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Gulf News vs The National

Gulf News, The National, newspapers, UAE“Please - be good”, wrote one commentator on the Dubai Media Observer blog. Despite an apparent oversupply of English daily papers, there was a sense of optimism ahead of the April launch of The National (the UAE’s fourth major daily).

That expectations were running high was in part due to the drum-banging of editor-in-chief Martin Newland (he claims The National will bring new standards of journalism), Newland’s broadsheet experience (he edited the UK’s market leading Daily Telegraph), and frustration with the quality of the incumbents.

“The role of The National is to reflect society, help that society evolve and, perhaps most importantly, promote the bedrock traditions and virtues that must be preserved even in times of change,” Newland said, pinning his hopes on the huge resources owner Abu Dhabi Media Company (itself owned by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council) put at his disposal: the new 80-pages broadsheet has assembled a staff of 175 journalists, nabbed from newspapers around the world.

To compete or not to compete?

According to an Ipsos-Stat survey for Gulf News, eight out of every 10 people in the UAE read a newspaper, and almost 80 per cent of the population gets some part of its daily news from the print editions. Besides, the 2007 Advertising Spend Report by Pan-Arab Research Centre states that ad spend in the UAE has increased from $869 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion in 2007 while a market analysis from Cannes Lions expects the UAE’s print advertising expenditure to reach $2.4 billion next year, something the press industry is obviously aware of.

Newland says that he’s not aiming at poaching market shares from Gulf News - which is celebrating its 30th anniversary - claiming that “there’s room in the market for a new title [...] and a battle for readers and ad revenues is not likely” and that price is not a “market differentiator”. But we’re not sure Newland wouldn’t enjoy it and comparisons are inevitable nonetheless. In fact, early on, rumor had it that The National was first planed to be called The Nation, but backed down when Gulf News ramped up its “The Nation” section in recent months.

“The challenge is clearly thrown down to Gulf News,” says financial journalist Peter J. Cooper on his Arabian Money blog.

Inside out

The National certainly impressed by its looks, very Guardian style. “Slick design, authoritative typefaces, well structured sections. At 80 pages, it is also substantial,” said Rob Corder, editorial director of ITP Publishing Group. Abu Dhabi’s new daily feels refreshing, easy to read, steering away from the jibberish that Gulf News covers. But more importantly, it is expected to do what no other newspaper in the region, including Gulf News, has done: make a difference, regardless of its relationships with the Abu Dhabi’s authorities.

So The National may tout itself as the country’s “first truly quality national and international newspaper” according to its editor, the industry remains cautious, expecting it to soon discover the realties of press freedom in the region. “His success will be judged on how well he keeps these people off his back,” Frank Kane, once of the Financial Times, now of Emirates Business, said to The Times. Unfortunately, it seems The National’s first issue showed that it’s “safety first”, according to Corder: “The lead story [...] reveals nothing revelatory. The front page of The National’s launch edition has set the tone for what we found throughout that day’s paper, and every edition since.”

A survey conducted by the Dubai Media Observer blog among the profession indicated nonetheless that 22 percent of participants found The National “surprisingly impressive”, while 39 percent answered “Pretty much as expected” and 23 percent “Better than anticipated”.

Slanted

With expats forming a major chunk of the UAE population, addressing non-Arab readers is a major issue. Newland stated The National targets target high-income, English-speaking expats (as well as people from South Asia, Europe and the Americas). But according to its Ipsos-Stat survey, Gulf News commands 51.2 per cent of this readership. Besides, “The problem is that The National is inevitably slanted towards news from Abu Dhabi, and the capital is a far less lively and interesting place than neighboring Dubai. The National is therefore inevitably going to be more boring than Gulf News,” says Cooper.

Gulf News’ survey showed further that above two-thirds of Gulf News readers are based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, The National’s home market. Whereas ADMC’s newborn feels more like an English-language Emirati paper rather than a paper for (and by) residents of the UAE.

“‘The National’, ‘The Nation’ etc. Still don’t like that kind of newspaper name. Rather flies in the face of Newland’s claim that he wants a regional type of publication,” adds one blogger on Dubai Media Observer.

It may be too early to tell if The National will live up to its expectations and if Gulf News should worry, but as for now, in Corder’s words, “The National is not a newspaper that is going to change the reading habits of the UAE overnight. People satisfied with market leader Gulf News, will stick with what they have.”

 
 

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