When Adel al-Toraifi was appointed editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, the world’s biggest pan-Arab newspaper, one of the last things on his mind was writing.
Launched in London in 1978, the newspaper is printed in 14 cities across four continents, and is read by more than 200,000 people daily. To its Arab-speaking audience, the green tinge of Asharq al-Awsat’s front page is as distinctive as the pink wash of the Financial Times.
But despite the lure of the international exposure offered by the newspaper, al-Toraifi has rarely had time to pen articles since being appointed editor on January 1.
For he says it is more important to play chief executive than columnist – adding that can still be for the greater good of journalism.
“The editor-in-chief needs to be a CEO. He needs to look at his newspaper as a profit-generator. Because that’s the only way to protect the neutrality and integrity of newspapers,” al-Toraifi told Al Arabiya in a wide-ranging interview.
“If newspapers are not independent financially, by their own profits, they will not succeed. And this is the lesson for the [Middle East] region that no one is listening to.”
This means that, while he oversees the editorial of the newspaper on “the macro level”, al-Toraifi’s primary concern is managerial.
“There were great editors who did not survive in their posts for one reason: Because they have not devoted any time for the profitability and for the managerial side of the newspaper. And editors will waste most of their time just writing their articles… This is why I voluntarily abstained from writing my own column, and stopped it. I’m writing only occasionally,” he said.
Al-Toraifi was born in 1979, just a year after the launch of the newspaper he now heads. He recently completed a PhD on Saudi-Iranian relations at the London School of Economics, and also acts as editor-in-chief of The Majalla magazine. Having spent years writing opinion articles for various Arabic newspapers, it was announced last year he would take on his most high-profile post yet at Asharq al-Awsat.
The title, based in London, is owned by Saudi Research and Marketing Group, via its subsidiary Saudi Research and Publishing Company. Here al-Toraifi explains his plans for the newspaper, which he fondly describes as an “old majestic lady”.
You took up your post on January 1. What has changed so far and where do you see it going in the future?
What we’re doing at Asharq al-Awsat now is quietly restructuring the newspaper. My concern is not what is happening today or tomorrow. My concern is what is going to happen 10 years from now. My role is not to do a revolution at Asharq al-Awsat, but to do an evolution. Nevertheless, we have worked hard in the last six months in balancing the budget at Asharq al-Awsat, which we have achieved. We have reduced extensively the operational costs of the newspaper without having to let go any of our journalists. We have cancelled over six supplements, dropped down the second body of the newspaper, and introduced over 12 special pages in the newspaper.
How did you come to be editor?
I first knew of Asharq al-Awsat at the age of eight. We were in the U.S. in Boston, and my father was studying for his higher education. And the only [Arabic] newspaper that was available in print in the U.S. and Europe was Asharq al-Awsat. At that time, I started to read it, just to learn the Arabic letters. And I never thought I would one day be asked to make decisions about its future. I followed Asharq al-Awsat for a long time, and I wrote for Asharq al-Awsat for over three years before I became the editor.
What did you do when you first arrived?
The first few weeks I spent studying the newspaper. So I opened all its books and went through its archives. Whenever I asked the [other] editors about something, they told me ‘well, we don’t do this at Asharq al-Awsat; we do this and that’. And I asked them, ‘what are these rules?’. And they said ‘ah, well some of them are written, some of them are not’. So in the first six months I’ve actually recorded those traditions and rules and published a book, back in early May, called the Asharq al-Awsat Style Book – The Rules and Traditions of the Green Newspaper. Great newspapers in the west have style books published. But in the Middle East, only Asharq al-Awsat has a style book.
Tell us about the newspaper’s history.
The newspaper started in 1978 as an international newspaper. The publishers at that time modeled it after the International Herald Tribune. And since then it was highly regarded by every single politician in the region. Almost every American president since Regan either gave a statement or an interview... The same goes for prime ministers and presidents, and kings and queens… from Muammar Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein.
Why is Asharq al-Awsat based in London and not the Arab world?
The publishers wanted a Herald Tribune. And in order to make a Herald Tribune [in 1978] you needed to be in places like New York, London or Paris. You needed satellite links, you needed color printers… which was not available in the Middle East at that time. Also, it benefited from being in London. It gave it more independence because it was considered a British newspaper. It wasn’t considered a Saudi newspaper, or an Arab state newspaper. It was a British newspaper protected by British laws, and accountable by British laws.
Are there any plans to move it to the Middle East?
That is a decision for the publishers. Nevertheless, I would assure you that Asharq al-Awsat is a newspaper respected for its traditions, and one of them is that it’s published just near Fleet Street. And I don’t think the newspaper will sacrifice its London address for anywhere in the world.
Does the newspaper stand on its own two feet commercially?
Yes. This is why Asharq al-Awsat is different from any other newspaper in the [Middle East]. When it first [launched] it was built on the model of British newspapers. So it was expected to generate revenues, it was expected to perform as a British company. We’re [expecting] a profit this year, and we’re expecting to have more profits and expansion before the end of the year.
Does the newspaper receive funding from Saudi Arabia?
No, never. And it should never receive funding from anybody. Asharq al-Awsat is an independent newspaper. It’s owned by SRMG, which is a traded company on the stock market, so in matters of transparency and visibility, at any time you can go and see how our mother group is performing. And we are held to the same standards of our subsidiary companies.
The last circulation figure I could find was 234,000, from 2004. Do you have an updated number?
We are the largest-circulated newspaper in Arabic in the world. Some Egyptian newspapers will be number one in Egypt. But guess what, Asharq al-Awsat has always been the number-two newspaper. Hisham Hafiz, who was one of the founders of the newspaper, once said that ‘we have never opted for the position of number-one newspaper, we designed it to be the second newspaper of every single Arab in the region’. Once you buy your own local newspaper, you go and buy Asharq al-Awsat to see what’s going out in the world.
What about the actual circulation number though?
The numbers are in decline. We’re roughly less than [the 234,000] by a small margin. Yet we are experiencing decline in circulation... We recovered from 2008 and 2009, when there was a steep decline in major British newspapers. We have recovered but we have not reached the pre-2008 figures.
Do you expect the numbers to continue to decline?
Our situation is that it has flattened now. We don’t think that we’re going to be in decline this year or next year. Nevertheless, we see that other newspapers that invested heavily on marketing schemes aimed at increasing distribution have backfired, which we have avoided doing. So we saved ourselves of a bad investment. Nevertheless, the ads revenue for us has grown.
Al-Hayat is your biggest competitor. Some people say it’s more critical in its coverage than Asharq al-Awsat. Do you agree?
I don’t want to compare ourselves to any other newspaper. I think now that Asharq al-Awsat is second-to-none. And I think nobody is a competitor to Asharq al-Awsat at the moment, if you’re speaking about an Arabic daily of its kind. And when it comes to profit nobody can even come close to our figures. Having said that, if the reporting in the news is the question, I would say that Asharq al-Awsat is the most professional newspaper there is. It is among the few that are reporting inside Syria, for instance, and we are among the few that are allowing all opinions to appear in the newspaper.
There have been claims of censorship leveled against the newspaper in the past. Is there censorship of the newspaper?
There is no single newspaper immune to censorship. Otherwise newspapers would be unedited, which then would result in that they would not even be read. You go and read the newspaper because you trust the editors to deliver a fact-checked reporting to you. So in one way or another they’re actually vetting the news for you. Some people will call that kind of vetting of the news censorship; others would call it sound professionalism. Having said that, yes you can criticize Asharq al-Awsat for certain coverage of certain news, but that has been the norm for most newspapers in the world… But I would say that the result is that, if the news is published in Asharq al-Awsat, it’s dealt with more seriously than when it’s published anywhere else. And this is what matters.
How will your reign compare with that of Asharq al-Awsat’s previous editors, such as Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and Othman Al Omeir?
I don’t think I can compete with their legacies. I am a big fan of both of them, for both different reasons. For me, just maintaining Asharq al-Awsat as they have made it, and other numerous editors have over the years - this is my challenge. And this is what I want to be remembered for – that the newspaper with me survived, and it successfully transitioned to the digital world.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I don’t want people to say ‘what did I do when I was editor?’. I would like people to say ‘what did the newspaper do?’. I want it to be an institution, rather than a one-man show. Because if it’s an institution it will remain after you go.