In late 2014, MBC’s (Middle East Broadcasting Corporation) news channel, Al Arabiya News, announced the resignation of Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, who would move on from his position as general manager to become a board member at the group. Nearly a month into Al-Rashed’s resignation and the subsequent appointment of Adel Al-Toraifi (now Turki Al-Dakhil) in the same role, Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief at Al Arabiya News’ English portal, sat down with Communicate to talk about the platform’s major rebranding and restructuring over the past year;a successful one, it seems, as Al Arabiya News English capped the last year with a growth of 66.95 percent in unique visitors, of 71 percent in page views and of 57.91 percent in sessions.
This was the result of a major relaunch operation for the platform that was officially announced and rolled out in November 2013. “I joined Al Arabiya [News] English in July 2012. The mandate was to relaunch it as an integrated English service for Al Arabiya, and to take it beyond just being a website to becoming a holistic platform. We needed to both fly a plane and redesign it at the same time. It was a bit challenging. [But], I got bottomless support from everybody at MBC,” says Abbas. The website was launched five years ago and its look and feel were redesigned a year ago to accommodate a mobile- and tablet-first strategy. “Essentially, what helped us was identifying our target market and what we wanted to achieve. After that, the rest made sense,” adds Abbas. Taking into consideration a target audience of professionals working in think tanks, research centers, universities and governments outside of the region – mostly in English-speaking countries, primarily in the US, predominantly males aged between 25 and 40 years old and, most recently, including expats residing in the region and Arabic nationals residing abroad – as well as “people who are generally interested in the Middle East”, Abbas tackled content first.
For instance, the portal’s opinion section – and one of its most successful, according to Abbas – now features ambassadors and bureau chiefs of established newspapers around the world. “A lot of people don’t want just the story. They want to understand different points of view,” he explains, adding that he’s redirected content to capitalize more on Al Arabiya News channel’s exclusives, rather than on syndicated material with the likes of AFP and Reuters, to which other publishers already have access. Essentially, it was doing more by using less. “When I came on board, we had several staff members spending hours doing videos on wire news about snake charmers in Morocco. You’d see the same content on France 24, while one of our TV anchors would be interviewing the latest defected general in the Syrian army.” Instead, and often contextualizing news within an “international Arab angle”, Abbas looked at strategic content partnerships, the latest of which were with the World Economic Forum in January 2014, and with KSA-based English daily Saudi Gazette a year and a half ago.
Naturally, the news channel’s bread and butter remains video and, in this regard, Abbas has had to successfully – and literally – translate Al Arabiya’s exclusive Arabic bulletins and reports onto the portal’s View More VOD (video-on-demand) service, all the while offering English-speaking readers and viewers a window to “the news of the Arab world as it is. It gives you a more authentic experience”.
As such, Al Arabiya News’ Arabic news bulletins are posted on the portal with English subtitles within an hour of them being broadcast. “The initial [subtitling] stage is automated, and we add a level of proofreaders just to verify the content. The beauty of the machine is its artificial intelligence. It keeps on learning. But it needs humans to look after it.”
This, in fact, also applies to the way Abbas has reshuffled the Al Arabiya English newsroom; a self-described “platform-agnostic”, he’d made sure the portal’s content management system (CMS) was repurposed for journalists’ needs. That is also because the journalists, on the other hand, have had to equip themselves with DIY (do-it-yourself), multi-tasking and polyvalent skill sets and tools. “Different people have different philosophies about this. I think our job as journalists today is both the creation and promotion of content. I come from The Huffington Post, where the bloggers do everything; they create the story, upload it, choose the accompanying pictures, and then promote it. We applied that for Al Arabiya English,” he says. He adds that in TV as well, initially reluctant reporters were being gradually trained to produce their own video content with handycams, while in print, journalists were assigned with the layout and design of their own articles.
Abbas’ now 15-strong team did not take this reality with a pinch of salt but, instead, embraced it; owing mostly to its diversity of enthused fresh grads and experienced seniors coming from different cultures but, also, understanding the local one. “Each person is a one-man army. In our case, we are looking for people who are fluent in both English and Arabic,” explains Abbas. He feels equally blessed with Al Arabiya English’s commercial partnership with Choueiri Group, which, in 2014, led to the first “massive campaigns” from luxury and tech brands. “I find that some people focus either too much on commercial, or too much on editorial. The truth is, you need to have powerful editorial and powerful commercial partners.”
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