Distribution of print newspapers halted in Saudi Arabia

Copies of local newspapers have not altogether disappeared although many fear the print press will be phased out entirely.
Saturday 13/07/2019
A vendor reads a newspaper as he sells melons and watermelons in a market in Riyadh. (Reuters)
Serious difficulties. A vendor reads a newspaper as he sells melons and watermelons in a market in Riyadh. (Reuters)

LONDON - Readers in several Saudi cities were surprised by the announcement from the National Distribution Company that it was stopping print circulation of local newspapers.

As the sole national distributor of publications, newspapers and magazines the National Distribution Company (NDC) said the move would first be applied in Jeddah, Abha, Qassem, Arar and Jouf over the next month.  The development reignited debate around print media versus digital news.

NDC cited rising printing costs and shrinking revenues for newspapers for the change.

“Dwindling number of readers and low sales,” a company statement read, “are among the main reasons” that led to the announcement.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Media Minister Turki al-Shabanah and media delegates met July 8 in Jeddah to discuss challenges faced by the industry.

King Salman stressed the need for media that better conveys the kingdom’s efforts and contributions, regionally and internationally, when global public opinion towards the kingdom sours. The meeting reinforced the government’s support of local press against such difficulties, to counter coverage the kingdom deems unfair or defamatory.

Poor print sale performance in Saudi Arabia makes the task of distribution a daunting responsibility that distributors are scaling back. Any costs that papers cannot cover, distributors must foot the bill for. Monthly costs can amount to more than $2,500, a cost NDC claimed is not viable or cost-effective.

Advertising offered an important bloodline that enabled newspapers to recoup costs but ad revenues are dropping off.

Copies of local newspapers have not altogether disappeared although many fear the print press will be phased out entirely. Resistance to NDC’s shrinking responsibilities suggests not everyone is onboard.

News readers took to social media in favour of digital press and against it. Many fear a potential fallout, citing the need for newspapers to be circulated during heightened international media reporting of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s standing within it.

The situation does not mirror successes of the 1990s, when printing processes made their debut in the country. Printed news grew as a natural response to satisfy people’s need to be informed. However, the status of print media changed drastically in subsequent years.

Saudi media suffered as a result of limited circulation. “The top-selling newspaper can muster a circulation of 26,000 and the most popular magazine sells around 185,000 copies,” Cecil Tuncalp wrote in 1994, adding that less than 5% reach Saudi’s adult population.

The earliest overhaul of printed materials has initiated state-led reforms to scale down “in-house” publications. The state traditionally disseminated such materials to employees across all sectors but it should be noted that oil companies print their own in-house materials, newspapers and journals.

The decisions fuelled debate about the place of print in a fast-paced world. Out of 1,016 participants in a poll conducted in 2017 by the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue, newspaper readers ranked in at 23%, e-readers accounted for 53% and the remainder expressed equal interest in reading newspapers both print and online.

A further 39% of respondents said they had no interest in reading daily newspapers, compared with 23% who expressed enthusiasm to read daily.

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