Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—With the rapid development of social media platforms adding to the already disruptive effect of the Internet on traditional media outlets, news agencies across the world have all faced a similar problem: how to remain profitable in an era of contradiction, where the number of outlets and demand for content have soared but where revenues from journalism itself have shrunk.
State-owned institutions have lagged behind, insulated to some degree from the commercial pressures that have driven their private-sector competitors to chase an ever-leaner bottom line. Nonetheless, the tide of commercial demands and technological change is never resisted for long. The Saudi Press Agency is no exception, and it has recently taken steps towards an approach increasingly driven by both commercial pressures and a desire to engage with social media and the latest communications technology at the ground level.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the chairman of the agency, Abdullah Al-Hussein, on its plans for reform and how it intends to reshape itself into a more commercially oriented operation.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What are the plans, priorities and features of your leadership of the international and Arab parts of the organization?
Abdullah Al-Hussein: Our plans stem from the principle of joint Arab effort, which Saudi Arabia puts at the forefront of its priorities and to which it gives full support and attention. According to this principle, we will endeavor to work for more cooperation to improve the performance of the Arab agencies, and to raise their proficiency and develop their skills and their human resources. We will also endeavor to absorb the rapid developments in communications technology and new media, as well as develop and bolster cooperation between Arab agencies and regional and international media organizations.
The SPA hosted a very successful international conference for news agencies in mid-November, which was an event of great importance because it was the first time it was held in the Middle East and because of the high level and size of international presence, with 77 news agencies and 30 speakers who were prominent media figures from around the world.
Q: At local level, what are your future plans to develop the news division of the SPA?
The news sector is the beating heart of the SPA and the center around which all other sectors revolve. The SPA has plans and programs to improve its news sector and journalistic performance in general, relying on local resources and skills, which the SPA will train and hone at its training center. This training center also holds training programs for newspapers and the media sections of government departments. According to future plans, the agency will develop a news sector, establish specialist sections, and vary its media products. It will also take more steps to develop new media and absorb developments in modern media tools and technologies and improve its ability in a way that will primarily strengthen its status as a news producer, and to provide excellent media in the service of society.
Q: Moving on to your internal dynamics now. Why does the SPA not provide its employees with accommodation allowance and health insurance like other agencies?
The agency is eager to provide benefits to its employees and create a fruitful and productive working environment. Specialists are currently preparing a structure and regulations that will deal with employees’ concerns and provide what I can describe as an attractive environment.
Q: What about creating a section for women?
The SPA has a number of female reporters in Riyadh and other places, and has aspirations to create a special section for women arising from a strong belief that women have an important and distinctive role to play. Women can also be vital contributors at the agency, which is eager to diversify its sources. As I said in a previous answer, the environment the SPA is eager to create will be attractive to women journalists.
Q: Now that the SPA has started selling its products, what is your marketing strategy?
The SPA pays great attention to this issue and has created a marketing department. About a year ago, the SPA started to market its products, including Arabic, English and French articles, as well as photographs. Among its marketing strategies, the SPA will expand the sale of its products with the possibility of purchasing its services via satellite, terrestrial networks and leasing linkage circuits, as well as the sale of specialist services tailored for individual subscribers. The SPA also plans to sell its services on international electronic platforms, and all these steps should lead to positive results.
I must also point out that SPA has started applying the principle of reciprocity in acquiring news services from various regional and international news agencies, and we hope this step will achieve fruitful results and lead to a balance between expenditure and income in this field.
Q: Why has the SPA not entered the digital advertising market so far?
The SPA entered the digital advertising field a few months ago and signed agreements with a number of national institutions and companies to advertise on its website.
Q: What is the SPA’s plan for media sponsorship?
The SPA is interested in the subject of media sponsorship. We were honored last year to participate in many activities around the Kingdom. During the last week of November, the SPA was one of the main sponsors of the Al-Bahah Media Forum, which was inaugurated by the emir of the region and attended by an assortment of Saudi media figures.
The SPA will endeavor to offer more media sponsorship around the Kingdom in the future, and we are eager to accompany that by holding exhibitions showing our photographic archives, which cover a period of 40 years, in order to highlight the profession and connect with the public at events. We also hope to introduce the SPA to the public through pictures showing the Kingdom’s glorious past and bright future, which is rich with achievements in many different aspects of life.
Q: The SPA has unused resources in some of its regional bureaus. How will you deal with this problem?
The SPA is especially interested in its resources and its human resources, because they are the basis for the development we seek. We aspire to eliminate the existence of unused resources, whether at the main bureau or in regional and international bureaus, or among agency correspondents. The SPA has established a special training center, as I mentioned before, which provides first-class training to its staff, and it organizes workshops that cover all media work to improve editorial and technical skills.
Q: Do you intend to increase the number of international bureaus?
We are in the process of preparing a comprehensive study into SPA bureaus and correspondents abroad. This study puts the expansion of services around the world at the top of its priorities.
Q: Digital media has become very important to many media outlets. What are your aspirations in this regard?
We have great aspirations regarding digital media, in relation to websites, mobile phone services, SMS services, and linking the head office with other bureaus and correspondents via satellite, as well as improving the way correspondents work, for example by sending news reports and pictures from the scene immediately by mobile phone. The SPA realizes the importance of new media and has established a special department for social media and interaction on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and it is now present on all these websites.
Q: Do you still have the system of contributors to the agency?
The system is still in use at the SPA, but we want to benefit from the experiences and skills of specialists, which is necessary both to the agency and its planned development and modernization.
Q: The SPA website does not reflect the size of the work you do. Why do you not launch a more professional portal?
We are in the process of designing a new portal to provide the agency’s services at the highest professional level, alongside another website for sales.