Stop the press ? for good

Some media experts predict that daily news publications in the Arab world will go the way of internationally known dailies from other countries that have shifted exclusively to cyberspace to survive.

For The Sun in the UK, or Bild in Germany, it could be decades. For The Guardian, it could be as little as five years. And for titles such as The Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, not to mention the UAE's very own Emirates Business 24/7, it has already happened.

"It" is the decision to scrap print, and relaunch daily newspapers as online-only titles. And deciding when to switch off the presses is one of the biggest - if not the biggest - dilemmas faced by newspaper proprietors worldwide. Aside from those who have already done it, few know, or are prepared to reveal, the exact date at which they will make this move. But there can be little doubt that one day paper and ink will no longer be viable, and one commentator predicts that all Arab newsprint titles will be dead by 2020.

Late last month, Emirates Business 24/7 became the first UAE newspaper to scrap its print edition and go online-only. The title will relaunch as a general news "e-paper", renamed Emirates 24/7, later this month. Senior executives at Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI), the title's publisher, did not want to comment, or could not be reached, when contacted by The National. But a statement issued by the newspaper last month cast the move in a favourable light.

It said the online-only publication would make use of DMI's other media assets, including a weekly TV show called Emirates 24/7 on the Dubai One channel. The statement referenced titles such the Christian Science Monitor, which have made similar moves to scrap their print editions. But Emirates Business 24/7as a print product was a relatively young title - it launched at the end of 2007 - and some observers doubt whether it was ever commercially successful in that form, unlike some of the more established US titles that have made a similar move to online.

Still, media executives say the decision is, on the whole, a good one. "The basics tell me that if a newspaper is not generating advertising revenue it is not performing, then why keep it?" says Elie Haber,the managing director of the media planning agency Mindshare in the UAE. "The move makes sense because most readers of Emirates Business 24/7 are internet users. There is a big potential for Emirates 24/7 - the overheads are much lower. It's worth trying, it's a good move for them."

Mr Haber says the print version of Emirates Business did not figure on any of his clients' advertising plans. It is too early to say whether the online version will be more attractive, he says, but notes that the relaunched site must market itself strongly to be commercially successful. "If they don't develop a marketing campaign to promote the website, I don't think they will be able to attract the advertisers," he says.

Whatever the reasons behind Emirates Business 24/7's embrace of online, it is a move that will probably be followed, at some time, by all other newspaper publishers in the region. Mr Haber believes the demise of newsprint will "definitely happen", but, like many in the industry, he cannot predict when. The decision for individual publishers will be guided in part by trends in advertising spending.

"None of the multinational FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] clients bother to advertise in newspapers ? they rely on TV, outdoor and magazines. It's mainly the local clients and big car and electronics companies - they cannot live without newspapers because [their advertising] is driven by offers and deals," Mr Haber says. "The whole online business is growing. This is a global trend which will be reflected in this region. But when, I don't know. You still have people who can't live without newspapers, especially the older people. I know that a couple of newspapers in Saudi Arabia may be affected, with advertising revenues below what they were last year. They are suffering. Healthy or not, the change is happening."

Some regional newspaper executives believe the death of newsprint is many years away. Francis Matthew, the editor at large at the Dubai-based broadsheet Gulf News, says he could not put a date on when the presses would close. "It will not happen in the foreseeable future, by which I mean five to 10 years," he says. "In that period, we see print being our main source of revenue. We have a very active online site, but we will not switch off our presses. The majority of our advertising comes from print, in common with most other UAE newspapers as well as the Asian titles."

But one UAE-based media commentator predicts that Arab print newspapers will be dead by 2020. "The newspaper is definitely going to cease to exist. I give it a maximum of a decade before everything becomes electronic - that's the trend in the Arab world," says Ali Jaber, the dean of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Communications at the American University of Dubai and a consultant to DMI, who was speaking about the industry as a whole, not specifically Emirates Business.

"It is very important for the Arab print newspapers to properly comprehend and understand this idea. If they stay attached to these illusions ? they will crash, just like the [US newspaper industry] crashed. Either you want to go digital, or you rely on old trees." Mr Jaber pointed to the example of his 18-year-old son, who, despite being interested in politics, does not read print. "He reads the newspaper, but never ever in his life did he open a print newspaper. He never had the romantic experience of opening a paper, of smelling the ink."

But even if 2020 does spell the end of newsprint, that is not to say all titles will close simultaneously. Peter Kirwan, the media editor of Wired UK magazine, and contributor to the media section of The Guardian, says the global trend is a "multi-speed" transition to digital media, with different types of publications dumping print at different stages. Speaking at the OMD Predicts conference in Dubai at the end of last month, he said: "In the case of certain media types, that transition is telescoping, it's coming towards us. Some media organisations are progressing very rapidly to an online-only future, with others remaining deeply rooted to print."

He pointed to the example of The Sun newspaper in the UK and Bild, the German newspaper, as titles that work especially well in print. "Publications that are third, fourth or fifth in print terms may find it relatively easy to move into digital," said Mr Kirwan, adding that legacy media could increasingly be challenged by newcomers. But Mr Kirwan saidprint was "still tremendously important". Consumers spend a total of 204 million minutes a day reading print versions of UK national newspapers compared with just 58.9 million minutes a day spent reading digital versions of UK papers, he said.

That statistic is telling for media outlets that rely on ad revenue. It is the eyeballs that count.