But The National is not necessarily out to capture an advertising market—its backers don’t expect it to turn a profit for at least five years and Newland is the first to admit that it is primarily a “political and social operation.”
This is not the first time Newland has helped transform a country’s media business. I first met Newland in 2001, when he hired me as an intern at the National Post. He had left The Daily Telegraph and joined the team in Toronto as its deputy editor before the paper launched in 1998. I remember him as the day-to-day operations man who roamed the newsroom in a T-shirt and jeans, often with a cigarette tucked behind his ear. Newland personified the kind of conservative, scoop-driven British newspaper culture that Conrad Black was trying to inject into Canada’s staid media scene with the creation of the Post (this was before Black went to prison for fraud). “There was a sort of fickleness of adding things in beakers to see what happened,” Newland says. “And the mandate was there to do that. It was a lot of fun.”
In Abu Dhabi, Newland is again experimenting, but the fun is less apparent. He lies awake at night, he says, hoping that things like insensitive references to the Prophet Mohammed haven’t made their way into the paper. It’s a job of bringing things along responsibly, but not too quickly. “I won’t lie to you,” he says. “Here, it’s an enormous exercise in stewardship. Trying to find out what the political dynamic is, trying to understand what’s wanted. My worry is that we’re not going fast enough.”
After the news meeting, Hassan Fattah, the paper’s thirty-eight-year-old deputy editor, and I drive through the beige fog of the sandstorm to a beachside luxury hotel for an interview over lunch. Fattah, an Iraqi-American who grew up in California, has been working as a journalist in the Middle East since 2002. He moved to Baghdad shortly after the U.S.-led invasion and helped launch a small English-language weekly called Iraq Today. More recently, Fattah was a Dubai-based correspondent for The New York Times. When it came time for Fattah to rotate through New York, as most Times foreign correspondents must, he wasn’t ready to leave. “This is the land of opportunity,” he says.
In June 2007, a headhunter approached him about coming to work on The National. He is the only Arab among the paper’s senior editors.
Fattah and Newland assembled a core team of editors—all expatriates—and together they set about designing the newspaper in an old theater that served as the newspaper’s temporary headquarters. “We had to provide a newspaper that covers the local scene better than anyone else,” says Fattah.
As the newspaper business started to retrench in the West, Fattah and Newland found that talented journalists were willing to leave top newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Telegraph. By early 2008, nearly two hundred reporters and editors had signed up to move to this small city of wide boulevards and 1980s office towers. As the journalists joined the core team in the theater, questions arose about the kind of freedom they would have to produce quality journalism. How closely would their new jobs resemble the ones they had left?
In principle, the UAE’s constitution guarantees a free press. However, the National Media Law, which is under revision, restricts journalists from crossing a number of so-called red lines. These include criticizing the government, the ruling families of any of the emirates, and the governments of neighboring Arab countries. And while journalists are no longer jailed for violating that law—that was changed in 2007—they can be fined. What’s more, the UAE exerts control by issuing—or revoking—licenses for newspapers to operate and by approving the appointment of editors-in-chief.