Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

This story is taking place as we speak

By 2020, the way we consume news will be drastically different, writes Tarek Attia. Are those who make the media ready for the new realities?

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Although an increasing number of Egyptians receive their entire news from digital sources (online, mobile), the majority still depend on TV and print newspapers for news.

Take TV. Late night talk shows have become a major player in conveying news and information on current events to the public. There are now half a dozen of these shows, competing for millions of viewers' attention every night. Combined total newsprint circulation, meanwhile, has remained stagnant at about 1.5 to two million copies sold per day.

Now consider this: while accurate estimates for Internet usage in Egypt are still not available, the most commonly cited figures are between 15 and 18 million people online. Mobile phone figures are clearer, and more massive -- nearly 54 million mobile phone users in a country with a population of 80 million. Clearly, when it comes to news, the Internet and mobile phones represent a huge untapped market for smart thinking media companies to expand their customer base.

The same ripples are being felt everywhere in the world, and wreaking havoc on the news business in the process. How does a news organisation stay relevant -- and make a living doing so -- when information has pretty much become readily available to everybody, everywhere, anytime -- for free?

Who will pay for the news(paper)? Maintaining revenues through traditional print products, while investing heavily in online and mobile delivery platforms -- that still don't make enough money on their own, but are keys to the future of the industry -- is a balancing act very few media organisations anywhere on Earth have managed to perfect.

In Egypt, we are also experiencing a seismic media evolution. Though our venture into the competitive media landscape has only recently begun to flourish -- with the emergence just a few years ago of private sector newspapers, satellite TV and radio stations and online sites -- the digital age brings with it possibilities for even more rapid change in the look and feel of media.

Compared to other markets, we are several years behind the mass shift from paper to digital in terms of news delivery. But some have already begun to take strides. Al-Masry Al-Yom and Al-Shorouk, the two top contenders from the private press trying to break the hegemony of Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuriya, have begun offering mobile versions of their sites, as well as SMS news services. Their websites are also far more interactive and user friendly than those of Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuriya, although at least two of those traditional giants are actively trying to better that situation. Allowing readers to comment on articles has inspired lively debate and is a solid acknowledgment that the news is now a two-way conversation.

Another private contender, Al-Yom Al-Sabei has managed to become the go-to site for news consumers who want the latest breaking news online, since it is updated all the time and has an attractive user interface. Only a few days ago it also started to offer users the option of browsing a digital preview edition of its upcoming daily print product online.

However, in all of the above cases, what we are seeing is often a triumph of style over substance. There is more breaking news out there, more scoops, and a greater variety, but nowhere near the level of professional, comprehensive, information gathering, follow up, and user- friendly delivery of that content that the market currently requires.

It's an emerging 24-hour news cycle where consumers will only seek out information that is relevant to them -- news and other stuff that is useful and interesting. There will not be any sort of hierarchy of information delivery. Politics and business will always try to dominate, but the audience will be more in control than ever. The recipient is king. My Yahoo.

That certainly should inspire food for thought amongst big and small Egyptian media companies alike on how to grow their audiences, while beginning to explore emerging digital revenue generating ideas. And yet, from my experience running training programmes for thousands of Egyptian journalists and managers for the past three years, resistance to change is hindering both the private and public sector media -- in varying degrees -- from adapting to the shifting needs of their audiences.

Let's take young people, who by default are the eventual customer base for all media. Young people are reluctant to read the news, and they may not "mature" into doing so when they grow older, as many believe. Young people will create a world of their own. It will most likely include games more than news. News will be just something that comes up as headlines in an RSS feed, or on the phone or radio. How are media companies going to deal with that challenge?

But there is a fundamentally larger story playing. The ability to access and disseminate unlimited amounts of information, at any time, to and from anywhere, really means that the term "media" will no longer exist. Peoples' entire existence will be dominated by a non-stop flow of messages, from the moment they awake until their heads hit their pillows, and perhaps while they are asleep as well.

Most forms of information delivery -- the Internet, TV, radio, mobile -- will have all become one. It won't make a difference what device you are using; the information pipeline available to you will include all of those four mediums, and more. We will be looking at screens all the time. Screens will appear out of nowhere in the air to provide news, entertainment and information.

Everybody will be providing information to everybody else via blogging, commenting on articles, forums, tweeting, Facebook updates. What we currently call media companies used to have a monopoly on this transmission. They will still retain a portion of the power, but now it will be shared with everybody else. Things like Google have already taken over quite a chunk.

Eventually the term 'print media' will disappear. Printed newspapers and magazines will continue to thrive, although they will be seen more like books -- more valuable, because more care has been put into their creation, and not instant like digital media; something to curl up on the couch and read, or take with you wherever you need to go.

Print itself will also have a digital component, as paper may be replaced by ultra thin, bendable digital readers. In the future, paper may even be able to accommodate digital elements.

The tools to create and deliver media products are no longer the monopoly of media companies. There are a lot of 10-year-olds out there who can take photos and videos, add captions and create simple media products -- with just a mobile phone.

And although Egyptians have been and continue to embrace media making technologies (Facebook, etc), blogging and other forms of citizen media have yet to see their full potential bloom. Political bloggers may have made headlines, broken important stories and managed to change the conversation, forcing print and other media to take on stories they wouldn't have touched before, but blogging -- or any other form of Me Media -- has still not established itself as a solid alternative to traditional media products because there has been no concerted push to establish individuals as news and entertainment delivery platforms that could cater to general or specific audiences, thus generating regular and measurable traffic that advertisers salivate over.

Perhaps the future -- in Egypt and elsewhere -- may look a little like one of the news cafés in the Czech Republic that belong to Nase Addresse (My Address), a unique project in hyperlocal news that I visited in October 2009. In a day and age when the big events -- world, regional and even national news ---are dominated by news agencies, satellite TV stations, and technology companies like Google and Yahoo -- maybe the answer for all other media is to go as local as possible. At Nase Addresse, that philosophy has become literal -- with a media business model producing newspapers and websites created in coffee shop/newsrooms where journalists and citizens interact directly. As you have your coffee, you become a source of information for the news about your town. You also sometimes help produce the news.

But in an interesting twist, it also made clear that journalism's future looks to be harking back to its past -- as an essential conduit of information relevant to you.

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