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Sun 5 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Newspaper market braces itself for more titles

As Dubai Radio Network prepares to launch two daily newspapers in the United Arab Emirates, the question remains: Can the market sustain them?

|~|English-Newspapers_m.jpg|~||~|There is an old saying in the UK about buses. You wait a long time for one to come, and then three come at the same time. The same could be said of the UAE’s burgeoning newspaper industry.

September will likely see the birth of the Dubai Radio Network’s two newspapers, bringing the total number of Arabic and English daily titles in the UAE to 13. Back in December 2004, daily tabloid-sized free-sheet 7Days started publishing six days a week, and the Emirates Evening Post, the region’s first afternoon newspaper, launched in February this year.

Plans for the DRN titles have been subject to intense speculation in circles for many months, but details are now emerging of how the government-backed group plans to wrestle readers away from the existing titles.

With a staff of 170 over the two publications, DRN is certainly taking the new venture seriously, and is investing heavily in resources. Compared to the staffing levels at the Emirates Evening Post, which has a staff of just 28 and 7Days, which has even less, and it is clear that DRN means business.

The new newspapers will be tabloid-sized and are expected to include features for women and personal finance. There is also expected to be a greater emphasis on sport and there are plans for a magazine supplement on a Friday. Unlike its nearest sized rival 7Days, DRN’s offering, with the current favoured name of the “Emirates Mail”, will be paid for and have increased pagination.

But in the long term, can the UAE sustain a sixth daily English language newspaper?
Gulf News, the perceived newspaper leader, claims an unaudited circulation of over 95,000, while its nearest rival, the Khaleej Times, boasts that it has an ABC audited circulation of 72,000.

Out of the established titles, Gulf Today, published out of Sharjah, is languishing in third position with a claimed circulation of around 36,000. New kids on the block, 7Days, which is distributed free across Dubai, is claiming a distribution of over 65,000, ahead of its official audited figure, while the Emirates Evening Post claims to shift a mere 28,000 copies a day.

Ultimately, the long-term success of these newspapers will depend on advertisers, how long they continue to believe unaudited figures, and how much they are willing to pay to reach their audience.

Bikram Vohra, editor of the Emirates Evening Post, claims it is advertisers who will decide the fate of newspapers in the UAE. “It is up to the advertising world to act as a ballast,” he says. “If they [advertisers] start getting into arrangements over ad rates with one or two papers, and then the papers hold other titles to ransom, new titles will not emerge. The whole essence of advertising is choice, why would you rob people of the choice.”

But Vohra welcomes competition as a means of giving consumers a wide diversity of views. “The population of the UAE is growing, and there will be seven million people in three or four year’s time. Let’s have ten English language newspapers, which would be my choice. Then people can pick what they want to read.”

Peter Smith, managing director at media agency Optimedia Middle East, says there was room for a new newspaper. “The market can sustain this number of English language newspapers in the short term, and there are opportunities for titles that are innovative, 7Days has shown this. But eventually some will suffer. The added issue in Dubai is that there are investors who will continue to support newspapers, even if they are not turning a profit. It is a pride issue for some.”

There are interesting days ahead for newspapers in the emirates. Whether the established titles manage to see off the young bucks remains to be seen. The advantage the old hands have is a loyal readership built over many years. On the other hand, the new kids on the block are weighing in with new ideas and interesting design concepts. Come September, the relatively sedate newspaper industry in the UAE is in for a wake-up call.||**||

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