Understanding traditional media online in the Middle East

Cross-post from the BBC College of Journalism blog.

Understanding traditional media online in the Middle East

Damian Radcliffe   Friday 12 April 2013, 12:23

Damian Radcliffe is internet and society manager for ictQATAR, a Qatar regulator. He previously worked for the BBC, Ofcom and the charity CSV. Twitter: @damianradcliffe

 Al ArabiyaForbes Middle East recently published its third annual list of the biggest online media channels in the region. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is dominated by established offline media from the largest countries in the region (see list). But at the same time recent data about tablet usage – and the attitudes of Arab youth towards traditional media sources – highlights some of the challenges these services face in growing their online operations.

In terms of websites relating to newspapers, by far the largest is Al Youm Al-Sab’ea in Egypt. Between August 2011 and August 2012, its website attracted 842.84 million visits and 145.11 million unique visitors. These figures dwarf the region’s next largest newspaper site, Al Riyadh, from Saudi Arabia, which enjoyed 123.94 million visits and 35.52 million uniques.

Given the size of Egypt’s population (see graphic, although this excludes large parts of rural Egypt) and it’s relatively small but growing internet population, it is not unreasonable to expect that many of the visitors to the Al Youm Al-Sab’ea website are from outside of the country. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether much of the site’s growth comes from more Egyptians coming online or if its fastest growing audience will be a mixture of the Egyptian diaspora and other Arabic-language speakers across the region, if not the globe.

Forbes’ data also shows that some of the region’s smallest newspapers are enjoying the highest growth in terms of attracting new audiences. Oman’s Al Rroya, which ranked last on the overall list of top newspapers online, nonetheless enjoyed the highest percentage of new visits, at 67.11%. Similarly, The National, from the United Arab Emirates, which ranks 15th overall, came second where new visits are concerned, with newcomers accounting for 60.76% of total traffic.

In terms of TV news channels, given the international profile of Al Jazeera, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Qatar-based operator’s website isn’t the most visited in the region. That honour falls to UAE’s Al Arabiya (pictured top), which had 306.63m online visitors and 69.05m uniques between August 2011 and August 2012 (the latest dates for which fully published data is available).

However, Al Jazeera – with 277.89m visits and 55.71m uniques during this period – can draw comfort from the fact that users of its website spent longer online than they did on rival sites, at 10 minutes and four seconds. This is quite long for a news website, even if the average number of pages, 3.49, is not. This suggests a high level of immersion with content once viewers visit the site. It’s a level of engagement many rivals would without doubt love to see replicated.

But perhaps the real surprise is the rapid growth of Rusiya Al-Yaum (a Moscow-based Arabic version of Russia Today). According to Google analytics data, over half of the visitors to its website during the study period were new to the site. This was the highest ratio amongst the three online TV channels.

It will be interesting to see how usage of these sites evolves. Usage of smartphones, social networks and tablets continues to grow in the region.

Certainly based on current evidence, the impact of some of these changes is affecting news consumption differently to in the West. In terms of tablets, for example, instant messaging, video calls or taking photographs dominate tablet usage in the Middle East. As the research agency TNS recently noted: “While tablets are extra leisure devices in North America, in Latin America they have a more business-oriented role, whereas in the Middle East and North Africa people like their social features.”

In contrast, a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center of news use on mobile devices in the US – in collaboration with the Economist Group – found that “for many people, mobile devices are adding to how much news they consume. More than four in 10 mobile news consumers say they are getting more news now and nearly a third say they are adding new sources.”

Yet, as Forbes’ data shows, online news consumption is growing in the Middle East. It may simply be that audiences in the region prefer to consume it differently. Tablets lend themselves more to long-form, immersive news experiences. People in the Middle East and North Africa, a region where TV news still dominates, often consume online content via their mobile – a format much more suited to short-form news.

A recent presentation by Ipsos showed that ‘News and feeds’ is the top downloaded smartphone application in four of the six countries it surveyed, and that it was also the top online mobile content in most of these countries.

Finally, there’s also the question of social media, especially among young Arabs. The fifth annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, which was published this week, reported how this group is increasingly getting its news from social media, with trust in websites and social media as reliable news sources having risen sharply in the past year. As with news outlets in the West, these are platforms which media players in the Middle East have no option but to engage with unless they want to leave a generation of news consumers behind.

Elements of this story were first reported in the Middle East Digital Digest Q1 2013, a round-up of digital or tech stories curated by Damian (English versionArabic version).

Arab Youth Survey

College of Journalism’s Arabic website

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