Friday, March 27, 2009

Newspaper newcomer hits the headlines

El-Shorouk, a daily newspaper launched two months ago in Egypt, has been making international headlines over the past days following what might be a major scoop about a possible US/Israeli air strike on Sudan in January. The newspaper is the latest addition to a newspaper market that has thrived over the past years, and where the independent press seems to have come to stay despite regular attacks from the government in the form of legal threats and security crackdowns. However, there are those who doubt whether El-Shorouk will make a difference to the Egyptian newspaper in terms of editorial quality and innovation.

-Cairo - March 2009
-Taken from the 'Arab Press Network'

Like any group of rowdy teenagers who are young, excitable and just getting their first taste of freedom, Egypt's independent press has been throwing a party in recent years. Flush with their success at breaking a series of major government scandals and gleeful at having carved out a fresh readership base with which to tackle the state-owned monoliths head on, the mood has been exuberant - at least it was until earlier this year, when a new kid came along to gatecrash festivities.

Enter El-Shorouk, the country's latest daily paper to hit the newsstands. This week the publication scored what could prove to be one of the biggest scoops of the year, breaking a story about alleged secret airstrikes on arms smuggling operations in Sudan. As well-funded as it is ambitious, the arrival of El-Shorouk is making headlines of its own accord, but the outlet is also having to face down skeptics who doubt it has the hunger, style or business model to succeed.

Launched by the Dar El Shorouk publishing house, a forty year old institution venerated for being one of the founding pillars of modern Egyptian publishing, the new paper is throwing itself into a crowded and sensitive market. Not only are the independent dailies encountering fierce competition for sales in an industry which is globally contracting, but they are also pulling off a tricky balancing act by trying to challenge the boundaries of the government's often-blurry red lines when it comes to press censorship, without going far enough to provoke a backlash from the regime.

The trials and tribulations of the independent media in Egypt have been well documented by APN since the sector began to really take off with the launch of Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2004 and the return of previously-banned Al-Dustour the following year. The question is why El-Shorouk would want to jump on a bandwagon that seems to offer little outlet for healthy profits and yet is regularly assailed by legal threats and security crackdowns.

One answer could lie in its relatively highbrow approach, which borrows more from the state-controlled media giant Al-Ahram than it does from its independent rivals. Not only is the paper's character less sensational than that of Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Dustour - helped in part by the recruitment of big name stars from Al-Ahram like Fahmy Howeidy and Salama Ahmad Salama - it also takes a less confrontational political stance on controversial topics.

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."

Whilst the debates over the fate of Egypt's newest daily rage on, others are more animated by the fact it exists at all. To the surprise of many who have witnessed the Mubarak regime's thorny relationship with the independent press, El-Shorouk received a license to publish along with four other newspapers last June. "I think it's emblematic of the government's schizophrenic approach to the media that El-Shorouk have been allowed to come out at all," says Lawrence Pintak, director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism at the American University of Cairo and editor of Arab Media and Society. "The paper itself is clearly still trying to figure out its identity. But the fact that it's out there is a good sign for the future of Egypt's independent press."

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