Two UAE news outlets win Google grants to develop products for future of journalism

'Popular Science Arabia' and 'The National' are winners in the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenges

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 01 JULY 2017. General image of The National newspaper's news room at their new offices in TwoFour54. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) ID: None. Journalist: None. Section: National.
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From making academic research in the region more engaging to converting written news stories to audio, Google has awarded Popular Science Arabia and The National with funding to develop media products to drive the transition from print to the future of journalism in other formats.

Through a grant fund, the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenges programme asks media outlets around the world to demonstrate new ideas in online journalism and develop tech-driven publishing business models. Twenty-one projects from 13 countries were announced as winners in the latest edition.

Beating  from more than 500 other applicants, Popular Science Arabia magazine will work with academic and research communities in the Mena region to impart their knowledge in simple, engaging ways. The National will develop its position within the booming audio and podcast market through a new service that converts text news into audio in English and Arabic.

"Put simply, our futures are tied together," Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, said on journalism and the Google News Initiative.

The numbers bear that out.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, is the fourth biggest technology company in the world by market capitalisation, worth $835.8 billion at the New York Stock Exchange at close on Friday. Its fortunes are fuelled in part by content from the news media, an important driver of user engagement for Google. The search engine's revenue from news content was estimated at $4.7bn in 2018, compared to $100 million in 2008, according to an economic study last year by the News Media Alliance, a North American trade association. The group found that 40 per cent of clicks were on trending queries from news results in 2018.

Media companies have been reliant on Google for the better part of a decade to drive traffic, and those numbers are still increasing. In 2011, Google Search and Google News accounted for about three-quarters of the traffic that ended up on top news sites. Since January 2017, traffic from Google Search to news publisher sites has risen by more than 25 per cent to approximately 1.6 billion visits per week in January 2018, according to the News Media Alliance.

The challenge for publishers is to offer ways of consuming news that remains relevant to increasingly device-dependent, video- and audio-loving audiences.

The aim of The National's project is to deliver its news service in audio format in English and Arabic.

“It's an area of development that we and Google are focusing on as we see it as a significant delivery platform for now and the future,” said Alan Griffin, the paper’s head of digital strategy.

“As device proliferation grows, listening to content is becoming more important and we see this as an important strategic growth area. We already produce many successful podcast series and have been testing other text-to-speech related services. For the Middle East, we feel as though we have an important part to play in ensuring that high-quality news is distributed and accessible to all,” he added.

The project is titled "Voice in the Middle East" and will be developed over the next few months with a launch date tentatively set for later this year.

Meanwhile, Popular Science Arabia magazine will build a platform for scientists, researchers and university professors to share knowledge with the public in a simplified and interactive way for non-technical audiences.

Popular Science, founded in 1872, is the oldest scientific monthly magazine in the world. It began publishing an Arabic edition in May 2017 through a partnership between publisher Haykal Media and the Dubai Future Foundation.

Abdulaziz Al Jaziri, deputy chief executive of the Dubai Future Foundation, said the organisation is sharing and promoting scientific content with Arabic-speaking audiences to keep the public informed about the latest future trends and research impacting the world.

"There is a great interest in science in our region, which is challenged by the scarcity of scientific resources in the Arabic language,” said Ammar Haykal, chief executive of Haykal Media. “With the support of the Google News Innovation Fund, we will be able to develop our platform further to bridge the gap between researchers and academics on the one hand and the general public on the other.”