Connecting transformation and profit: The Middle East Conference, Day 1

AI and robots added futuristic sparkle, but the real agenda of these roadmaps had less to do with crystal ball gazing and a lot to do with following the money, according to guest poster Steve Shipside.

by Mechthild Schimpf | March 1, 2018

“This is the sort of power kings once waged war over, and countries were built or destroyed by.” Thus concluded the keynote speech by His Excellency Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama on the first day of the 13th WAN-IFRA Middle East Conference in Dubai. His Excellency is Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence of the United Arab Emirates, and his point was that much of human progress has started out with an extremely limited understanding of the potential future implications of technologies.

“When Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity or Faraday created the dynamo, they had no idea of what we would be able to do today at the click of a button – that we would be able to access the world’s knowledge,” he said.

Similarly, His Excellency now saw humanity, and the publishing industry in particular, as starting down a road towards artificial intelligence (AI). He pointed out the extensive use of automatically generated content by the likes of Reuters and AP, to the tune of some 8,000 articles a day.

Despite his carefully neutral stance (“I’m here bearing neither good news nor bad”), His Excellency – a man whose role is, after all, to oversee the spread of AI – was cautiously optimistic. “This can be seen by some in terms of threat to jobs, but I see a lot of positives as we hand over repetitive tasks to automation and instead focus on the human side,” he said.

Fittingly, the participants near me also saw the advent of AI as ‘neither good news nor bad’. To be totally honest, I suspect that if His Excellency had started the event with a consideration of the role of Terminator robots in the newsroom, most of the participants I spoke to would have asked what that meant to their profit and loss.

This conference was about roadmaps to the future, but for many participants that future is all about the bottom line, not crystal balls.

The value of networking, collaboration

Mechthild Schimpf, WAN-IFRA’s Director Middle East, talked of the importance of “networking as the catalyst for growth”, and Majed Al Suwaidi, Managing Director, Dubai Media City, spoke of the need to “embrace a more collaborative media landscape”.

The sizeable representation from the Khaleej Times sat near me nodded in approval of these messages of industry solidarity, although one confided that he was more immediately interested in collaboration with other publishers on materials purchasing. They, along with the Turkish representative on my other side, were already convinced of the need to embrace change; their daily concern was more about how to make that change make a profit.

There may be no simple answers, but there was a lot of food for thought in the first day’s presentations.

When Gunilla Asker, CEO of Schibsted-owned Svenska Dagbladet (in photo above with WAN-IFRA COO Thomas Jacob), took to the stage to detail the transformation of the paper, she didn’t shy from the initial reactions of cost-cutting and lay-offs. She was frank about the fear of walking down a pier-end with the risk of nothing but a messy fall at the end, but explained how integrating data with editorial and not being timid about paid content had transformed that pier into a bridge to new pastures.

The message tallied neatly with the experience of Astrid Jørgensen, Head of Subscription Sales and Marketing at Politiken in Denmark, who showed how even a 400% price increase had only grown sales – thanks to carefully-considered data-driven implementation.

When Thomas Jacob, WAN-IFRA’s Chief Operating Officer, cited World Press Trends as saying, “Attention is the old currency; the new currency is trust,” he wasn’t mouthing slogans. The New York Times, for instance, found that revenue per user for engaged users totaled US$125, compared to $1.70 for casual visitors.

The frantic quest for reach is not the future

When Harvard Business School and Oxford University researcher Grzegorz Piechota stood up to pick apart the threat from Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms, it was quickly becoming clear that the roadmap for the future had less to do with the frantic quest for reach and more to do with maximising paid services to the few but faithful.

That message was enormously well received. My neighbors from the Khaleej Times nodded sagely, noting that they had managed 11 million views for one video – but were still working on how to convert those kinds of figures into profit.

Then Joe Morrison, Director of Digital TV at Muscat Media Group, Oman, stood up to explain how the TV industry is trying to get into the digital video area, and how the news publishers are already doing it better and will continue to do so. Most importantly of all, he explained exactly how he had been forced to rethink what to charge for in his news videos and how he had made it work.

In the audience the note-taking by this point was as focused and intent as a class of students who have realised they are being dictated the results for tomorrow’s exam.

The first day finished off on a high note with the presentation of the Middle Eastern Digital Media Awards, but the atmosphere was already positive.

There are many roadmaps, and no single destination, but the feeling was definitely that we were driving over a bridge, not a cliff.

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