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Where a newspaper sees room to grow

Western publications falter, but Abu Dhabi has a new daily, the National, with deep pockets and big plans.

October 10, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — Spacious and airy, the newsroom of the National seems a newfangled journalistic field of dreams, with its stylish furniture, flat-panel monitors and roomy, uncluttered desks.

Though the new United Arab Emirates newspaper has a daily circulation of only 70,000 to 90,000, it has grand ambitions and leaders who are bullish on print journalism.

"Don't panic!" editor Martin Newland advises his counterparts in the West. "Don't head to the hills yet. Let's not throw out the business of journalism just yet."

Newland, a 46-year-old Briton of partially Argentine stock, has reason to be optimistic.

Although most newspapers are laying off reporters and editors, the English-language National, which launched in April, has quickly built an editorial staff of about 240 reporters, stringers and editors, luring many from Western papers. Newland is a former editor of London's Daily Telegraph and the business editor is from the Wall Street Journal.

While many newspapers in America are scaling back, the National plans to expand by adding a seven-section Saturday edition, and it has stationed correspondents around the world.

"It's just a newspaper that's funded properly," said deputy editor Hassan Fattah, a former reporter for the New York Times and Associated Press.

Unlike American newspapers, however, that funding is from the government -- Abu Dhabi's. The publication is aimed in large part at the growing English-speaking expatriate business community, which includes North Americans, Europeans, South Africans and Australians, as well as at the mostly South Asian workforce.

The funding source may make Western journalists squirm. Newland says that in the Arab world, only a government could get a project like the National off the ground.

"It has to be that way," he said. "There's no other way you're going to get something of this scale and this quality this quickly."

Still, the paper is required by its owners to begin breaking even within five years, its editors say.

Culture of deference

Some have accused the National and other newspapers in the Persian Gulf of playing little more than a decorative role for their respective kingdoms. Indeed, except for a few independent outlets, gulf newspapers often feature laudatory front-page photos of rulers sitting down with foreign dignitaries beneath headlines something like "His Majesty Greets Tongan Business Delegation."

So far, the National appears to have avoided such a fate. Its pages include hard-hitting reports on topics such as AIDS and human trafficking in the Emirates, and its front page rarely, if ever, features the kingdom's rulers except when they are doing something truly newsworthy.

But editors and reporters do recognize that pressure is inevitable. Once, a powerful figure urged them to kill a story about young jockeys exploited in camel racing, a popular sport among the gulf's jet set. The editors refused. They've even written critically about Abu Dhabi's enormous sovereign wealth funds, even though they are bankrolled by one.

"We very rarely ever hear, 'That was close to the bone,' " Newland says.

The National's front section begins with more than 10 pages of news about Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, gathered by about 40 reporters, before getting to coverage from the region and the world. That's a British broadsheet convention.

The National is staffed largely by reporters in their 20s guided by more seasoned journalists and editors in their 50s, many of whom took buyout offers from newspapers in the West. Among the ambitious souls is business reporter Bradley Hope, 24, a graduate of New York University.

"It feels like a golden-age newspaper," he says.

In the middle of the newsroom, amid a sea of reporters and editors, lies a big conference table, where editors gather to decide what stories go on the front page.

"The decisions are made out in the open," Newland says, a move aimed at making the paper more transparent.

Different readership

The National isn't gunning for readers of other Emirates newspapers, which its editors consider mid- or low-market. It is seeking to create an intelligent product for affluent and elite readers, with long stories, elegant layouts and artful photography, Newland says. And it's willing to sacrifice a number of readers to obtain quality readership.

"If you're walking around with a copy of the National," Newland says, "it should say something about who you are."

--

daragahi@latimes.com

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