JANUARY 11, 2021

Making the Media S1E01: The Future-Proof Newsroom

Ruba Ibrahim of Al Arabiya appears as a guest on the Making the Media podcast

The pace of change in this industry can be brutal, forcing news organizations to adapt and reinvent themselves to stay relevant. On the flip side, it’s also an industry that requires significant upfront investments in technology and talent—not necessarily a recipe for agility.

In this episode, we ask: How can broadcasters build enough flexibility and agility into their business models to enable them to pivot? What do “future-proof” business decisions look like? How has COVID-19 illuminated the inherent tension between the need for and resistance to change, and what have we learned from it?

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Listen to Hear:

  • How Al Arabiya is integrating broadcast and digital distribution
  • How COVID-19 restrictions spurred the adoption of new workflows
  • How news leaders can balance long-term vision with short-term agility

Our Guest This Episode

Ruba Ibrahim is Director of Operations for Al Arabiya Network, overseeing systems and processes, business continuity, workflows, contracts and partnerships, and core projects of the channel from their headquarters in Dubai. Prior to this role, she had heads-on experience as a senior producer. Outside of her experience in the media industry, she is active in NGOs and the public sector, having played an active role in launching the Palestinian NGO MIFTA (The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy) and the Palestinian Ministries of Education and Higher Education.

The most challenging part was the mindset. Changing...the resistance you face when you introduce something new, whereby people start to fight you, and you have to convince them. You want them on board, you don't want to force it.

Ruba Ibrahim, Director of Operations, Al Arabiya Network

Mentioned in This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, I’m Craig Wilson, and I’m your host for the Making the Media podcast. Thanks a lot for taking the time to join me.

In this season, we’re going to focus on the challenges facing the news business, and we’ll be speaking with industry leaders from across the world to get their thoughts on COVID, remote working, challenges and opportunities of multi-platform news, mobile journalism, and much more.

In this first episode, I’m joined by Ruba Ibrahim, Head of Operations at Al Arabiya Network, based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, to talk about the challenges of planning ahead when many things about the future seem so uncertain.

While she now works in a technical role, she comes from an editorial background, so I began by asking her to give her thoughts and what advantages that has for her current position.

Ruba Ibrahim:  My previous experience had to do with politics, so I had the political background, and then when I joined Al Arabiya, I had already started as a current affairs producer, so I needed to produce everything from A to Z.

The way we operate is we don't have the luxury of big teams to produce shows, so we do it more or less with a one, maximum two-person job to produce a half-hour and one-hour show. So I worked on talk shows, I worked on a couple of documentaries, I worked on feature half-hour, and then special missions and other kinds of programs.

So the good thing about being able to do everything from A to Z is you learn every bit of detail on the job. So being a producer teaches you (at least where I work) how to edit, how to write scripts, how to contact guests, come up with ideas, develop ideas, and then shape the whole thing in either the way the channel wants it to be or in the most creative way you want to present it to your audience. I did this for like five to six years as a producer. I did a lot of shows, and I launched a lot of shows when I used to be in charge of the launching.

CW: So how do you feel that aspect—do you think that gives you a better understanding of the challenges that people face in the role that you are in now, to try and help and address them, deal with the kind of challenges that they have?

RI: Actually, I think this is the best thing for somebody in management, if you went all the way up and you started on the editorial side, because it gives you the edge where you can challenge and understand at the same time.

So understanding the nature of the work is important because that way, it's not like they're talking to somebody from management who doesn't understand their daily jobs. I do understand every nitty gritty bit of the tasks they do from the minute they start looking for footage, looking at the wires, the way they formed the idea, the way they create a story and then they use the graphics to add to the story, the way they prepare it for TV and now to digital.

So, I mean, I was always involved in building workflows and now this is what I do. I mean, it's part of my portfolio. First of all, you get your credibility out of this because you are somebody who understands the details and the workflow; you understand the nature of the job; you understand their challenges. So when they talk about speed, getting pictures very quickly or adding or editing or a sync issue or whatever, you understand how crucial it is for air and you understand that if the producer is sitting in the gallery, they need their stuff right there and now. So even when you talk to the vendors you would have always, always an upper hand because you have this kind of background.

CW: One thing you mentioned there, of course, was about delivering not just for broadcast, but now the increasing channel challenge I guess is delivering to digital as well. How has that changed, if you like, the business decisions that you make? Are you having to put more emphasis now on that digital side and trying to attract a digital, perhaps a different, audience? Or is the focus still very much on the broadcast side? How do you marry those two things together?

RI: We tried to actually do a kind of an integration, because we understand the value of TV. The new generation probably doesn't understand the value of TV, or maybe we cherish it more, those of us who started on broadcast. But we understand that the future is digital. Digital is very quick, very short. You need to have the mechanisms to be able to deliver on all kinds of platforms, but our core business, our bread and butter, is broadcast and this is what we started.

The challenge is that digital is as important or becoming more important than broadcast at the time. It requires less financial investment, when you’re talking about digital than when you’re talking about broadcast. We thought we shouldn't have separate islands—we should marry them. We should have full integration.

That's why we changed even the way we do things on the broadcast level. For example, packages used to be two or three minutes. We work very hard and we trained our teams to do an average of a minute and a half for the broadcast, whereby instead of repackaging and re-editing everything for digital, we can push it directly to digital. So instead of having duplication of work by a reporter for the same package, this will cut at least many of the packages that are being produced for the TV, they can be pushed directly on the other platform.

There are still many challenges. Definitely the different platforms require different focus, different areas of interest, which we take into consideration. But at least if you have the package ready, you know you're going to send it to the website, Instagram, or Snapchat or Facebook. At least you have it ready and you just have to do the orientation for the distribution.

We did have to readapt—many of our people had to be retrained to be catering for digital platforms. The most challenging part was the mindset, changing the way people and the resistance you face when you introduce something new whereby people start to fight you, and then you have to convince them and you want them on board. You don't want to force it. We want people to feel engaged. We always wanted them to feel part of the operation and not being run by the operation. And this is something very important for us. We want them to feel they belong. They belong on TV, website, and other social media platforms.

CW: With a news station in particular, you’re never off air. You’re always having to continue to stay on air. So what have been the specifics around how you've dealt with that: maintaining on air, keeping staff safe; people working remotely, being in distributed areas? How is that? How have you managed to handle that over the course of the last few months?

RI: Actually funny enough, last week I was doing an evaluation of how we were affected by COVID, I found that there are many positive things. I’m not talking about of course people getting sick and people being afraid. Minimizing the number of people working from the office was a big challenge. But at the same time, it served to help us achieve certain targets that we never had the time to work on before—working remotely. At the same time, we had the opportunity to explore systems and softwares that were in place, but we never really gave them enough testing to see if they were working properly or not.

But funny enough, we succeeded in having full-fledged channels with 20 percent of our capacity in the station. Of course, we cannot do like other businesses and have fully 100 percent remote because we have studios, we have the anchors who were there, so we need the crews and just the minimum editorial staff to run the operation and the support staff—which were 20 percent of what we normally have. The remaining 80 percent used to work from home. Of course we have the VPN's, and we have the virtual windows.

We had to train people very quickly. We didn't have the luxury to do trainings or whatever, so everything was running remotely and all over the phones. So either you show them through a connection online or you do it over the phone. And I have to say, we had to do a little bit of an investment in hardware for people to take the laptops or PCs or whatever. But the easiness and the smoothness of the transition was honestly amazing. It's something I never expected.

People were very comfortable. The productivity of people was, in some cases, higher than working from the office. It goes back to two things. People want to prove they are working. They want to prove to their supervisors that we are having achievements and achieving our productivity—that’s why they are very keen to, of course, protect themselves. And at the same time, it’s you, working on your piece, working on the tasks assigned to you, without having the office interferences of your colleagues and talking and breaks and snacks. Especially for the people working the newsroom—they always have the active newsroom behind them, where sometimes it’s not the most convenient place to have a silent space to develop your story.

This is something that contributes to why many colleagues said they are more than happy to stay at home and work. Definitely working from home has its advantages and its disadvantages because also the feel and the environment of the newsroom contributes to this edge and people pitching, and contributing to each others ideas, and the exchange of opinions—and then you notice something wrong, and then you correct it on the spot. Those exchanges that are daily that normally the editors require, and that they continue taking advantage of, were somehow lost during that period.

But, all in all, you couldn’t feel anything on air. The output of the channel increased because everybody was worried with COVID, and we had to do extensive coverages. But I wouldn't have noted definitely a lot of things have changed our international operation. For example, our offices abroad. They didn't have the luxury to work with full crews, to go with people to do a story. They had to rely more a maximum of two people or one person to go with their mobile, or rely on feature journalists because of the physical distance—you can’t have two people going to shoot a story in a home or somewhere.

There were a lot of curfews in many countries, so you couldn't really be mobile to an extent. So all of the lives that we had to do were no longer from a studio for our reporters (from the offices), so they used to fix their own camera, go on air without the contribution of their colleagues or the help of their colleagues. In Dubai, it's the same. So the lives, for example: we used to have satellite and other forms. We used to rely like 90 (probably) percent or more on Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, so mainly no studio presence of guests.

CW: You said something really interesting—because I think one thing that’s come from this, and I’ve spoken to others who have said the similar things, that to an extent, it has forced people to perhaps adopt workflows that, if you had asked someone a year ago, “Would you have gone out and shot something on a mobile phone?" or “Would you have done something from home in this kind of way?”, they probably wouldn’t have thought it was a reasonable way of doing it. But because the pandemic has impacted things globally, it has forced people to perhaps adopt other methods of working that perhaps in the past they wouldn’t necessarily have considered. Is that something you now have to look at from a business perspective as you return to normal next year?

RI: Yes, absolutely. Now, when we look at, for example, applications on mobile phones with which you go live, now more and more when reporters are asking for a solution to go live, this is what we adopt. We say, you know what, instead of doing a huge investment with the 3G kit or whatever, it’s an application on your phone and you just stabilize it and put it on a stand (on a tripod) and that it works. And the resolution, I mean, especially with smartphones, they have developed to an extent where the resolution can sometimes beat a normal camera.

When we first started, I thought, “Ok, probably journalists will be easier,” since they require minimum software to operate from home. And then I realized engineers could do practically everything remotely. Creative people and the creative departments, our promo people, our graphics people, they almost fully relied on working from home. Our digital teams definitely. Websites; we didn’t have anybody from the office, they were all working remotely. Digital teams; we practically had them all at home at some point.

There were parts of the broadcast that were harder to move, but still—it went without a glitch.

CW: What has this meant from a business perspective? Obviously at the start of a year, you plan for the next months and years. What has it meant for your business planning and looking ahead?

RI: Actually yes, it has had an impact, because now you can think very easily of having another hub for use somewhere else, where people can work remotely from another destination. Most of our operation is based in Dubai, but now it would be very easy to base a couple teams in different countries whereby they can pitch in with their material and content, at the same time operating in a different time zone, which can have an impact on reducing the cost.

And the other thing that, actually, I was thinking of—we’re all looking and thinking of going into the cloud. So definitely, going to the cloud was amongst our priorities. Not in the near future for the broadcast part. For the digital part, we’re mostly in the cloud, so we don’t have to think about it. But talking about the broadcast, it was always a challenge to go into the cloud. Connectivity issues—especially in certain parts of the Middle East, and “would it work” or “would it not” and the investment—it’s a huge investment that you need to do in order to move your operation, and the resistance that people will have. People need to trust because every time you talk about the cloud, people think about how it works with security—so people are worried about this.

Now, it would be a little bit more challenging to convince people to go in the cloud because working remotely worked—why do you have to base it in the cloud, and do this kind of investment if you have everything on prem—and then it worked very well! So your cloud can be skipped, and you can have your service in your office, and everybody is connecting to your office. It can work probably for companies who are operating multiple stations from multiple locations. But for somebody like us, it's probably something worth revisiting and rethinking all over again.

CW: When you look at the industry at the moment, what do you see as the things you want to take advantage of? What you were saying there about, there’s the cloud, there’s virtualization, there’s data centers. From an operational standpoint people just see this as working remotely—they don’t particularly care where things are located. And as you said, you’ve proved over the course of the last few months that you can work successfully. But what do you see the market doing at the moment? What do you think the next trend is going to be for technology?

RI: When I talk to colleagues and partners all over the world, everybody is thinking very very strongly that we’re going into the cloud. Especially networks who have a big operation from different locations. Definitely the cloud is one thing—automation is another big thing. And when people hear both cloud and automation—people fear those words. People think they’re going to be replaced. Everybody thinks, when we’re talking about development, progress, introducing new solutions—people panic, definitely. But it’s as challenging or more challenging than changing your workflows, because people will feel a threat. And when people feel a threat, they get a little bit more aggressive and more on self-preservation modes. You have to make them feel comfortable, and I don’t believe that automation or introducing new technologies is a way to—I mean, definitely, it would minimize the costs in some aspects, but it doesn’t mean you have to let your people go. On the contrary, I see it as an opportunity for your teams to have a different set of skills. Instead of doing something that a machine can do, you can be more creative. You can be more hands-on with the things that you do.

CW: Yeah, the industry continues to change. It's changed throughout the entire part of my career, and I'm sure it's changed throughout the entire part of your career as well, Ruba. How do you try and future-proof business decisions now? Because it must be very difficult to try and plan ahead and think ahead. So how do you, with your colleagues and with other members of your team, then try to plan what your future business decisions are going to be?

RI: You make your plans, but at the same time, you place a bigger margin on instant needs, so whereby you shift whatever you are planning for. Where, on one day, for example, we had to put on hold a lot of projects that we intended to do in 2020 and redirect our focus and our vision in a different direction. We needed to invest more in remote, in VPNs and other softwares that would allow people to function properly. At the same time, for example, if you’re talking about investing in new offices or new workspaces or whatever, that’s something that can be put on hold because it’s no longer a priority. Certain systems where you need extensive training in the office is something you cannot afford at this time because of social distancing and not having to rotate people all the time is something we need to—unless it’s crucial, don’t do it. You put it on hold.  Before, it used to be, “Is it the right time, or not?” Now you have to worry not only about the budget, you have to worry about health issues, sanitization, social distancing, how many people are present at one location at the same time. So there are a lot of restrictions that we used to think was mainly budgetary restrictions—now it’s no longer the case.

CW: So Ruba, I’ve got one final question to ask, and this is something that I'm asking all of the different people that are being part of the podcast. What is it that keeps you awake at night?

RI: At the beginning I used to be up, but now I sleep actually! Definitely the future. I mean, I’m somebody who was raised in a warzone. So I understand what it means to live under challenges and flexibility of movement, of travel. There are a lot of things that I experienced growing up that normally other people did not go through. But now, this is the first time where everything applies to everybody, wherever you are. We used to meet before—now we don’t! I feel disconnected yet connected, because sometimes I have the luxury to talk to people more because I’m sitting in the comfort of my home so I can connect better with people. But it’s virtual. I don’t prefer virtual, I like the personal touches, I like to sit with people and see them. I do my workout at home, I do my reading at home, I do my cooking at home, I don’t go to restaurants, maybe I’m putting a lot of restrictions. But what keeps me up at night actually is, will I be able to reconnect once everything goes back to normal? Reconnect the way I used to? This probably worries me mostly.

CW: Thanks to Ruba Ibrahim from Al Arabiya Network for those great insights.

To dive deeper into some of the topics that came up in her interview, take a look at the links in the show notes. We have a guide to the tools that remote journalists can use to deliver stories with little more than their smartphones and a discussion about a hybrid remote/in-studio newsroom featuring perspectives from ITV in the UK.

That’s all from this episode of the Making the Media podcast. Join me next time, where I’ll be talking to Matt Goldberg, Vice President of Content Strategy at NBC Universal in the United States, about how the creative process is addressing the challenge to deliver tailored content across additional broadcast, OTT, social media, and online. Here’s a sneak peek.

Matt Goldberg: When you run a business like this that has two north stars, the first being to research and take risk, and the second being to build a brand and create a new audience, it can be daunting. They come together quite a bit, because if you do take risk and it works, it’s going to help achieve the other goal. But I think being in a position where I get to be a disruptor comes with a great amount of stress, which is, “What’s the next thing we need to do?

CW: If you liked what you heard, tell a friend, leave a review, and don’t forget to subscribe to Making the Media. You can reach out to me on Twitter, @craigaw1969, or email us at [email protected]. And don’t forget, you can also follow Avid on your social channel of choice to get updates on new episodes and get a whole lot more.

For the moment, thanks to our producer Rachel Haberman. I’m Craig Wilson, and until next time, thanks for listening.

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