The free newspaper model has seen a great success in many countries. Saleh Zakwani, CEO of Apex Press & Publishing, decided to follow the model and launched a free weekly in Oman in 2003: TheWeek. “The concept is hardly new to the rest of the world and I saw a great opportunity in customizing the existing model to the Omani market,” he says.
TheWeek started with a distribution of 30,000 copies and soon increased to 51,000. Today, it is the most read newspaper in Oman. However, circulation does not make money if it does not grab advertisers’ attention.
“When TheWeek was in its infancy, and we were trying to establish it as a ‘must’ for our readers and a legitimate vehicle for our advertisers, the mere fact of having a high circulation wasn't giving us the returns we expected,” says Zakwani.
“We had initially designed TheWeek as a very middle of the road, ‘safe’ compact; this didn't stimulate the reader or the advertiser,” he says. “Our advertisers in particular were demanding innovation, more color and creative ad positioning. We took it apart and put it back together with a new vibrant and flexible style - more content for the reader with shorter, more accessible, articles, more regular columns, creative use of photography and new more legible fonts created specifically for the newspaper. We ended up with a bright exciting weekly newspaper that stimulated the readers and, more importantly, more than doubled our advertising revenue.”
Reach and design has led to an increase of almost 400 per cent in the number of ads since 2003. But Zakwani is also aware of the need of giving advertisers credible figures about distribution and about the audience. That is why, besides carrying out its own surveys on readership, TheWeek has become the first publication in Oman to have applied for audit.
“This can only work in our favor, proving our reach in the home market, especially to foreign advertisers,” says Zakwani. “The publishing industry across the world understands that in order for their clients –advertisers- to be able to make informed and better decisions, it is imperative that such information be audited and made available by an independent body. For us, while the advertisers in the local market may know the company and its reputation and, therefore, take our word for our circulation figures, we believe that it is a step forward in professionalism, in line with international markets, to have our circulation audited.”
Zakwani gives this example of how the weekly works to attract advertisers: “We proposed to an advertiser who had never advertised with us that he run an ad asking customers to call a certain number if they were interested in his product. We also insisted that this ad be not carried in any other publication. The impact of it was phenomenal and the customer reported a huge increase in calls as well as footfall to his showroom in direct response to the ad. He then proceeded to book 52 consecutive ads from the next week.”
As in other countries, a free publication that is ‘stealing’ readers and share in the advertising market is seen by traditional newspapers as a threat. “We hadn’t really anticipated that the daily newspapers would consider us to be a threat in any way, but that is exactly what happened. It was due firstly because of its numbers, which far outstrip any daily publication,” says Zakwani.
Zakwani believes that there is a place for everyone and that competition will benefit the industry. “We firmly believe that with new players coming in, the advertising pie just gets bigger. There is more for everyone to start with and then the simple rules of competition dictate who manages to garner a bigger slice,” he says.
When asked about the future of free and paid-for newspapers in the region, Zakwani believes there is place for growth. “We see significant growth in both free and paid-for newspapers. One of the reasons is that print remains one of the most important sources of information dissemination in the region. The Internet is not challenging print in the Gulf at the moment, because Internet penetration is still very low. For the Middle East as a whole, it is one of the lowest at 8.6 per cent and in Oman, with a Internet subscriber base of below 50,000, it is still only 7 per cent of the population,” he says.
Facts about TheWeek
TheWeek is distributed every Tuesday afternoon through 483 points in the Sultanate, which include shopping malls, hotels, petrol stations, museums, etc.
“We decided on the points by identifying broadly the areas that have the most affluence. The idea is to have TheWeek in at least one type of outlet that the reader is bound to visit once a week at the minimum,” says Zakwani.
It is a 48-page, full color compact focusing on local news. “We firmly believe that today there are enough sources of information -primarily the Internet- to get international news and what Oman needed desperately was a publication that would tell the residents what was happening at their doorstep. This is what we give our readers.”
As a result of this editorial policy, the weekly caters to readers from both the English and Arab language markets. It was one of the primary objectives of Zakwani. “Actually from the beginning, we deliberately avoided identifying any niche audience – either by age, sex, community and so on,” he says.
TheWeek achieved this goal by “not having a paper that has any particular bias towards any specific community. It is important when catering to a reader profile that is essentially multicultural,” he says.
“We have very successfully managed this as shown by a survey results in 2004 which show that 49 per cent of our readers are Omanis -an unheard-of figure for an English language publication- and the rest are almost equally divided between Asian and Western expatriates.”