investments, is extremely competitive, complex and in the midst of a major shake-up. Through its partnership with the chip designer AMD and its ownership of the microchip manufacturer, Globalfoundries, Abu Dhabi will pour at least $7 billion into the industry. The move is a bid to create one of the market leaders that will emerge on the other side of the current period of uncertainty, disruption and consolidation.

Similar things could be said of investments into aircraft manufacturing, hi-tech automobiles and high-end culture. In such a context, making a long-term investment in media becoming more important and valuable does not seem like a difficult choice. @Email:tgara@thenational.ae