How Middle East Eye used lifestyle and leisure features to shift perceptions of the MENA region

Discover was launched in February 2019.

Middle East Eye’s ‘Discover’ was highly commended as ‘Best Lifestyle/Leisure News Site’ at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. Here, the team behind the entry reveals the challenges faced and strategies used to deliver this successful project.

The challenge

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a dynamic and vital region, home to more than half a billion people, where nations and people, cultures and trends fuse, often with global resonance. But too often it is portrayed by the wider media as only a region of conflict.

The strategy

Discover (middleeasteye.net/discover) launched in February 2019 as part of Middle East Eye, the independent news-led platform which covers MENA and related issues.

Discover’s primary goals are to highlight stories which offer a fresh perspective on the people, communities and beats that matter; stories that go beyond the stereotypical or would not otherwise not find a platform; stories that stimulate conversation and debate.

The project began as a soft launch: initially the team was small, with a couple of part-time editors seconded from within the wider newsroom. By January 2020 Discover had expanded to an additional editor who works four days a week.

The ideal piece of Discover content will appeal to both groups. For example: during Ramadan in 2019, Discover ran a series of recipes to reflect Iftar, the daily breaking of the fast (that’s 32 recipes – pull-together here). It had resonance for Muslims – but was presented neutrally, with bare mention of Ramadan, so the evergreen content could stand on its own.

The content

Discover’s content appeals to two broad demographics: readers with strong links to the region, through residence, family/diaspora or work; and readers who are curious about MENA and want a fresh perspective.

The content of Discover is diverse. It touches on universal social themes, from childless couples trying to adopt in Egypt (where it is not recognised) to taboo-busting initiatives on sexual health in Lebanon.

Some of the most successful content has been water-cooler pieces intended to provoke debate, including Susan Muaddi Darraj’s satire how to plan an Arab-American wedding (Tip 10: “Don’t underestimate how much food you will need. Especially meat.').

Our critic Joseph Fahim gives insight into Middle Eastern cinema and TV like no one else: see ‘Netflix and the Middle East: How Jinn became a nightmare’, about the streaming giant’s much-derided series, and ‘Middle East cinema: Why you can't watch some of its best films’, on the obstacles facing MENA movies trying to reach the West.

Lifestyle pieces such as ‘How to go vegan and stay vegan in the Middle East’ offer advice for residents and visitors alike, reflecting how broader social trends are changing life in the region.

Discover has reported on style, from ‘Yes Saudi women dress like… this’ to ‘Iran street fashion: Seven influencers bending the rules, making waves’: each piece in its own way challenged misconceptions about what women in MENA are expected to wear.

Much of Discover is focussed on the role of women in the region: aside from pieces mentioned above, also see ‘The village that’s only for women’ (a self-sustaining community in Syria), ‘Egypt’s female photographers stage a revolution’, ‘Social media and the Middle East: The women who are leading the way’, ‘Female Arab directors: 11 films that you need to see’ and ‘Under the skin: How lightening creams exploit the beauty myth’.

Discover photography galleries capture life in the region: taxi driver Sevket Sahintas shows Istanbul, mostly after dark, in raw and uncompromising terms, from clubbers to street sellers to refugees.

The section also showcases how MENA has influenced the world, be it dance classes in Cuba or architecture in Madrid. Part of its remit is also to explain Middle East culture, through pieces such as ‘Arabic poetry: 10 writers, classic and modern, you need to read’ or ‘Ramadan 2019: 13 questions you have about Muslims' holy month – answered’. Such content numbers among the most popular.

The results

Discover is serving a niche audience in a largely untapped market. It has no paid promotion nor advertising: the emphasis is more on organic shares and pageviews from search.

The most popular content by shares reflects Discover’s intention to offer insight on little known aspects of MENA life. The strategy to showcase content through organic search is also delivering results. Discover features accounted for six articles in MEE’s top 20 by PVs in February 2019 – up from just two pre-Discover features in the same chart for 2018.

More importantly, content currently ranks highly on the first page of Google results under certain search terms. For example:

Search: middle + east + cinema – Discover is ranked 1st and 2nd.

Search: arab + poet – Discover is ranked 1st.

Search: plan + arab + wedding – Discover is ranked 1st.

Search: middle + east + recipes – Discover is ranked 2nd.

Search: climate + middle + east' – Discover is ranked 3rd.

Search: best + middle + east + books' - Discover is ranked 5th.

This project was highly commended at The Drum Online Media Awards 2020. To find out more about The Drum Awards, including which awards are currently open for entries, click here.

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