In journalism, audience is king. So it says in the Encyclopaedia of Journalism, at least. In recent years, however, the digital media mantra “content is king” has become the order of the day. In Arabic-language media, and especially in visual journalism, this has translated into a certain underestimation of the unique media culture of the Arab world.
Take the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as an example: the average age is 30 – ten years below that of the United Kingdom and seven years below the United States. The appetite for media of all forms is enormous. Unlike elsewhere in the world, newspaper and magazine readership remains on the rise. Mobile phone ownership exceeds 145 percent and Arabic is now the fastest growing language online.
Living and working in Dubai, with its ultra-modern buildings and cosmopolitan society with a penchant for high-tech gadgets, it is easy to forget that the media industry here is just forty years old and, though influenced by Western culture, it retains strong ties to traditional visual culture and communication styles. In production as well as consumption, the UAE has developed a unique media culture that has adapted seemingly “Western” platforms and formats to local language, values and taste.
For Luis Chumpitaz, a veteran visual journalist originally from Peru, and his team of illustrators, designers and programmers, the reader was at the center when they developed the concept for Al Bayan’s Olympics coverage. An English and Spanish-speaking enclave within an Arabic-language broadsheet, the team is a prime example of the UAE's international labour force. With the help of colleagues from across the newsroom, they set out to focus on the audience at their doorstep, rather than the data at their fingertips.
For the concept, the team considered factors such as their target audience's relative youth and conservative values, as well as the average reader's high level of smart phone use and low level of experience with data visualisation. Looking back over past projects, Chumpitaz and his team noticed that their most popular visual stories were based on concepts driven by narrative and illustration, rather than data visualisation.
The team's conclusion was that sometimes, simplicity is more powerful than complexity. Leafing through Al Bayan’s 52-page Olympics supplement, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the subtleties of this approach.
“Our intention was to create a holistic infographic representation of the drama and thrill of the Olympics, rather than a data-heavy analysis of it,” says Chumpitaz.
But Al Bayan's approach also has its intricacies. Thanks to the above average level of smart-phone use, audiences in the UAE are quickly becoming familiar with QR codes, little boxes of code, which link to ‘hidden’ digital content via mobile phone cameras and mobile Internet. Chumpitaz decided to use them to enhance the printed content in an unconventional way.
To make things more interesting, he played with the normal look and size of a QR code and came up with what he calls a “timeline puzzle”, which spreads throughout the supplement. The pages can be assembled into a large poster to create a super-sized QR code, which also doubles as a timeline of Olympic history.
The project also offered Chumpitaz' team the opportunity to develop a visual format that would work for readers from different linguistic backgrounds. The navigation of the Olympic “timeline puzzle” is based on two aspects of near-universal reading habits: whether they speak Arabic, English or Chinese, people tend to absorb information in a vertical line from top to bottom and they tend to take in content clockwise, following a circular path. That way, the UAE's diverse communities – whether they read left to right or right to left, could enjoy the infographic puzzle.
During the three months it took to finish the Olympics project, Chumpitaz and his team depended on help from colleagues across the newsroom. “Their support allowed us to experiment with different designs and fonts, and get feedback from a wide range of people on what works best for local readers,” says Chumpitaz.