Need to Know 2011-07-06 CAIRO – Hisham Kassem, publisher, activist and mulish newspaperman has struggled most of his life to get where he is right now: in the rubble-strewn fifth floor of a high-rise building in central Cairo.
The floor plan of his new headquarters leans against the wall, but by now the contours are hard-wired in his mind: the editors will be clustered over there, below a row of unfinished windows that were blasted through an eight-inch concrete wall by pneumatic drills. To his left will be the broadcast studios and around the corner is the reporters’ section, which will be spot-lit by special halogen bulbs that, studies show, can tease peak efficiency rates from employees during the crucial 3 p.m.-6 p.m. workday interval.
For the second time in less than a decade, Kassem is publishing an independent newspaper and this time he doesn’t have to worry about thugs and spooks peering over his shoulder. He is not alone; four months after the departure of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak after a peaceful, 18-day rebellion, the country’s state-run media is showing unprecedented spunk in its political coverage and private-sector newspapers and broadcasters are proliferating. Kassem, however, has pole position in the race to professionalize Egypt’s media; as early as two years ago, he raised a war chest to develop what may well be the one of the Arab world’s first multimedia companies that does not labor at the mercy of autocrats and other illiberal forces.
Kassem’s enterprise — for now, he is not divulging its name — is a triumph of foresight, luck or a combination of the two. After six decades of hibernation under single-party rule, Egypt’s independent news industry is emerging, blinkered and emaciated, into the light of the Arab Spring. As the region’s largest market and its former bearing point for political and cultural fashions, the tremors now rocking Egypt may transform its media industry in ways that radiate across the Arab world. “Journalism will change dramatically,” says Kassem as he shuffles through a tour of his new offices. “There will be economic pressure to close the state-owned papers, which will free up advertising which will fuel new private companies and more competition.”
That assumes, of course, that Egypt’s adolescent democracy survives into adulthood, a transition that is still far from guaranteed. It also implies that developing countries will continue to defy the downward trend in newspaper circulation that is bankrupting the industry in mature economies. Either way, the vital role tech-savvy bloggers played in the extinguishing of Mubarak’s regime suggests that the future of Egypt’s news business belongs to social media and its young masters and mistresses.
That may be the case in the long term. In the meantime, however, there is no reason why the analogue and digital eras cannot coexist profitably in the New Egypt. Though only 18 percent of the country’s 85 million people currently read daily newspapers, that share could expand with the evolution of a free press, particularly given the enormous gap between the country’s relatively small concentration of Internet users and its legions of computer illiterates. The global trend is clear: from 2000 to 2008, circulation in emerging markets grew by 35 percent, according to Tech Eye, even as it receded in industrialized nations.
“Just because people aren’t reading papers now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future,” said Cairo-based journalist Issandr El Amrani. “There’s every reason to believe that if you build a smart newspaper, readers will come.”
More than a decade ago, El Amrani worked for Kassem on his English-language Cairo Times when it was Egypt’s only independent news magazine. He remembered his old boss as an uncompromising curmudgeon who, given the arbitrary way in which the government’s draconian press laws were enforced, skillfully and effectively flirted with treason. “Hisham was a great judge of character and what he could get away with,” El Amrani said. “He knew how to get exactly to the edge of the permissible and push the boundaries, but not get the paper into unnecessary trouble.”
Years later, as publisher of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yoom, Kassem would feature blank spaces on pages where punchy stories would have appeared if not for the thin skins of powerful apparatchiks. Under his watch, Al Masry Al Yoom emerged as the most influential newspaper in Egypt as well as a rival to the state-owned Al Ahram for paying subscribers and rack sales.
In 2007, frustrated with meddlesome shareholders, Kassem decided to launch his own daily paper. He spent two years touring the world’s best news dailies and by late 2009 he had raised a capital fund worth 30 million Egyptian pounds (about $5 million) from a pool of private investors, none of whom were allowed stakes of more than 5 percent. He invested 300,000 euros in a news management system that will help him operate a relatively lean staff of 80 editors and reporters — a third of whom will be low-cost young hires with little or no experience — capable of turning around print, radio and video news coverage on a dime.
And what of the “Facebook kids,” the young bloggers who brought down a dictator with their serrated posts and staccato tweets? There will be room for them in Kassem’s new domain, but only if they check their celebrity at the door and remember their place in its old-school hierarchy. “I don’t like stars, particularly if they don’t think like journalists,” he said. “They’re a nuisance with inflated egos and they’re not as important as they say they are.”
However ambitious, Kassem is no Napoleon, let alone a Murdoch. While determined to nurture his company into a media powerhouse at home, he has no pretensions to build an empire abroad. Should post-Mubarak Egypt revive itself as the Arab world’s political and intellectual fountainhead, however, his vision for a professional news industry in Egypt will certainly have played a role. If that happens, the high production and ethical standards he has long set for himself may become one of Egypt’s most coveted exports.
As El Amrani put it: “If anyone can do it, Hisham can.”