Grand National

In Advertising, Communicate, Journalism, Opinion, Published journalism on November 23, 2010 at 6:24 pm

As the paper celebrates its first birthday, Communicate finds the title still has a long way to go

Originally published in Communicate, May 2009

At a round table in Abu Dhabi last month, Gavin Dickinson, the executive director of publishing at The National, spoke with journalists about the newspaper’s business model. Like everyone else, it seems the daily has been hit by the credit crunch. But being young, bold, and blessed with very rich parents, it doesn’t really care.

In defiance of the economic circumstances, The National has just launched a one million dirham cross-media ad campaign, produced by Lowe, with buying done through PHD. And this is just part of a much larger, multi-million dirham marketing budget for all advertising and publicity drives.

But then it’s probably a necessary spend. The newspaper still has less then 10,000 subscribers, by Dickinson’s estimates, as opposed to Gulf News’s audited circulation of more than 100,000. Though, according to editor Martin Newland, when you compare The National’s readership against competitors such as Gulf News, “One of ours is worth 10 of theirs.” We hope for the sake of The National that this is true.

Still, it is just one year old. “We’re just coming through a sampling stage,” says Newland. “The idea was just to pick some fights and get a reputation in the market.” To hope to be running level with a big player like Gulf News at this stage would be foolish. As Newland points out, “You don’t park your tank on the lawn of a middle-market paper that’s been there for years.”

Dickinson also claims he doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with the market leader yet. “Remember,” he says, “I’m not competing.” Though a second later, unable to resist, he confesses, “But I am, really.”

While The National’s management may or may not admit they are competing for Gulf News’s readers, the two papers are certainly competing for advertisers. Dickinson says The National’s policy is a principled one when it comes to advertising, and this was a matter of choice on the paper’s part.

“Advertising was becoming a monster,” he says. And The National has already done its bit to help subdue that beast. “We have to have turned away a couple of million dollars to wrap the editor’s front page, to bag the newspaper, to hide its editorial message with commercial messages about property development,” he says. “It was important; that set the tone.”

Of course that stance might be less impressive now the real estate boom is over, but it’s still commendable that at least one title in the UAE had the backbone and the backing to draw that line in ink rather than sand. Most titles have a price, but Dickinson insists The National can’t be bought – and that can be hard for advertisers to take.

“When we tell an ad agency that they can’t buy page three, they don’t understand,” he says. Still, The National took in 70 million dirhams last year between April and December. “A fair start,” according to Dickenson, though he admits the figure is still “a tiny amount of money” in the overall scheme of regional publishing.

And with so many copies of The National given away, Dickinson says he places no real value on single copy sales. (“I wonder why people buy it,” he says.) Nevertheless, the paper aims to drive subscriptions up to 50,000 or 65,000 within three years, taking it within reach of Gulf News. Bravely, The National is selling subscriptions without the money-off vouchers its competitors tend to give away, and Newland is keen on targeting long-term expats. Though Dickinson says that, “A lot of people I am targeting are leaving. That wasn’t part of my plan.”

He remains upbeat though. “If there’s anything I can beat, it’s the circulation number,” he says. “The advertising number is stuck to the economy.”

The National is still hoping to stick to its five-year turnaround plan. If successful, when the paper celebrates half a decade in April 2013, it will not only be breaking even, but will have paid off its debts. It’s beholden to advertising, though, and at the moment nobody knows what that will do. Not even those writing the news.


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