Renewed purpose in Abu Dhabi

by Ray Beauchemin

Last night we put to bed another issue of The National, the new English-language newspaper that has taken up residence in Abu Dhabi. We’ve only been publishing a few weeks, but already the work feels natural.

The foreign desk on which I am deputy editor comprises four editors. We come in, find out what’s going on in the world from our stable of 30 correspondents and from the wires, and we ask ourselves how we can best serve our readers today? Then, it’s nine or ten hours straight of editing — writing and proofreading.

It feels natural to me because I had been doing this for 11 years as foreign editor of The Gazette in Montreal, except at The Gazette I did not have 30 correspondents. I left The Gazette during the latest round of Canwest buyout offers in January.

Five years ago, the Montreal newspaper eliminated my meagre budget for purchasing freelance articles.  I had to use the general features budget for the occasional freelance piece I managed to buy.  In 2004 when I bought two pieces about Darfur, a place that was still months away from making from front page news, an editor told me that I shouldn’t have bought them because freelance monies should be spent on local stories instead.

Gradually, space once devoted to foreign news shrank, replaced with stories wrapped around increasingly higher stacks of advertisements. In my final months at the paper, I often did not receive my (formerly allotted) full page of space, reducing international news coverage to four stories of no more than 500 words each, a stick of seven briefs and a photo, sometimes black and white.

For The Gazette, a newspaper that once considered itself a major metro, this was a sad state of affairs. It was sinful in my opinion. We were doing our readers a disservice.  For all the discussion about losing readers to the Internet, I doubt that people would search out the international stories that our paper should have provided for them.  In my view, Montreal readers were becoming less informed about the world.

So, I came to Abu Dhabi to edit a foreign news section that editor Martin Newland once joked “just goes on, doesn’t it?” And it does. 

In our first issue, we ran eight full pages of foreign news, and we sometimes run ten.  The ad size allows for a minimum three-column color photograph on every page.  Our correspondent’s copy is the pride of place, and their stories are between 800 and 1,000 words long, generally accompanied by a photo.

The writers are some of the best in the business: Caryle Murphy, a Pulitzer prizewinner from the Washington Post, is our woman in Riyadh; two ex-foreign correspondents for the Daily Telegraph cover Britain and Europe; we have the only full-time fully accredited journalist in Damascus, and one of the world’s best-informed Beirut correspondents. The National has four reporters covering India, three in Pakistan, two in New York — one is writing four stories a week out of the United Nations — and a reporter in every country of the Gulf and Middle East.  The Washington bureau chief is Erika Niedowski, who once headed the Moscow bureau for the Baltimore Sun.

I went through a fair bit of soul-searching before I applied for the job here, and I asked for and received the buyout from The Gazette. The UAE is a long way from home and everything I know and love. As a journalist, however, I could not have made a better move. I’m proud to be part of this start-up.

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