By: Tsitsi D. Wakhisi
Four years ago, a newspaper located in the Middle East began offering American journalists something they could not get or keep at home — jobs.
The National, an English-language broadsheet based in the former desert fishing village of Abu Dhabi, is produced by a 200-member news staff of mostly western journalists. The paper, which targets the United Arab Emirates’ huge ex-patriot community, celebrated its fourth anniversary in April.
Though they only make up about 10 percent of the staffers, American reporters, editors, page designers, and photographers are among the journalists recruited by the Abu Dhabi Media Co. from some of America’s most prestigious newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and the Chicago Tribune.
“We threw out the net and went all over the world looking for the highest quality,” said Hassan Fattah, The National’s executive editor and a naturalized American who completed a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.
In the UAE, Emirati citizens make up about 20 percent of the population in a country that formerly consisted of seven separate emirates, the most known of which are Abu Dhabi and Dubai. When the country unified in 1971, it began using its oil wealth to build up its infrastructure and craft its political and social institutions. The UAE recruited professionals from developed countries and workers from developing countries to provide the labor. Among the imported workers are thousands of American professionals who are taking jobs not only as journalists but as teachers, architects, artists, and consultants.
Bradley Bennett, a senior national editor at The National, was executive editor at the South Florida Times, a weekly newspaper that targets the area’s black communities, when his wife, Adeyela Bennett, was offered a teaching job in the UAE. He heard about The National from a friend and decided to apply.
The couple arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 11, 2010, with their then 3-year-old twin daughters. Bennett, a former assistant city editor at The Miami Herald, said he sees the opportunity to work in the UAE as a way to wait out the U.S. economic crisis while gaining international experience and keeping his journalism career alive.
“The environment for doing journalism in the United States has been very difficult,” Bennett said. “I have more friends who were formerly in journalism than are working in journalism now. When I was at the Herald, there were constant layoffs and threats of layoffs. A lot of people thought it would be a matter of time before their number came up.”
The layoff numbers not only came up, they skyrocketed.
In 2008, the same year The National opened its doors to western journalists, U.S. newspaper ad revenues were so anemic that some papers filed for bankruptcy, according to an annual report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. News industry analysts with the project calculated that nearly one in five journalists who worked for newspapers in 2001 had been let go by 2008.
“Most newspapers had to contract,” said Anders Gyllenhaal, who was executive editor at the Herald from 2006 to 2010. While some unemployed workers found coveted jobs at other newspapers and in public relations, others pursued opportunities in digital communication or started their own business, said Gyllenhaal, now vice president of news and Washington editor of The McClatchy Co.
But as newsroom doors were closing in America, opportunities for western journalists were opening in the Arab world. In the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi Media Co. began an aggressive recruiting effort for its new English-language startup paper. The company offered an attractive message to worried journalists: “We’re hiring.”
Nathan Estep had been trying to predict when another round of layoffs would take place at the Herald, where he was Page 1A design editor. As part of his “just in case” plan, he regularly scoured design websites for jobs. He applied for an opening at The National, while it was still in the planning stage.
The idea of working abroad was both appealing and frightening, said Estep, who moved to the UAE in December 2007, four months before the paper’s launch.
“I wasn’t sure if I would stay for two weeks or two months,” said Estep, who had been a page designer at the Herald for eight years. At The National, he became the paper’s deputy art director.
He stayed nearly four years.
“My experiences in the UAE were a stepping-stone for coming back here,” said Estep, now a professor at the University of Missouri.
Although some American journalists eyed the Middle East as an economic and career lifeline as the economy in the U.S. soured, it was not the only reason they were attracted to the area, Gyllenhaal said.
“They left to live in a place that is the center of the story right now,” Gyllenhaal said, adding that for many journalists, the chance to work in journalism abroad as freelancers and correspondents always has been a lure. But until the Middle East opened its doors, there were not many opportunities for American journalists to be hired by media companies outside the U.S.
“From a journalistic standpoint, it is a tremendous opportunity to be on the frontlines of history,” said Nadine Drummond, a former producer at CNN in Atlanta and now an output producer for Al-Jazeera in Dohar.
Drummond, who was born in Britain of Jamaican parents, earned her master’s degree in broadcast journalism at the University of Miami. She left CNN, she said, not because she thought she would be losing her job but because she wanted to broaden her personal and journalistic vision of the world.
“The world is not in America,” said Drummond, who has lived in Dohar for only a few months. “It is just one place in the world. There is a whole world out there with people who are dependent or independent that need a voice or have something to share or have something that they can teach me or teach us. If we are going to coexist on this planet, we need to know who we live with.”
A World Apart:
Pros and cons of journalism positions in the UAE
The Abu Dhabi Media Company is a government-owned enterprise that sees itself as “a driver of change,” said Hassan Fattah, The National’s editor-in-chief. The company has recruited heavily in England, Canada, and Australia, in addition to the U.S. It offers attractive compensation packages to journalists who may have been asked to take pay cuts or unpaid furloughs.
The salary package for a newsroom staffer typically begins at $60,000, which is the equivalent of about $90,000, because it is tax free, Fattah said. The company also relocates its workers and their immediate families, and pays for them to go home once a year.
“The old model of the newspaper exists and it’s still thriving,” said Fattah, who joined the paper in 2009, replacing Martin Newland, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph of Britain. “And it’s happening in the fastest-growing country in the world.”
Still, the opportunity is not without its challenges for American journalists in the UAE, where there is no First Amendment and where access to public officials and records is difficult.
“There is no real freedom of the press here,” said Gerry Doyle, a former Chicago Tribune editor who came to the paper in 2009. He left the paper earlier this year for a position in Hong Kong. “The media laws are negative, vague, nebulous, and kind of threatening if you read them the wrong way. For western journalists, the issue becomes how to do good journalism without crossing the invisible boundaries.”
Reporters and editors list a number of hurdles — from not being able to publish names of people involved in criminal cases (initials only) to not being able to show the bottom of people’s feet in illustrations.
“Arabs and Muslims find it offensive,” said Sara Baumberger, a former designer at am New York. “We also don’t mention pigs.” An illustration that was to accompany a story about the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web” had to be pulled because the main character is a pig, she said.
“We have to be so sensitive in trying not to offend a country or anyone,” said Baumberger, a page designer who was at The National for a year before announcing her resignation in April to return to New York. “It’s a tense place and you don’t want to stir up anything; we’re not trying to be renegade journalists.”
Vivian Nereim was a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she said she had become accustomed to having reasonable access to sources and public documents. “I’ve met people who flat out told me, ‘You are going to have to close your eyes around here,’” said Nereim, who has been at The National for less than a year.
In the UAE, it’s possible to get a good quote from a source, Nereim said, only for the source’s press person to later intervene: “‘Don’t say that; please ignore this. We appreciate if you disregard that.’ That’s difficult,” she said.
Tom O’Hara, foreign desk editor at The National, said he knew there would be press restrictions when he decided to join the paper in 2010 following a long career in newsroom leadership in the U.S. “There is a lot of self-censorship of local news,” said O’Hara, a former managing editor at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and The Palm Beach Post.
“On the foreign desk, it’s almost like real journalism — not too much meddling on how we gather and present,” O’Hara said. “But I couldn’t work on local news, because it is so heavily censored. There is just a lot of information where in a normal environment you would just demand to see the records. You call the attorney and you get the documents. None of that happens here, and it makes for a pretty dull local menu that they present every day.”
Fattah said the pace is more moderate than what his journalists may be used to.
“We are not Americans writing about this place as Americans,” Fattah said. “Some have called us the New York Times of the east because of our high quality and standards, but we are not the New York Times, and this is not New York. This place is not the developing world, but it’s not the developed world,” Fattah said. “It’s a world in the middle.”
Despite the adjustments, the newspaper is having an impact in the community. “Conversations are taking place that weren’t being had before,” Fattah said. “We’ve saved and helped people in all sorts of ways. Have we gone forward? Yes, consistently. But it is a gradual and continuous process.”
Tsitsi D. Wakhisi is a former Miami Herald editor and a full-time journalism professor at the University of Miami.