The local scene
How Egyptians are getting their news in 2006
AS A RESULT of decades of not needing to respond to pure market forces, the Egyptian newspaper industry is not quite as developed as its global counterparts. Whereas advanced newspaper markets are busy using retina scans to determine where their readers' eyes go on any particular page (in order to better convey that information to advertisers), most Egyptian newspapers would be hard pressed to even provide advertisers with proper circulation figures.
That doesn't mean the local news scene -- like its global counterparts -- isn't going through a period of tremendous transformation. It is. The market may still be skewed in favour of publishers whose loyalties are squarely with the government, but emerging independent voices are also shaking things up at the same time. Here is a brief guide to the major players, as well as the new print and digital forces that are moving to the forefront of the media scene...
BIG DAILIES: The state-affiliated Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gumhuriya remain the nation's three biggest dailies. However, whereas they only previously had to content with one or two major opposition mouthpieces -- like Al-Wafd -- and several minor ones -- like Al-Ahali -- today the more independent-natured dailies are changing the face of the news business as a whole.
The most prominent of these, at present, is the two-year-old Al-Masry Al-Yom, which has watched its circulation climb purely on the principle that instead of presenting either the government's or the opposition's point of view, it presents both. That may seem like a logical formula, but for an audience that hasn't gotten much of it in a long time, it has come across as a breath of fresh air with the force of a hurricane.
While other competitors can't be far behind, they will all have to actively ensure that their journalists and editors retain the neutrality that the Al-Masry Al-Yom experiment has proven that readers want. Al-Masry Al-Yom itself must also be careful not to lose its edge in that department by veering towards either side. For the three big government-affiliated players, it may already be too late to retain readers' trust, although just a little more balance in covering hot political events can go a surprisingly long way.
WEEKLY INDEPENDENTS: These raucous upstarts have captured the audience's imagination with their bold headlines and daring forays into topics previously considered taboo. The market leader is, by far, Al-Destour, edited by the controversial Ibrahim Eissa. The paper's style is in-your-face and biting, featuring banner headlines like "When will Mubarak say 'I'm sorry' to the Egyptian public?" Following close behind is the ever-popular Arab nationalist leaning Al-Osbou, with its steady diet of conspiracy theory and allegedly lurid details from secret high-level meetings. Also doing well are Sawt Al-Umma and Al-Fagr. These weeklies may not be doing much serious investigative reporting, but they are showing readers a good time -- enough to justify their LE2 per issue cover price for a little while, at least.
SATELLITE CHANNELS: Al-Jazeera made its mark on the newspaper business a long time ago, forcing government affiliated mouthpieces, for one, to reconsider the way they cover local events. It also upped the ante on regional coverage, adding an activist tinge to everything it covers. Now that anyone with a satellite dish can instantly get the news the government doesn't want seen, local publications have had to rapidly adapt. And with more and more players set to enter the market -- including BBC's stab at an Arabic language news channel and businessmen Naguib Sawiris and Emadeddin Adib's efforts to establish their own satellite news networks -- this is a field that can only get hotter, and more influential at the same time.
ONLINE-ONLY NEWS PLAYERS: With names like Fil Balad, Masrawy and Al-Mesryoon, these sites have become mainstays for today's news junkies who cannot wait until the next morning to get in-depth local coverage. Because larger regional news sites tend to cover things from a more macro approach, and since the local daily print papers generally only update their websites once a day, these relatively new players have managed to step in with up to the minute reporting on local news. Sometimes it's all about being the first to translate news wire feed coverage of local events. Popular online aggregators like zahma.com have also been speeding up the news cycle, by constantly providing readers with an easily navigable way of looking at many different perspectives at once. Also worth considering is how the entire landscape could change if any of these sites decide to move from online to print.
BLOGS: Egyptian blogs have recently gotten their 15 minutes in the spotlight, mainly thanks to hard-hitting coverage of demonstrations and other hot political events; whether they will be able to sustain the momentum that put them there is another question. With Internet penetration still low, writing and reading blogs mostly remains the playground of the elite, or the technologically elite at the very least, thus keeping a significant portion of the population away from these often insightful venues for breaking news -- especially of the activist kind. In any case, the influence of blogs is certain to grow in the coming years, and as it does it will continue to up the ante for traditional news sources. Bloggers tend not to pull any punches, and they are also beginning to serve as serious watchdogs over the printed press. Bloggers like Alaa Abdel-Fatah, who runs the popular blog aggregator manalaa.net, have also come into prominence for their offline activism as well. Abdel-Fatah is currently in jail for participating in a demonstration in support of judicial independence.