An Arab Spring inspired startup, we began our journey full of hope and excitement, the opportunity was simply fantastic, to serve a population of 390 million who have never experienced independent media. We saw hope everywhere we looked.
Issues long buried beneath layers of censorship, self-censorship and despair were being discussed, Raseef22 wanted to take part in these discussions. Arab media simply did not reflect the interests of a new generation of young Arabs, but the archaic systems that had taken root in the social, political, and economic landscapes stood strong against us. Dreams were challenged, ambitions reduced and our lifeline was under threat.
At some points, it seemed nothing has changed. Oppressive regimes found strength again, and communities were struggling for basic rights again. Terrorism, alien to our culture, became a tool of control. An alliance designed to kill hope for change.
I met a savvy investor who has made a name for himself in the Arab media industry. His success did not stem from the quality of the content; rather it was achieved by attracting a large audience to a product that attracted global media looking for scale. He asked me where I was headed with Raseef22, and what hopes I had for it; our discussion boiled down to him saying: “The Arab reader is not worth a cent”. He clearly meant the click of the Arab reader is not worth a cent. His statement echoed the words of the Editor in Chief of a leading Arabic newspaper who simply said: "Don't bother. Arabs don’t read” when I consulted him for his advice on my startup idea.
But the truth is, four years down the road, with a lean team and little resources compared to the media giants in the Arab region, we reach over two million readers per month spread around the Arab world and beyond. A number we hope to double yet again over the course of the coming year helped by the rejection of the digital versions of the established newspapers which mostly regurgitate news agencies' wires and amplify the agenda of politicians.
Our experience tells us: Arabs are readers. There is an appetite for Arabic content that is relevant, engaging and respectful of readers' intellect, and for a new form of journalism that goes against the grain of the traditional controlled media serving what is often referred to as the "regime" , the political party or the religious powers.
I am not making baseless conclusions here; rather these are the results of a four year experience that pioneered Arabic language digital media. We made mistakes, and we learned lessons, the most important of which came from our audience.
The recent Arab media ventures chose the easy way, producing light content in the belief that this is the only successful business model, after all they too believe the Arab reader is not worth a cent. The result is trivial publishing that does not engage an audience very much in need of good journalism to protect their interest.
The way ahead is a big challenge, but we will continue to tell the stories readers want to know, and we will continue to advocate for the weakest, using cross-media, engaging methods and local expertise in each of the 22 Arab countries, providing the news and commentary readers want.
A lot has changed in the past few years: fear has been conquered, progress cannot be stopped; Raseef22 is building a two way relationship with all generations of readers inviting interaction from all sides of the spectrum. If anyone asks me what is the value of a click in the Arab world, I can assure them it is not less than the value of a click anywhere else in the world.