The recent decision to stop publishing the print edition of the British daily The Independent, which was in publication for more than 30 years, was likely a source of depression for many in the United Kingdom. But the decision was actually a cause for optimism among Egyptian journalists.
Many employees of Egyptian news organizations viewed the development as a possible solution to their own problems, particularly those journalists who work on the web versions of their newspapers. The Independent’s decision to cease paper publication — with the last issue going out on March 26 — gave them hope that Egyptian newspapers would cease publishing their print versions, or publish them on a weekly basis, to cut down on printing costs. This would contribute to alleviating these newspapers’ financial problems and, therefore, better guarantee the regular payment of staff salaries, or perhaps even lead to raises.
A former journalist with Al-Shorouk newspaper, one of those stricken by financial difficulties, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I had worked on the electronic version of the publication, and we had been suffering from delays in the payment of salaries. The costs associated with printing the newspaper was one of the reasons for the financial crisis. As a result of poor circulation numbers and lack of interest in printed newspapers in general, the paper version adds to losses incurred by the company.”
The journalist said, “These losses are not only borne by the owner of the newspaper, but the journalists are also shouldering the burden by not getting paid on a regular basis.”
Another journalist at Al-Watan newspaper said that while his paper was not suffering from a severe financial crisis, “spending on the print version could be better controlled, with more attention being paid to the website that has grown to become the main source of profits.”
The foregoing was a mere sampling of journalists’ opinions, though social networking sites were awash with similar sentiments. However, the reliance of Egyptian news organizations on their electronic versions as the main source of profits is debatable. Mohammed Mousa, former head of the investigations department at Al-Shorouk newspaper, told Al-Monitor that while print versions had lost their importance in terms of reading and distribution rates, advertisements in print versions are still more expensive than those in electronic versions and still comprise a greater source of profit. Most advertisers believe that the printed advertisements are more valuable for their companies because they are documented and the reader can keep them. "However, the news websites will replace all the traditional media outlets, but it'll be slower in its experience than the international models," he added.
Yet print version journalists were the most adamant objectors to such opinions. One journalist at the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper told Al-Monitor, “A publication such as Al-Masry Al-Youm cannot cease printing its paper version. Al-Masry Al-Youm changed the face of Egyptian journalism and tops the list of most circulated newspapers, ahead of Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuria, which remained at the forefront for decades; lest we forget that printed newspapers continue to attract a large audience.”
Another journalist working for the Al-Youm Al-Sabea newspaper told Al-Monitor, “Al-Youm Al-Sabea is the pre-eminent news website in Egypt. Our efforts on the paper and electronic versions are complementary, whereby all journalists work on both. I am therefore not biased in favor of the paper version, but journalists who demand a halt of the printed newspaper should rethink their stance because the Journalists Syndicate disallows membership to journalists who work for publications that do not have paper versions. The journalists who work for Al-Youm Al-Sabea faced such a problem, which was resolved when the newspaper started publishing a paper version.”
Concerning membership, Journalists Syndicate board member Khaled al-Balashi told Al-Monitor, “I always try to find solutions allowing membership to e-journalists. But doing so requires amending the Journalists Syndicate Law, which no longer adequately applies to current work conditions where e-journalists represent 50% or more of the Egyptian journalistic labor force.” Khaled Miri, undersecretary of the Journalists Syndicate, stated to the press on April 10 that the syndicate was in the process of amending the law to allow the inclusion of e-journalists.
In a March 26 article titled “Is this the end of the newspaper era, now that The Independent ceased publishing its paper version?” Al-Ahram media affairs e-journalist Ahmed Abdel Maksoud wrote, “There is no doubt that the printed press has come a long and successful way throughout more than three centuries. But it would seem that its historically acquired legitimacy will not be enough for it to continue on, as many competing forms have emerged to give it a strong run for its money.”
With regard to this competition, he said, “At first, street newspaper vendors [in Egypt] only yelled out three names: Al-Akhbar, Al-Ahram, Al-Gomhuria [in reference to the three main Egyptian newspapers]. But, with time, they started adding names to that three-name list of giants, leading to an intra-paper publication war.”
He added, “Screens [TV and satellite channels] started competing with paper and ink [printed publications], with a new horse entering the race recently in the form of websites.”
Abdel Maksoud added that the aforementioned developments were the main causes for the decline of print media, as even the readership that remained was now divided among a larger number of newspapers, with monopolies and profits slowly vanishing.
In that regard, press affairs journalist Khaled Barmawi, in an article on the Arab Journalists website titled “Will printed media come to an end in Egypt before the United States?" wrote that last year saw more than 100 newspapers and magazines, from all over the world, cease publication of a printed version, with most of them turning to electronic copies, entering into mergers, contenting themselves with a weekly publication or breaking up their content into smaller specialized magazines. “In general, that trend has been ongoing in Spain, France, Canada, the United States and many South American countries, despite the success stories that were evident there.”
He added that success stories in the United States were due to the rise in subscription rates, the recovery from its economic crisis of 2008 and the readerships’ habit, particularly the older age group, of subscribing to printed press outlets.
In light of the rise in the rates of illiteracy, the economic crises that have befallen Egypt and the drop in per capita income, one can surmise with near certainty that Egyptian paper publications will eventually disappear unless the current regime intervenes to subsidize the national press, to protect itself from being stigmatized by the demise of the historical three giants in the field: namely, Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhuria. Yet such a development may not be a stigma of shame, but a natural evolution in journalism that allows e-journalists to represent more than 50% of the Egyptian press labor market, despite the difficulties they faced in gaining membership to the syndicate.