The last time Communicate wrote about Faisal J. Abbas was in October 2016. He had only been a few days in his new job as editor-in-chief of Saudi’s English-language daily Arab News. The headline was “Good news for Arab News”.
It seems our prediction was accurate. Back in 2016, when asked if he planned to transform Arab News, Abbas said, “Editorial integrity can’t be promised, it must be proven and all that I ask is that the Arab News team and I be given some time to demonstrate what we can do together.”
And now they have. Just over a year and a half later we caught up with him again and noticed that much has changed – except the level of excitement that he had talking about the paper’s current and future plans.
One obvious – yet personal – change was that he has grown much more grey hair; to which, he smiles and says, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs… or growing a few gray hairs!” More importantly, it’s not only his looks that are changing; Arab News is also changing its look, “as part of the biggest shake-up the paper has had throughout its 43-year history,” he exclaims.
Yet, he insists it is not a ‘redesign’. “A ‘redesign’ is something newspapers celebrated ‘last century’,” he says. This is more of a master plan inspired by the massive reforms going in his, and Arab News’ home country Saudi Arabia.
In this interview, Abbas reveals his big plan, which details the brand’s expansion strategy and targets up to 2020 – the year it wants to celebrate its 45th anniversary by becoming the biggest digital source for regional news and views.
The road to such an ambitious goal is not easy, particularly in the current media and advertising market – not to mention competition from other regional English language dailies, admits Abbas.
Communicate caught up with Abbas for an exclusive on the new look and feel of Arab News, which was unveiled at the Arab Media Forum on April 3 in Dubai, and here’s what followed (most of it).
Arab News is celebrating its new identity with a whole campaign around the hashtag #WhatChanged. So, tell us, what changed?
Ha! Well, it is important to clarify that what changed is definitely not just the look and feel; otherwise, we simply don’t think it is worth highlighting – newspapers making a fuss about changing their design is so last century.
Our philosophy stems from a digital-first approach, which means we follow the lead of the big digital brands such as Facebook and Twitter; they enhance their services regularly and this is why we say that we firmly believe that now – more than ever –change is the only constant.
Before we go into the digital-first philosophy, what’s changing editorially?
Last year we announced our exclusive regional partnership with YouGov and managed to produce some deeply insightful material, which quickly became a reference for the region. This year, we are definitely adding more video and more social elements to serve fast-readers and other demographics. Apart from that, we are very lucky to be at the heart of change in Saudi Arabia. As a journalist, I don’t think there is any place more interesting in the region than Saudi. We get to report the massive transformation of Saudi… things like allowing women to drive and being able to tell that story – something the whole world wants to read.
Tell us more about this philosophy… Beyond the look and feel, what is the difference that your readers will notice?
People will notice the difference in the look and feel immediately – as they did when we unveiled it at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai. However, anyone who has been following Arab News over the past year and a half would have noticed that our transformation started from my first day on the job. We went back to our roots and took the paper back from being a local news outlet to its original positioning as the English voice of the region. We have also done extensive editorial and workflow enhancements, hired a number of the best talent, built four new bureaus and drew a master vision of what we are trying to achieve in the future – what we call ‘Arab News 2020’.
Is ‘Arab News 2020’ part of Saudi Arabia’s reform plans?
Well, it is not part of it but it is definitely inspired by it! The truth is, you can’t be living in such exciting changes in Saudi Arabia and not want to be a part of them. Arab News 2020 is the name of our own transformation plan, which we aim to complete in time for our 45th anniversary. So by the year 2020, Arab News will become the No. 1 regional digital source for news and views and we would have achieved many of our programs, such as the BP (Beyond Print) initiative. This means we are moving away from being recognized as merely a “newspaper” to a whole array of digital offerings, events and tailored products which aim to achieve thought-leadership and serve our ‘community’ of followers much better.
Does this BP initiative mean you are going to – or intend to – kill the print edition?
I didn’t say that. We are actually in a very unique and privileged position as one of two English-language dailies in a massive market like KSA. So, we are actually doing very well and with print revenues at 90 percent [of total revenue], we are certainly not looking at killing our print edition anytime soon. In fact, we have just invested in redesigning our print edition as part of our overall brand facelift. This is because we believe that our loyal print readers deserve a much more refined and pleasurable reading experience… and this is exactly what we are going to deliver to them!
Can you put a number to that 90 percent of print revenue?
Because we are owned by a publicly listed company (SRMG), I can’t reveal particulars. But, all I can tell you is that despite the shrinking of the print advertising market, our market share hasn’t been affected. Additionally, as part of our BP initiative, we are looking at exciting ways to generate money digitally and some of our experiments have worked.
Could you give some examples of these BP experiments that have worked on digital?
We see digital as a massive, untapped opportunity. For example, last Hajj season, we created the Arab News Hajj app. The concept was simple: how can we bring a 21st century twist to our Hajj coverage? We ended up with a smartphone app, which not only aggregates news pertaining to Hajj, but also provides all embassy and emergency numbers. It also features a ‘Hajj tracker,’ which is a location pin that users can share with their loved ones back home, enabling them to keep track of the pilgrim 24/7 and report to the authorities in case of any mishaps. The app was so practical and so attractive that we received a generous donation from the Muslim World League (MWL), which not only covered our development cost, but our whole Hajj editorial coverage costs.
Earlier you mentioned that one of challenges for Arab News 2020 is stiff competition from regional English-language dailies. Considering, UAE is the second biggest market in the region, do you consider the English-language dailies in the UAE your competitors?
Interesting question. The answer is yes and no. We don’t compete on a national level, but we do compete on an international level. Take the big UAE titles such as Gulf News and Khaleej Times; we can’t and won’t beat them in their own markets because we are not a local paper. However, we aim to be the biggest regional title in English across the board. The only exception is our own local market, Saudi Arabia, where our local coverage is and must remain the biggest.
Earlier this year, Arab News launched a Pakistan digital edition. What was the idea behind that?
Arabnews.pk is the first one of our international editions. The idea is that our brand already enjoys a huge following in Pakistan given the number of expats that lived – and still live – in Saudi Arabia. Also, English is one of the main languages [in Pakistan] and there are deep-rooted religious, cultural, business and military ties [between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia], which justify a dedicated Arab-Pakistani news service. We are already scoring scoops and exclusive interviews. We expect the service to grow tremendously in influence and popularity over the next period, under the leadership of our bureau chief Baker Atyani.
So where are we going to see Arab News pop up next?
SRMG has very ambitious plans for the brand, but we will announce them when the right time comes. I assure you that Communicate will be among the first to know.
In just over a year and a half, Arab News seems to have undergone quite a transformation – much like when you joined Al Arabiya back in 2012. Do you have a thing for transformations?
I am just the person that connects the dots. The secret is two things: building a team of competent people who are equally passionate and having a publisher or management that believes in what you are doing. I can’t but thank my team for their hard work, long hours, enthusiasm and ideas but also, like the veteran Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland once told me of the late Katherine Graham, “You need a great publisher to be able to edit a great paper.” This applies to our chairman Prince Bader and the fantastic Executive Committee of SRMG, whom I thank for their trust and support… and for putting up with my never-ending nagging!