Reading into Cairo’s Cacophony of Newspapers

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“Egyptians read newspapers like they smoke cigarettes,” Ahmed, 57, a newspaper seller on Tala’at Harb Street off of Tahrir square told me—while smoking a cigarette. It is true that in today’s multimedia age print papers have undeniably lost their past hegemony; by all accounts, television is now the alpha medium in Egypt. But since the January 25th revolution a slew of newspapers have sprouted up, both in the online and print sphere, challenging previous models of media politics and directionality in interesting—and still unfolding—ways.  

And nowhere is Egypt’s still lively and cacophonous newspaper sphere more prominently on display today than in the streets of Cairo, where a diversity of newspapers are cheaply bought and sold on nearly every corner, forming a part of the city’s public facade.

It is hard to know exactly how Egyptian newspaper consumption has changed since the revolution; while readership is generally placed at a third of the population, there are few credible circulation and revenue rates or public opinion surveys available. And it is no secret why: newspaper shareholders, editors, and publishers are generally loathe to release revenue rates and circulation numbers in an industry (and country) long plagued by corruption, long used to manipulating numbers for commercial sake, and long dependent on funding from a few influential political and business figures.

What is clear, however, is that—like on the constitutional level—technological and political revolutions have not simply toppled previous media regimes, but rather have led to a reconstitution of news producer and consumer relations in complex (and still emerging) ways. How Egyptians continue to read their nation’s newspapers hence remains integral to understanding media’s prospects for evolution and stagnation amidst changing political and socio-economic forces.

In an informal study of dozens of newspaper readers and sellers in public places across Cairo that I conducted in November, I heard a consensus only on one issue: the media lies. Kazab, a strong Arabic word for liar, was often used to describe both government and privately owned media. Beyond that, a diversity of newspapers were named as favorites (most often Al-Ahram, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Al-Tahrir), an array of journalists cited as a favorite, and all kinds of other news sources named as popular. Readers explained that they regularly bought their newspaper from vendors on the streets, many of whom they had relationships with. They often shared their copies with those around them, reading articles out loud to one another, and daily read multiple newspapers, sometimes with clearly conflicting political perspectives. For many, long hours at jobs without computers made reading newspapers online an impractical option, while the print paper helped to fill the void of a slow work day. Overall, had the quality of news improved since the revolution? Like much in Egypt, the answer depended on whom you asked.

These findings, by no means scientific, indicate the need for further attention to consumption patterns, both in Cairo and the governances beyond.  

Past Influences:

According to media scholar and Georgetown University Professor Dr. Adel Iskandar, the reality has always been that Egyptian newspaper readers are more diverse and discerning than the general stereotype as “fixed interlocutors”. He also emphasized the way that newspaper consumption practices have in many ways been shaped by government policies.

“They [Egyptian news readers] conduct strange comparisons of sorts,” explained Dr. Iskander.  “It has a lot to do with the fact that for many years, for decades, the regime put out a lot of newspapers that were basically identical in objective but variable in discourse. So the only way to consume news is to try and read everything so you can try to glean something that is intriguing or different, or between the lines. You have to read all the lines to read in between the lines.”

Indeed, for decades freedom of the press in Egypt has been largely only in name. Through licensing regimes, legal codes, corruption, and physical assaults, the government strictly controlled the discourse presented in print. Mixed with Egypt’s rich literary tradition and it came to be that only a certain kind of reduced and rhetorical news became fit to print.  Though there had traditionally been independent voices in the national press, they operated within very confined limits.

In 2005, under pressure to liberalize the political sphere, Hosni Mubarak granted Al-Masry Al-Youm the first-private newspaper license. (Abdel Nasser first nationalized the press in 1960, and in 1976 Anwar Sadat allowed party newspapers to join the mix.) Within a few years Al-Masry became the second (or first, depending on who you ask) best selling newspaper in Egypt. Coupled with other changes (such as a rise in literary rates and Internet access), this success spurred a sharp rise in new private newspapers, as a well as a general shift towards the privatization of Egyptian media.

“With this set-up, nobody cared about making money [from newspaper sales],” explained Hisham Kassem, a founding publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm and one of Egypt’s most outspoken media activists. While Kassem noted that advertisements were always a main source of income, he also noted how the political persuasions of newspaper owners often prevailed over professional priorities. “So market research wasn’t important…. The important thing to consider is purchasing power, and right now that’s very weak.”

Current Consumers:

According to the 2009 Dubai Press Clubs Arab Media Outlook Study, while Egyptians turn to Television as their first source for news (about 8o%), Egyptian newspaper consumption was the highest in the region: 93% reported buying a newspaper more than once a week, 33% daily, and 12% from four to six times week. Other studies, have noted lower weekly consumption (a 2011 International Republic Institute study conducted after the revolution reported that 51% had not read a newspaper in the last month), but still placed newspaper consumption at about a third of the population. 

This is in part made possible by Egypt’s literacy rate; according to the 2005 CIA Factbook, Egypt has a literacy rate of 71.4% (83% male, 59.4% female).  Internet penetration in Egypt is also relatively high at around 25% or more, in part due to an extensive campaign by Mubarak to increase Internet access across the country.  Nevertheless, at least three-fourths of Egyptians still live without Internet access, their satellite dishes and Cairo-based newspapers supplementing the news they receive from word of mouth and SMS texts.

According to the 2004 Egypt Human Development Report, only about 5.3% of Egyptians hold newspaper subscriptions. This low number is not surprising: in many ways a personal subscription has never been necessary in a communal culture where newspapers are easily recycled amongst neighbors, workers, and strangers.

Future Editions:

In this way while Egyptian journalists and politicians are currently engaged in intense debates over the proper place and face of Egyptian media in a post-Mubarak nation, how and why Egyptians keep reading their newspapers remains an active part of Egypt’s transition story.

“One of the problems between the relationship between the reading public and the newspapers is this issue of trust,” Iskandar explained. “People never trusted newspapers before, but that is because they considered them politically aligned. But now it has a lot to do with hearsay and inaccuracy and basically just reporting things that are either completely false or trying to jump the gun.”

Iskandar also noted a growing “cult of personality” amongst private newspaper (and other media) owners and editors that attract readers in addition to the paper’s ideological spin. “I think Egyptians are becoming far more selective with their news than ever before,” he said. “As the media system becomes more diverse and news organizations become more fixed in their discursive lines and their ideological affiliations, the more likely that the Egyptian public will develop the same kind of allegiance to various newspapers.”

Wida’t, 60, from Dar Al-Salam in Cairo, in a way represents the old and the new. Wearing a colored veil and long grey dress, she loitered for several minutes in front of a spread of newspapers on the sidewalk, scanning the headlines. She said that she reads every day; now it’s Al-Tahrir (naming Ibrahim Eissa as one of her favorite journalists) and before that it was Al-Masry Al-Youm. She explained Al-Ahram’s appeal in that it was a “classic” in many people’s mind, but dismissed the government’s stories as empty words.

For Wida’t the Internet was for her children, and she preferred newspapers, which she had been reading since childhood. Like many, she lamented the lack of stability in Egypt right now and agreed that she would like to see changes in Egyptian media. Her solution? Simple. There needed to be more credibility, she said.

Miriam Berger is a freelance-writer and Fulbright and CASA Fellow in Egypt researching on Egyptian print media. 

Photo: Reuters

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