The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

On al-Shorouk

Jack Shenker has a timely article on al-Shorouk newspaper for The Arab Press Network, in which he interviews me:

"Although this has attracted criticism from opposition activists, some commentators see it as an important step towards the independent media in Egypt gaining the maturity, and thus credibility, it requires to thrive. 'Ibrahim El-Moalem [El-Shorouk's publisher], is not known as an opposition figure, or as someone who takes courageous stands against the government like Ibrahim Eissa [editor of Al-Dustour]' observed the Arabist, a prominent Egyptian blogger who has written extensively on the Egyptian media scene. 'He's going at it with a more professional point of view and a less lurid tone and I think that's what's needed in this market, where the tendency is to provide relentlessly negative coverage of the government.'

If El-Shorouk's target readership is those still clinging to Al-Ahram, it couldn't have entered the fray at a better time. Three-quarters of Egyptian media remain under government control, but state newspapers are a sinking ship: publications are believed to be collectively in debt to the tune of LE 5-6 billion ($887m to $1.06bn), and morale is at rock bottom in the underpaid, overstaffed newsrooms (Al-Ahram alone employs 1400 journalists) where the standard of stories is often low. El-Shorouk has the money behind it to snap up the best columnists and has even struck syndication deals with international papers like the New York Times enabling it translate and publish some of their content, a move which some believe could transform it into a genuine challenger to the pan-Arab dailies like Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Asharq al-Awsat, both currently published from London.

It remains to be seen though whether this attempt to expand the independent media market in a fresh direction will be enough to bring El-Shorouk long-term stability. For Hamdy Hassan, a media expert at the Al-Ahram institute, the problem with the new paper is not what it has done, but rather what it has failed to do. 'At a time when the average newspaper reader is getting older, what we needed was a really new outlook, a new language for editing that would bring more young people to the medium,' argues Dr Hassan. 'I expected El-Shorouk to provide all of that and prove competitive, but I'm afraid it hasn't. In other parts of the world the newspaper industry is innovating - audience research projects in America, new tabloid and hybrid formats in Britain - but El-Shorouk has proved to be essentially a copy of what is already on offer, and as a business model that will never be successful.'

With a relative dearth of objective research into readership habits, it's hard to pinpoint how and why Egypt's newspaper readers make their daily purchasing choices. The Arabist believes that the ultimate triumph or failure of El-Shorouk will depend on its ability to pull out the big scoops. 'No one thought Al-Masry Al-Yom would last when it first launched, but it made its name by breaking stories no-one else had, especially around the time of parliamentary elections,' he says. 'We're not in an election period now but we do now have a 24 hour news cycle, where unlike before the independent press can break scandals and force the government to respond the same day. If El-Shorouk can become a part of that process then it will flourish; consistent, solid reporting will always create its own market.'"

Note the interview was given when I was still unsure about the Sudan attack story (it had been published that morning). And Jack, I'm not Egyptian!

I’d like to add my own notes on al-Shorouk, out of interest for those who follow media development (where I have a little experience). Al-Shorouk took months of development amidst uncertainty about its editorial team and direction. It is probably still trying to find its voice and hit cruising speed, which should take one to two years (it is now less than two years old.) It is entering the market at a time when advertising revenue is, according to an industry figure I spoke to, down 40%. It has reportedly given high salaries in an industry that, in cases like al-Dustour and Sawt al-Umma (both run by Ibrahim Eissa and his proteges and owned by publisher Essam Fahmi, who honed down the model of sales-driven weeklies over the last decade) often follows the sweatshop model. A lot of investment has gone into it, and it will be interesting to see whether how long it takes to recoup that investment with this business model and the context of a financial crisis, especially when the market is full of parasitical newspapers. For one rival I spoke to, al-Shorouk is bound to fail editorially (no sense of mission - yet) and commercially (too much initial investment into marketing, salaries not commensurate with market, etc.) I am not entirely convinced: if al-Shorouk hits its stride, gets combination of big name commentary and solid reporting, it may succeed beyond current market leader (along with al-Ahram) Masri al-Youm. But I think it will need those few big stories that make its name, and the Sudan attack one could be one of those. As I told Jack, even in a market that has parasitical newspapers (i.e. that sell a couple of thousand of copies only), if you build a reputable news-driven product, they (the readers) will come.