The latest player on the Saudi media scene was born this week, and its creators decided to deliver it on a very special date: November 11, 2011, at exactly 11:11 KSA time.
Al-Sharq will also be the 11th general interest national daily newspaper in the country. I say ‘will’ because although the website was launched a couple of days ago, the print newspaper will not hit the stands until December 5. The editor-in-chief is Gainan al-Ghamdi, a veteran journalist who helped start Al-Watan daily in Abha back in 2000, and before that was the editor of Al-Bilad in Jeddah. Al-Sharq will be the second newspaper to be based in the Eastern Province. The first one is Al-Yaum, which has also recently relaunched their site.
I have had the chance to follow Al-Sharq development over the past few months because two leading men behind the site are good friends of mine: Fouad al-Farhan and Hasan al-Mustafa, the head of development and the site managing editor, respectively. Both of them talked with me several times during the development period and I offered them some small suggestions but by no means was I directly involved with the project.
The design of the site is clean and fresh, and it certainly puts them ahead of their competitors, but this should not come as a surprise to anyone. The site has a gray color palette, which some people on Twitter called “dull,” but I personally like it. I also like that the text has a lot of white space to breath, a fresh departure from the crowded condensed look of many news sites. It helps that there are no ads on the site, but I don’t expect that to last for too long.
Fouad says all what he cares about for now is content and traffic. Ads are “the last thing I care about about for now,” he said. “Content, then traffic, then ads. Why have ads placeholders when you have no visitors?”
For Fouad, al-Sharq could be the realization of a dream he has had for years.
In a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, dated December 17, 2008, he told American diplomats that he and some friends are planning to launch a “new site as a Saudi version of the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post.” These plans never really materialized in the way he described them at the time, but a look through Al-Sharq homepage definitely bears some resemblance to HuffPo, especially the use of one lead story with a page-wide headline and big photo at the top.
The use of one lead story with a big photo HuffPo-style is something that I still can’t bring myself to like. But I like the use of big pictures on the homepage and throughout the site, although the choice and quality of the pics leave much to be desired. Another problem with the homepage is the lack of summaries for stories. A headline with a picture is not always enough, and it does not help with skimming if you are in a hurry.
The technology powering the site is a heavily customized version of the open source WordPress content management system, Fouad explained. Another important piece of the system is what he called “real workflows.” He added that building the right workflows with proper user restrictions was the biggest problem they ran into during the development stage. The target, he said, is “15 minutes max for content from start to finish.”
Content-wise, it is probably too early to judge the site as it’s been less than 72 hours since it went live. But it is worth noting that the Opinion section includes many names that don’t come from the usual journalism and/or academia background. The site also has Video section, but almost all of the content there is produced by TV channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The only Al-Sharq video on the page was not really a video story, but rather a regular story with a video shot on a cellphone by the reporter that doesn’t rally add much.
Hasan al-Mustafa told me that the initial plan was to launch the site and paper together on 11/11/2011, but then a decision was made to delay the print edition launch which affected the site severely. “More than half of our staff were hired as print reporters,” he said. Delaying the print edition debut until December meant that these reporters are not working at full force yet, but the system is ready and tested for full integration between the site the paper product.
Hasan and Fouad have been working closely to ensure that Al-Sharq would bring something different to the market. Hasan has worked in TV and newspapers before; Fouad’s background is in software development and blogging.
“I’m not a journalist and not a media professional,” he said. “But I’m their first customer, and I want to build the news site I always wished to browse as a Saudi media consumer.”
His official title at the newspaper is “Development Manager” but it is clear that his influence goes far beyond that. He told me that they simply want to be different on all aspects: design, content, services and ideas. On Twitter, Fouad said what people see on the site is less than 10% of what they have in mind. “What’s coming will be exciting,” he said.
“Our intention was to send a message that we’re different from any Saudi newspaper or news site. Others here will follow us in few months or years but we’re the first.”