Four months into Ravi Raman’s role as senior vice-president of Khaleej Times, the media company has announced three new projects, partly revamped its subscription model and is on an aggressive hiring spree. Communicate sat down with him to see how he plans to keep Khaleej Times afloat amid tumultuous market conditions.
More than a newspaper
“The first mandate was to turn around the core operations of the newspaper, but also to diversify our revenue propositions,” says Raman. The way he sees it, the days of “mass media” are numbered. Even digital and social media aren’t mass anymore, as it is super targeted, points out Raman. “Print is and will remain strong, but its role will be different,” he adds.
This new role will see print becoming more niche and catering to particular segments based on interest and geography. He does admit that these niche segments could be served by digital as well, but the offering would be complemented by print, resulting in a role reversal of sorts. In this new world order, “we’re trying to become more than a newspaper entity to a media marketing solution provider,” he says.
In its aim to extend beyond news, Khaleej Times is venturing into three key areas: youth, technology and a third service-oriented offering that’s under the wraps. Raman feels these areas are “very important and underserved, and [so] have a lot of potential for monetization and growth.”
Staying in the loop
The youth-oriented offering Loop is a “digital-first” but still monthly print magazine aimed at school students, which will launch this in early 2018*. However, Raman insists: “The print product is purely from a ready reckoner point of view [for] people who we’re not able to reach digitally.”
The English-only print magazine will be distributed in 130 schools in the UAE with not more than 30,000 copies in circulation. To ensure that the content is hyper local and relevant, the magazine has recruited a team of four to six students from each school to serve as its “touch points”. Loop will be available as a print magazine, website and mobile app, with plans for launching e-commerce solutions through the app in the next six months.
The second product is the MIT Sloan Management Review publication, which will be complemented by regular conferences. “The logic is that tech is moving from CTOs to CEOs. It is a board decision now. In this market, there was no product that actually educated the leaders about how their industry is going to be disrupted by tech, so this fills in that gap.” Globally, it’s a quarterly publication with a paid digital subscription; however, in the region, Raman plans to make it bimonthly with free digital content. The first conference, called “DigiTrans”, which also marks the first issue of the publication, will take place in October 2017.
Digital disruption is a key agenda for local and international companies alike, especially in the UAE, where the government is heavily pushing digitization and innovation, points out Raman. “Because it’s a franchise product, 80 to 90 percent of the content is already there. So, my editorial team is more of a research team doing whitepaper reporting, content management and, to a certain extent, branded content,” he adds.
The elephant in the room
Print ad spends across six leading UAE newspapers dropped from approximately $45 million to $28 million between January 2016 and June 2017, according to Ipsos. Khaleej Times, which ranks third after Gulf News and Al Ittihad, has seen a stunning drop from almost $8.8 million in January 2016 to just roughly $4 million in June 2017. Add to that the trend of print media companies either shutting shop or letting go of staff – the latter being something Khaleej Times has also resorted to – and the picture seems rather bleak.
However, Raman continues to be optimistic for two reasons. The first is that, while “obviously our ad revenue has gone down, our market share has increased,” he says. Secondly, he believes there’s never a bad market if “you have the right product and right team.”
“That’s why we’re getting into niches that are underserved,” he adds, comparing this new business model to a stock market. “You buy stock when it’s down, not when it’s up. You buy low and sell high. So, this is our time to buy.”
*The print version of this article says Loop was scheduled for a September launch. However, there has been a change of plans since then.