They say seven days is a long time in politics. In an era of breakneck technological development and hyper connectivity, the seven years since The National’s first edition hit the shelves, and, perhaps more importantly, the web, seem like an eternity.
The National has gone through the same fundamental changes that venerable dailies all over the world have experienced, transforming itself from a printed newspaper with a web version, to an online multimedia news source – as likely to be accessed on a mobile phone as on a desktop computer – with a printed companion.
“When we launched in 2008 we were very much an old school newsroom, where content was generated for the print edition, and then once it was finalised a separate online team would put everything up online in the evening,” says the managing editor, Laura Koot.
“About five years ago, we really started pressing the idea that stories had to go up online as they were written. Our real ‘eureka’ moment came three years ago with a major overhaul of our systems, when we migrated to a platform where print and online content were far more intertwined.
“This has been accompanied by a cultural shift in the newsroom, where journalists really began to write with an online audience in mind. We’ve really seen some great results, with the number of page views and unique users on the rise.”
Critically, the newpaper’s separate online team has been disbanded, with online editors now an integral part of each of the paper’s sections, encouraging them to take the lead in how their content is presented.
“Everyone’s more invested in the content that they are producing, and seeing it through to the end user, whether it’s online only or a story that appears in print and is augmented online,” says The National’s web coordinator, Peter Chayney.
“Each section has taken it in different ways and tried new things, and the stats show that it’s producing dividends.”
The National first exceeded 1 million monthly page views in January 2009, nine months after the title’s launch, and the figure has risen consistently ever since. Last month was the newspaper’s most successful yet, with more than 7.2 million page views.
In a country like the UAE, where smartphone ownership rates are among the highest in the world, it comes as no surprise that much of the growth in traffic to The National’s website is from mobile devices.
Such devices, excluding tablets, account for more than 40 per cent of visits to the website, compared with just 16 per cent two years ago. Mobile is expected to be the most popular platform for viewing the site in the next 18 months.
As such, a key challenge for journalists and editors is to make sure that content that looks compelling on desktops and laptops also works well on a wide range of mobile displays.
“We’re continually impressing upon sections how important mobile is as a delivery mechanism,” says Chayney.
“You can make something that looks great on the page or on a desktop, but it’s crucial to factor in how it looks on an iPhone or Android screen.”
As with every other global news outlet, social media is increasingly driving traffic back to The National’s website.
The title’s presence across various platforms – including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram – continues to grow, with more than 383,000 followers at the end of March.
“It’s something that we’ve built up gradually and that we’ve again paid increasing attention to over the past three years especially,” says Koot.
“The whole newspaper is now focused on really optimising our use of social media, with each section and their online editors having clear targets for our social media channels, including number of followers for Twitter and Facebook, the number of views from social media and so on.”
“Journalists are now far more numbers driven and are aware of how many views their stories are getting.”
As the embrace of an online approach starts to sink in throughout The National, individual sections are growing more creative in their online offerings, with increased use of multimedia content and live blogs.
Last year, the Sport and Foreign sections offered regular podcasts, with the Business section experimenting with push news delivered via WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger.
The National’s sixth anniversary edition took the bold step of running a printed edition consisting entirely of pictures and QR codes, pointing readers back to the online edition.
“We wanted to try something that was different and new, and it was an experiment that was pretty well received,” says Chayney.
The QR codes now have a permanent home on the front page, where readers can scan through for additional content.
As it enters its eighth year, The National is a very different media offering to when it launched in April 2008; its audience is more likely to read stories on their phones than on a printed copy of the newspaper, while multimedia content, picture galleries and liveblogs are now a fully integrated part of the content offering.
Yet while the tools and delivery mechanisms have changed dramatically, the fundamentals of news gathering live on.
“At the end of the day, the old cliche that content is king remains true,” says Koot. “You can present it any number of ways, but ultimately it’s the story and the way we tell it that draws people in and keeps them coming back.”