The first rough draft of history. That is the defining feature of journalism and should be at the core of every journalist’s work. Our job is to record developments and events to inform the readers of today and explain the present to those in the future. Getting the facts right is an absolute basic-but-critical aspect of this work, one that is sometimes taken for granted or overlooked in the fast-paced era of modern journalism.
On Monday, The National celebrates the 15th anniversary of its launch. It is a reminder to us of the importance of serious journalism. The celebration is very much a moment to mark how young The National is, but also how much it has achieved in those 15 years as we look to the future.
A newspaper headquartered in Abu Dhabi, with its eyes on the world through a 200-strong team in the UAE, UK, US, Lebanon and Egypt and correspondents in key capitals from Brussels and Baghdad, is charting the story of a dynamic region in a fast-changing world. The National was launched at a time when many newspapers were winding down. It was a bold feat, introducing a daily print product as digital journalism was taking off. Facebook was established four years beforehand and Twitter was two years old. No one could envision the impact of social media on information consumption and, in turn, journalism.
And yet The National has found a middle ground that other successful newspapers have found too – a core loyal readership of the print product, complimented by a core loyal audience on its app and website, with a strong number of occasional readers finding its stories through social platforms and search engines. With nine curated newsletters and a series of podcasts and original videos, The National has transformed its newspaper model to be a digital outlet with over a dozen products both digital and in print, including the coveted Luxury magazine and recently launched Beshara newsletter, which highlights good news stories from around the world.
The only constant is change. Every newspaper has a daily front page plus a dynamic homepage that can be updated minute-by-minute. While their contents change by the very nature of journalism, the challenge is to constantly deliver on the promise to report on events and explain them, while maintaining credibility.
The National has chronicled the past 15 years of the region, with historic events including the emergence of new Arab leaders, tragedies such as the scourge of ISIS and the Beirut port blast, and triumphs such as the UAE mission to Mars and global events coming to the region as with Expo in Dubai and the World Cup in Qatar. And this is in addition to major global events such as the financial crisis of 2010, the turbulence of the US-China relationship and the impact of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, to name a few.
Yet there are also important daily developments that equally demand attention and in-depth coverage, at a time when all news outlets are competing for readers’ attention. Numerous articles and studies have been dedicated to the reality of how readers’ attention is scattered with two to three million news articles published daily. Of course, these are in different languages and with different specialities, but the online publisher Medium has 47,000 new articles daily. And so newspapers and news outlets must always think of what differentiates them. But, also, today journalists know more about their readers and what interests them than ever before. Success depends on appealing to audiences while still covering the stories that matter.
Most news outlets seek to inform their readers. They also seek to entertain or at least move them. Some media also want to enrage and shock – but serious outlets prefer less of that, which means they may generate fewer clicks but enjoy more engagement and trust. Making an editorial choice to be less controversial and more informative does not help win a popularity test of going viral, but in the long term serves the mission of journalism to inform readers.
The power of technology and the impact of digitisation cannot be understated: it has revolutionised journalism over the past 15 years. The reality is that digitisation also means that most media outlets are beholden to third parties. Algorithm changes can overnight decimate a publisher’s readership - or double it. The famous case of Australia Competition and Consumer Commission’s showdown with Facebook in 2021, demanding that it compensate news organisations for the value of their journalism on the site, led to Facebook removing all news content in Australia, without finding a long-term solution.
Media outlets and the big technology companies have yet to find a comfortable accommodation but both need each other. According to Sandvine, the "Big Six" – Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Netflix and Microsoft – generate almost half of all internet traffic.
There are, of course, more cases of co-operation that rarely make the headlines, including the impact of Google’s News Initiative, of which The National has been a beneficiary. The power of technology means that The National, like media outlets around the world, is reaching audiences we would never have been able to in the past. We were recently recognised with a Stevie award for our Text to Speech feature, translating our articles from written English to spoken Arabic, which was developed with Google, under the News Initiative.
In these past 15 years, the geopolitical, economic and cultural developments of the region and the world have been at the heart of The National, but so has the transformation of the media industry. Ultimately, The National is invested in the region and in telling its story in the many ways that digital tools now allow. As we celebrate this anniversary, our eyes are on the next 100, as we chronicle the first rough draft of history.