Dubai: The UAE’s media industry needs the government to support it during this time of extreme stress, in much the same way that other key sectors – banking, airlines, small and medium businesses – have been promised state-sponsored help.
And these are trying times - traditional media has never been more relevant as a source of fast-breaking news than today, with the COVID-19 upending societies and changing the way people live and work. But even with its credential enhanced, traditional media is facing a dire situation on its financial health.
“Traditional media houses in the region - and worldwide - are running into financially difficult situations,” said Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Executive Director – Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Gulf News. “It started with the  economic downturn, but the coronavirus took the world by surprise and has almost paralysed it.
“That’s why it is almost incumbent upon the government to step in to support independent journalism and subsidise the newsprint cost - similar to other sectors like education, banks, etc. This step is necessary for the health and well-being of the nation.
“Print has always depended on advertising for revenue, which in turn is contingent upon flourishing sectors such as retail, aviation, automobiles, etc. With the coronavirus, this source of income has almost dried up for newspapers.
“We have to bear in mind that newspapers have to bear an enormous cost for printing, distribution and manpower. But it also has an important job to do - in times of crises such as what humanity is witnessing.
If the print media is not there, the vacuum will be filled with fake news and rumours, which can spread without checks and balances on social media. That’s the danger of not having newspapers around.
“This has taken its toll on publishing, mainly print newspapers. Newspapers are a need… and an essential service. It’s, in fact, an important public service.
“If the print media is not there, the vacuum will be filled with fake news and rumours, which can spread without checks and balances on social media. That’s the danger of not having newspapers around.”
Something that’s been shown up in full force by COVID-19 and whatever has taken place since.
Right on the frontline
For each fact or news put out there by traditional media, there are “versions” sweeping through social/digital media and finally emerge as “virtual” facts. For instance, the coronavirus could be the end-result of a biological warfare, started by this or that nation (depending on which social media group you are a part of). Images from decades’ old Hollywood movies are brought back to life as showing mass burial of victims of the coronavirus.
And they keep on propagating through social media, without checks and balances.
This is why the media is “one of several sectors on the frontlines of the global effort to combat COVID-19,” said Majed Al Suwaidi, Managing Director of Dubai Media City. “By reporting the facts, challenging misinformation and elevating entertainment at a time when the world needs it most, Dubai’s media industry has demonstrated commendable authenticity and innovation.
“The media industry has made a crucial contribution by keeping the country informed - and entertained - during these exceptional times. The sector has kept us up-to-date on the complex and rapidly-evolving situation, and allocated space and time for public service announcements, effective preventative measures and awareness campaigns.
“It has also ensured the availability of quality content to increase education and entertainment opportunities.”
The media industry has made a crucial contribution by keeping the country informed - and entertained - during these exceptional times
According to latest advertising spend numbers for the UAE, March proved a nightmare for advertisers and media cutting across categories. No one was spared, even digital media.
Clearly, citizens and businesses in the UAE had more pressing issues on their mind – and spending on non-essentials was not a priority. “The month of March turned the tables upside down - we saw a dip of almost 42 per cent and expect an overall 18 per cent year-on-year decline in Q1-2020.
“TV, digital and ecoomerce would get almost all the attention of consumers In March because of the time they are spending at home under the current conditions. We have seen this trend in markets where lockdowns happened.”
Print has no respite
Even if there was no COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the media, recent years have not been kind to the business of print journalism.
“In 2020, trends continued against print - from a 15 per cent share of ad spend, it dropped to 12 per cent in Q1-2020," said Satish Mayya, CEO of BPG Max. “Radio, digital and outdoor had gained momentum in January and February this year.
“As expected, since March we noticed a decline in radio and outdoor media and a shift towards TV and digital. Globally, the lockdown has seen an upsurge in TV viewing as family time in front of it has increased.”
In 2020, trends continued against print - from a 15 per cent share of ad spend, it dropped to 12 per cent in Q1-2020
Government support will be timely
Traditional media matters… and more so when a crisis is around. Nothing gets bigger than a crisis spawned by the COVID-19 and the economic downturn it has set off.
With the government pitching in to give the local economy a stimulus shot, where possible, the media should be part of any such largesse, according to Archie Berens, Managing Director at Hanover Middle East, the communications consultancy.
“The media is obviously where the government’s decisive actions are most immediately understood by a population anxious for both clarity and reassurance,” he said. “So, all efforts to support it should be applauded.
“This support could range from contributing to staff and other costs; the temporary removal of licence fees and any other measures that ensure business continuity.
“Clear instructions on what activities are allowed and when, transparency on the efforts being made to counter the virus, and clear data points on how they are working are vital. Without media, this can’t happen.
“One area where perhaps more care could be taken is in ensuring that instructions and information are exactly the same in both Arabic and English. There have been a couple of cases of English translations of directives issued in Arabic have been open to different interpretations and that can lead to unnecessary doubt and confusion.”
Support could range from contributing to staff and other costs; the temporary removal of licence fees and any other measures that ensure business continuity