The transformation print press in Egypt has undergone in the past few years is too radical to go unnoticed and too ominous to be overlooked.
A sizable number of middle class households went from buying at an average of three newspapers a day-at least two official and one independent, to not buying any or keeping one official, usually for the obituaries.
Newspaper stands started dwindling and the image of early morning readers gathering around them has become a scarcity except maybe of a few from the older generations. And if print press is about to be laid to sleep, there is little doubt its electronic rival would be the perpetrator.
The question remains whether Egypt would really witness the disappearance of a decades-long tradition of reading newspapers on daily basis.
While the decline of paper press in Egypt has been ongoing for a few years, the devaluation of the pound in November 2016 is expected to be the beginning of the end.
According to Salah Eissa, secretary general of the Supreme Council of the Press, the entire printing and publishing industry would be affected, in reference to the 150% increase in the prices of paper and ink.
“Newspapers can in this case decrease the numbers of their pages, cut down on production costs, or raise newspaper prices,” he said, noting that while the last option might seem the easiest, it is not in the best interest of newspapers on the long run. Eissa found it unlikely for the state to support affected newspapers.
“This is not feasible under the current financial crises, plus the fact that state support is confined to official newspapers, which are already losing now.”
Head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Yehia Qallash argued that state support is bound to save paper press.
“If the state realizes that newspapers are strategic commodities and part of national security, they can save paper press,” he said. “Access to knowledge is a basic right and that is why countries like France and Germany support newspapers.”
Qallash also noted that the state needs to bear in mind the consequences of closing down newspapers on unemployment rates. “The numbers of journalists, technicians, and workers who can lose their jobs is extremely alarming.”
Journalist Mohamed Habousha objects to linking the fast deterioration of paper press to financial crises and rather attributed it to the power of new media. “Youths under 30 constitute 65% of the Egyptian population and all those get their news from the internet,” he wrote.
“Added to that is the fact the paper press lacks the professionalism and creativity required to attract readers.” Habousha noted that electronic newspapers offer more attractive material through not only featuring news, but also in depth analysis of hot topics and quick updates.
“Paper newspapers cannot also rival electronic ones in their ability to reach readers’ cellphones.”
Adel Sabry, editor-in-chief of Masr al-Arabiya website, argued that readers no longer look for news in paper newspapers. “They get the news from electronic websites,” he said.
“They rather look for studies, reports, and investigative journalism. The problem with newspapers is that in 2017 they are still working in the same way they did before the internet.”
A matter of trust?
Sabry added that readers now trust websites more than print newspapers. “Laws in Egypt restrict free circulation of information and create of many newspapers propaganda machines for the regime, thus defeating the purpose of journalism, which is serving the people.”
According to writer Farida al-Nakkash, the different stages through which a printed newspaper goes through are closely linked to each other so if one fails the others follow suit. “When people stop reading print newspaper and the prices of printing material increases, circulation decreases, which in turn leads to less advertisements, thus a huge loss for those papers,” she said.
“Advertisements are a major source of profit for papers and they determine to a great extent the success of each paper.” Nakkash added that businessmen who own newspapers are gradually finding out that they are hardly yielding any profit and are, therefore, expected to shut them down soon.
“However, despite the disastrous situation through which print press is going, I still believe it will not disappear.”
Journalist Ahmed al-Samani argued that print press in Egypt would never survive if it does not follow Western models such as “the Washington Post revolution,” as he called it.
“The 138-year old newspaper was on the verge of ending its paper publication until Amazon and Jeff Bezos purchased it in 2013 and changed the entire strategy,” he wrote.
Samani explained that Washington Post reversed the traditional equation of the electronic website being subordinate to the paper publication. “The newspaper developed its website so that it becomes the primary source of information with the majority of journalists working there instead of the paper publication,” he explained.
“Some of the content of the electronic newspaper is then chosen to be included in the print issue.”
With much of the content available on the website being accessible through subscription, the paper managed to make profits that compensated for its losses in paper issues.