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Sun 19 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Exploiting the UAE’s afternoon newspaper niche

Emirates Evening Post editor Bikram Vohra stands firm in the face of criticism and argues that the UAE needs more daily papers

Exploiting the UAE’s afternoon newspaper niche|~|Vohra,-Bikram200.jpg|~|Vohra... “I am having a ball trying to make a tabloid out of a broadsheet. It is a real blast. No one has done it before” |~|A tiny white-tiled floor office down a sleepy back street in the heart of Bur Dubai is the unlikely location for a national newspaper that is intent on revolutionising how and when the news is delivered in the United Arab Emirates.

Now just five months-old, the Emirates Evening Post, the young pretender to the established English language dailies of Gulf News and Khaleej Times, has drawn derision from many, praise by some, and complete indifference from others, whose standard reply when asked what they think of the paper is: “I have never seen it, where can you get it from?”

The criticism is not lost on Evening Post editor Bikram Vohra, who in a country that lacks a newspaper heritage can safely be called an industry veteran, having spent 20 years plying his trade with the country’s newspapers.

“I should sell more soon, but I don’t expect starbursts in the sky within the first 12 months,” says the bushy eye-browed newspaper chief. “I have worked on 11 newspapers, I have launched six of them and I have the dubious distinction of having worked on every English language paper in the UAE. I don’t expect things to happen overnight, because they don’t.”

Sitting in his tiny office, with a window that overlooks his newsroom where the Post’s small staff of 28 produce the seven issues a week broadsheet, Vohra is the first to admit that the paper has embarked on a radical experiment, and acknowledges his critics with good humour. But he is relishing the challenge and enjoys every minute he spends directing his team.

“We are trying to create a readership that doesn’t exist,” Vohra admits. “It is the first afternoon paper in town and the only one in the region. I don’t want you to spend more than ten minutes with me in the evening. I want people to come and have a quick read. I want human-interest stories, people stories. I have put a ban on certain stories from places such as Venezuela. There are not many Venezuelans in town so I don’t want a six-column story on something that happened in Venezuela... There are huge prairies of space being filled with that stuff [international news] that nobody is reading.”

One of the most common complaints about the Post is its bold and unusual design. Headlines are as tall as the copy they promote, while pictures are used large and liberally. But Vohra is convinced it is what his readers want.

“I am having a ball trying to make a tabloid out of a broadsheet. It is a real blast. No one has done it before,” he says animatedly. “I can use headlines in 120 point, I can use half a page for photograph on a broadsheet, which makes it look splendid,” Vohra adds.

Traditionally, afternoon papers in other countries are tabloid-sized, making it easy for commuters to flick through on their way home from work. Vohra claims that pressures from advertisers forced them into the decision to make the Post a broadsheet, but he doesn’t rule out switching to tabloid once the Dubai Light Rail system starts operating.

“We would look at the possibility somewhere down the line, when the trains come,” he says. “I am trying to create a television type paper, that is bright, loud and noisy. I get people telling me the headlines are too large — good, and the stories are too short — good. I don’t believe people have the time to read more than 400 words.”

The Evening Post, which has an unaudited claimed daily print-run of 28,000 copies, was soft launched at the start of the year, around the same time 7Days started producing six issues a week. Vohra took the decision to make the launch low key, a decision which he stands-by despite 7Days taking the early lead in the race to win readers.

“7Days had just made a big brouhaha, if we came in, there would be two of us doing the same thing. There was no point in coat-tailing them two weeks later. We still get people asking us where our paper is. It is understandable. We are not flooding the market. Our visibility is not as comparable to our friends [7Days] that started at the same time we did,” he says.

Vohra claims the low profile or “honeymoon” period, allowed his team to bed-in and “iron-out the glitches”, but the paper would now be starting a “bit of drum beating”.

A low-key ad campaign using abras on the Creek was launched, followed by a radio-ad campaign with the tagline “Today’s news today”.

A series of print ads have been created and are due to be launched in the coming weeks.
At age 19, Vohra started his journalistic career in his native India, and rapidly rose through the ranks of various newspapers and magazines, including taking the editorship of the Sunday Standard, which he claims was the biggest Sunday newspaper in India at the time. For 14 years he also presented a twice-weekly talk and quiz show, and says he still gets recognised by people of a “certain generation”.

In 1985 he moved to Dubai to re-launch Gulf News. After a “magical” five years, he switched to the Khaleej Times because it was offering “more money”, and later acted as a consultant on Gulf Today. He then returned to the Khaleej Times where he helped launch the newspaper’s City Times supplement.

During his years in the newspaper industry, Vohra says the UAE’s newspaper market has change drastically with titles now regularly pushing the boundaries of what can be reported.

“The parameters are widening on a daily basis. We are coming out with stuff we couldn’t even dream of back then. In 1985 we couldn’t even mention the word crime, and now the leaders of the country are making speeches about freedom of the press and how to protect it. In the last six months, it has been really swift,” he says.

But it is the next six months that will be a decisive period for the Post and the UAE English language newspaper market in general. Dubai Radio Network will have its tabloid in the market, Gulf News is expected to follow suit with its tabloid edition, and 7Days will continue to make inroads. But Vohra is up for the fight and welcomes the increased choice.

“The population of the UAE is growing, and there will be seven million people in three or four year’s time. Lets have ten English language newspapers, which would be my choice. Then people can pick what they want to read,” he says. “We are just stepping out, we are just touching the water. In a year’s time, I want to be at least three times the size we are today.”

After over an hour of talking, Vohra is eager to wrap-up the interview. After quickly posing for pictures, he is back prowling around the newsroom, peering at the screens of his sub-editors and admiring the extra-large headlines and colourful pictures that will make it into that day’s edition. It is a job he obviously loves, and despite a barrage of negative comments from the newspaper’s detractors, he is clearly determined to make the Post a success.||**||

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