Good news: Media set to thrive in wake of Arab Spring, says academic

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The Middle East’s media industry is set to thrive in the wake of the Arab Spring, according to a prominent journalism academic.

Widespread smartphone use marks a specific opportunity for new online news services to emerge, says George Brock, Professor and Head of Journalism at City University in London.

“The Middle East is a very attractive place to start new news publishing if the recipe is right,” said Prof. Brock.

“You have a combination of markets that are not saturated with news, with a very high take-up of wireless devices... That should mean that new forms of journalism and new sites should have a very good context in which to grow.”

Prof. Brock, who recently published a book about newspapers in the digital age, acknowledges that globally, some printed publications will not survive in their current form.

But contrary to the gloomy forecasts set out by many commentators, Prof. Brock says he is “generally optimistic” about the future of the media – including in the Arab world.

“The media industry will play a very important role in the next 20 or 30 years in the Middle East. As the average age in most Middle Eastern states gets considerably younger, and the pressure to alter and liberalize political systems grows, how media handle these things and how they contribute to this change will make them major players in what occurs.”

Prof Brock’s book ‘Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age’ was published this month by Kogan Page. Before entering academia, Brock worked at The Times of London for 28 years, having begun his reporting career at the Yorkshire Evening Press and The Observer.

Periods of uncertainty and change are normal for the media industry, he says. “You had in the 20th century very big newspapers, then you had radio, TV, satellite TV… and then you had the internet. None of those things destroyed newspapers. The history of media is that they get layered on top of each other, they mix and they add to each other. None of these things removed print, and nor will the internet remove print,” he said.

In an interview with Al Arabiya, Prof. Brock explained how journalism can flourish in the internet age, and how this may play out in the Arab world.

Q&A with George Brock, Professor and Head of Journalism at City University in London

George Brock_Book
George Brock_Book

Q. What are the opportunities in the Arab media industry?

The great opportunity in the Middle East is to develop the next generation of news sources and platforms online. People who want to become players in the news business in the Middle East should think of tablets, wireless and so on before they do anything else. That’s the platform on which they should be creating their ideas. I think there is a very strong opportunity because print is not aggressively competitive in the Middle East, and therefore, the ability for the existing publishers to squeeze out new entrants is much less. I don’t think that print is particularly healthy, but if you take media as a whole, huge numbers of people are consuming enormous amounts of information, mostly on smartphones.

Q. Has there ever been a ‘golden age’ of media and journalism in the Arab World?

I’m not much of a believer in ‘golden ages’ in general. I don’t think that there has been one so far, but I think it’s perfectly easy and possible to say that you might be on the verge of one now.

Q. A section in your book talks about the impact of the Arab Spring. How would you summarize that?

If political authorities in states control the media to too large a degree in the digital era, in the end they lose out. If they are restraining and coopting official or semi-official media, and people can learn things about what’s going on in their country from elsewhere, then what you effectively get is two public spheres. You get an official public sphere - some of the information passed through it may be accurate, but it’s limited. And you get an informal public sphere, in which people are exchanging information. They may be smuggling it, they may have to do it covertly, but they are exchanging essentially different information. You had this happening in Tunisia; you certainly had it happening in Egypt.

Q. What are some of the other key points made in your book?

What I was really trying to do was to put into context the terrible kind of pessimism that inflicts journalists when they think about disruption and change. I do not like to count how many discussions I have had with others about the future of journalism, usually with a very gloomy tone to them. I gradually came to suspect that this gloom was wrong. And it was wrong historically, in the sense that journalism is always disrupted. It is always being upset, it always has to experiment, and it always has to adapt. It’s an inherently unstable platform on which it operates. When you look at the amount of invention, experimentation and innovation that’s going on, the total quantity of generative energy, it seems to me plenty enough to solve the problems.

Q. What are the most viable new business models for journalism?

I don’t pretend to crack that problem. [For] roughly the second half of the twentieth century, there was a very simple, easy, advertising-supported business model. But actually, periods in which the business model has been stable and simple are historically very rare. And we’re now going back to a period rather more like the early centuries of journalism, in which it’s much more chaotic, where there is probably more than one business model that will work. But nobody should be terribly afraid of this. I’m not diminishing or talking down the damage that has been done, or saying that the jobs aren’t being lost – all that shrinkage is taking place. But the fact is, you can be pessimistic about various kinds of journalistic platforms, particularity general interest, daily printed newspapers, while being – as I am – entirely optimistic about journalism as a whole.

Q. Do printed newspapers have an expiry date, as suggested by some in the industry like Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian?

While I don’t think print will disappear entirely, I do agree that it will shrink. General-interest daily papers are going to be fewer, and read by fewer people – there is no question about that. And I think the newspaper editors like Alan who say “we’re not likely in our business to buy any new printing presses” are almost certainly right. So that puts a kind of maximum limit from now of about 20 years. Many people think that people will start to switch off print sooner than that, within the next five to 10 years.

Q. What will change in the meantime?

There are two big things we’re likely to see in the next five years. One of them is people experimenting with winding down the frequency of daily print. In Britain, a lot of people think that the paper that will start that will be The Guardian, because it’s been very aggressive and innovative in online. Personally, my money is on the Financial Times. I don’t mean to say that print will get switched off completely: People will go down to three days a week, or two days a week, or once a week, and they will probably test and experiment to see how much people will tolerate.

Q. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos recently bought The Washington Post, while the Boston Globe also changed hands. In the internet age, why are people buying newspaper brands?

Because they still have large, loyal followings. And they have some DNA in their newsrooms that people think is worth having, collections of expertise whereby the total is bigger than the sum of the parts. What people are trying to do, particularly people like Bezos, who have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, is to take the editorial excellence and the distilled experience and knowledge and put it into a better and more effective business model.

Q. How do you think the editorial slant may change as that happens?

Gradually I think people are going to get much more used to reading more reflection, analysis, context and opinion in print, and reading their news information on devices of one kind or another, be they tablets, mobile screens, or whatever. That shift has already gone quite a long way and it will go even further. I speculate – for example about The Guardian – that it could easily end up in print as a weekly publication looking and sounding rather like the New Yorker, with its main identity online.

Q. Some of the biggest stories over recent years – specifically the Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden revelations – were led by people who decided to leak information, and were not traditional journalistic ‘scoops’. So where does the journalism come in?

Before the Iraq and Afghanistan material and the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks had been given, by whistleblowers, quite a lot of really quite interesting documents… and they were very surprised by how little impact it had. One reason was because people didn’t know whether to trust it or not – it was completely stripped, quite deliberately, of its context. And secondly, it just wasn’t very easy to interpret. So when Wikileaks was doing the Iraq and Afghanistan and diplomatic cables they went to the mainstream media, because they had the kind of expertise which would allow this information to be digestible, and they had brands which people regarded as trustworthy. Snowden operated the same way.

Q. You mention trust. Given the phone-hacking scandal in the UK media, how sustainable do you think that trust is?

Obviously part of the British press in particular had done the whole business of journalism no favors by behaving as they have. That’s all laid out very clearly in the results of Leveson inquiry into phone hacking. But I don’t think that all faith in all journalism has been destroyed.

Q. In 10 years’ time, do you think there will be more or fewer people globally being paid to be journalists?

I think the number will be about the same. I don’t think it’ll change very radically. It’s a very difficult thing to research this, but such research as I have found suggests that demand for news journalism is about where it was.

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