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Exploring New Models of the Publishing Industry, With John Lillywhite

Updated: Apr 1

Episode 13: Exploring new models of the publishing industry, with John Lillywhite

Hi everyone,

Today’s episode is going to focus on the publishing industry in the Middle East. Before we get to today’s topic, I’d like to give you my insights on some recent news in the regional and international tech ecosystems.

Let’s start with Amazon’s announcement of its new payment service. Though I was excited at first to learn about new payment developments in the industry, I soon realized that the news was simply a rebranding of Payfort. Payfort was one of the earliest FinTech success stories in the region. Established in the Middle East, it was then bought out by Amazon but always kept its original name. I guess it was finally time for a rebrand! They do offer some pretty cool stuff to merchants though, such as integrated dashboards to gather insights on retail activity.

On to some more troubling news in the regional ecosystem, Sprii has filed for bankruptcy. This is a harsh reality that not all tech startups make it big. Though the media does not really cover unsuccessful startup stories, it is a reality that entrepreneurs need to know, going into venture building. That being said, Sprii was not by any means a startup that had not taken its foot off the ground yet. In fact, it had raised close to 15 million dollars in a Series A round, just in June of last year, which made it the 2nd best-funded startup in its category. In fact, two other Dubai-based e-commerce startups (Awok and The Modist) shut down earlier this year, though they had raised tens of millions of dollars.

Now onto some international news: Ex-British royals, Harry and Megan have signed a deal with Spotify to produce a series of exclusive content under their newly established audio production company, Archwell Audio. Though the British royal family seem to draw a natural audience, given how private Harry and Megan have been about their personal lives, I wonder how effective they’re going to be sharing to a wider audience through a medium as intimate as podcasts. Maybe all their shows will be non-Harry and Megan-related, but we’ll have to wait and see!

In this episode, we’ll be talking about the digitization of media in the Middle East. We sit down with John Lillywhite, who has a wealth of experience in this industry having undertaken several publication-focused roles both at corporations and entrepreneurial ventures. Together we discuss:

  1. Media consumption habits of Arabs in the Middle East

  2. Differences between the publishing industry in the West & the Middle East

  3. Machine learning advancements with the Arabic language

  4. New models in the publication industry (e.g. Blockchain)

Arabs in the Middle East don't exclusively consume Arabic content

Some Arabs, typically those who are millennials and younger, consume publications in English, produced by media companies. However, even when covering the same topic, publications from companies based in the West differ from those based in the Middle East. For those who consume media in different languages, produced across various locations, this could give them the advantage of learning about different points of view.

However, publishers need to produce content in Arabic in order to be meaningfully relevant in the Middle East. Keeping this in mind, you'd need to be mindful of the different spoken dialects (which differ quite dramatically from country to country), and written Arabic.

Key differences between the publishing industry in the West vs the Middle East

The establishment of news agencies in the West date further back than those in the Middle East, and were typically set up by the government. However, the first media companies that were established in the Middle East came after the "dot com" boom and were largely established by individuals who began building these platforms to amplify the voice of the Middle East. Maktoob, for example, was one of the first, big media businesses in the Middle East that focused on creating Arabic content. In more recent years, blogs and podcasts and been an increasingly popular means of giving individuals a voice in the media world.

Is machine-produced Arabic content as advanced as English content?

The process to teach machines to produce in Arabic is not advanced as with the English language yet, and that's mainly because there is more historic data in English that machines can learn from. Google had funded a project called the Google News award, which is a focused effort to advance machine learning / artificial intelligence in the Arabic language.

The current state of machine-produced Arabic is effective for simple applications such as e-commerce, but not yet for advanced forms of publications, such as novels. Though strides have been made to machines to engage in conversational forms of the language, such as Arabic-speak chatbots (take, as an example).

For the advancement of machine-produced Arabic content, it is likely that business and tech professionals need to merge with the literary experts to accelerate the progress of development.

The way machines learn language is quite appealing.

John is exploring new models in the media industry through blockchain

John hopes to help give creatives a new way to monetize their content. He's working alongside Alexandria Labs to build a blockchain-based platform where creators can link smart contracts to their work and receive crypto and micropayments from their audience.

This comes in response to the better-known streaming platforms of the industry (such as YouTube) increasingly changing their search algorithms and commission structures against content creators' interests.

Until next time,



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