Bereft of an outlet, Egyptian journalists band together

Sherif Case Study 1When the English-language newspaper Egypt Independent abruptly ceased publication on 16 April 2013 – purportedly for its unprofitability – 25 of its employees swiftly banded together to create their own publication.

“It turned out it wasn’t financial problems as the investors claimed, it was more political because we had a different editorial policy,” said Sherif Zaazaa, who at the time was an economics writer for Egypt Independent. “We wanted complete liberty, so they fired all of us.”

Within two months, the group had raised enough money to launch the online publication Mada Masr on 28 June 2013 – just two days before a mass protest movement led to a military imposed 48-hour ultimatum: end political stalemate or face intervention. The move ultimately resulted in the fall of Mohamed Morsi’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood government.

MADA MASR Tahrir is Not a Square

A brainstorming map at the Mada Masr offices says “Tahrir is not a square.”

For four years, Egypt Independent published a left-leaning 24-page weekly that chronicled the decline of former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign and culminated with articles critical of the Morsi presidency. In its short but full life, supporters said it channelled the dynamism of political debate and resisted the tide of self-censorship that still besets the majority of Egyptian media to this day.

As the final edition was banned from going to press, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist who would later develop the first website platform for Mada Masr, criticised the repressive climate that brought the paper down.

Egypt Independent had to be killed. You might think that an English paper in Arabic-speaking revolutionary Egypt cannot be that dangerous,” Fattah wrote, “but where else do you find a paper run by young women? A paper that became home for an amalgam of misfits and radicals without compromising them; no one had to wear a suit, physically or metaphorically.”

Five months later, in November 2013, Fattah was arrested for violating restrictive laws around public demonstrations and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in June 2014 and was released on bail in mid-September.

In a way, Fattah’s on-going legal situation resonates with both the challenges facing Mada Masr and the overall spirit embodied by the publication: a burgeoning, unstoppable news source with high expectations to affect change, yet confronted by numerous obstacles to navigating an ever-changing and increasingly restricted media climate.

Fixing its place

First launched in English, Mada Masr has strived from the beginning to be as balanced as possible and show all sides of a story with the goal of becoming Egypt’s leading-English language publication, albeit with an Arabic interface. But finding itself a space on the road quickly proved arduous.

Two years after the revolution, Egypt’s media landscape was highly partisan and divided on liberal and religious lines that also continued to embrace a longstanding tradition of lionising the most powerful – often the army.

While the group had raised enough money to survive the first year – primarily through Egyptian and international donors – the money would soon dry up. As the young news site entered its second year at the beginning of June 2014, the donors had verbally pledged around two thirds of its annual budget.

How the following few months would unfold wasn’t certain so the team focused on what they did best: creating content. The journalists at Mada Masr, which in English means “scope, span or range”, covered a breadth of political and cultural issues with sensitivity and balance. Monthly page views reached 500,000 after six months, but on the business side, the future remained uncertain.

This is where WAN-IFRA intervened to help put Mada Masr on the right track towards a sustainable future. Today, Zaazaa – a self-defined jack-of-all-trades – is the commercial manager for Mada Masr and is part of the Media Professionals Programme (MPP), along with editor-in-chief Lina Attalah.

News Shift MADA MASR

The editorial staff works during a news shift on January 26, 2015.

Zaazaa works closely with Ali Rahnema, the Vice President of Digital Media at Canada’s Toronto Star who is also a trainer with the MPP programme, to broaden their commercial focus to ensure it includes audience development, marketing as well as exploring new revenue streams to mature from dependence solely on a donor-funded model.

“When Ali came to Cairo he did a great job in saying ‘Guys, in six months you’ll be on your own, so get moving’,” says Zaazaa. “That just made people really feel like ‘let’s go’. That was really great for us.”

While the first year was more focused on hammering out the day-to-day workflow rather than the long-term vision, Zaazaa says the team has had more clarity since the MPP workshops – held both abroad and locally – as well as the mentoring from top media professionals that began in April 2014. For himself, the meetings have cemented some of his ideas on media sustainability and allowed him to expand on practical approaches to business development.

“It was really quite inspiring. After the work session with Ali [in Cairo] people were jumping around with ideas,” Zaazaa says, adding that it had been hard to implement ideas given Egypt’s complicated political climate and the crackdown on the media.

In the nascent stages of Mada Masr, some staff members moved from the editorial side to focus more on marketing and sales. With new skills to be learned, the external help proved invaluable to the team.

Zaazaa says Rahnema has helped staff connect the dots between both sides of the company – the editorial and business. Coming from a successfully, firmly established media company in Canada that also has a network of smaller community papers, Rahnema has been helping guide the group to secure investors to bridge the gaps in donor funding, while also creating an organisational structure that will protect its independence and financial viability.

At times it has been hard for the original 25 founding members to draw distinctions between employee and manager insofar as it was collectively founded. Everyone is therefore an owner. The close-knit relationships in the group have also posed problems.

“Because we are all friends at the end of the day, sometimes it’s really difficult to boss your friend around and tell them how to do their job,” Zaazaa says.

sherfif 2

From the left, Alexandre Goudineau, Audience Development Center, Amira Ahmed, General Manager and Maha El Nabawi, Business Development Manager. Left

While this emerged as the foremost challenge, the team has repositioned some staff to divide tasks and improve the accountability among all employees.

“They now have a different person in charge of content, audience and commerce and everyone appears to be single-mindedly focused on one thing,” says Rahnema. “It’s this hodgepodge of really interesting journalists and I think they seem to have turned the corner.”

Power of language

Local English-language media has a unique position in Egypt. Somewhat below the radar of authorities, it has been able to provide a more balanced image of Egypt and the region.

In an article in the final edition of Egypt Independent, Dina K. Hussein and Dalia Rabie discuss how local Egyptians with language capabilities have frequently been used as fixers for foreign correspondents who may dip into the country and not always present a complete picture.

“Local English-language media have played a vital role in partially mending this power imbalance by allowing Egyptian journalists to tell Egypt’s story to the world, not as fixers who might or might not get their due credit, but as primary storytellers,” they wrote.


Sherif Zaazaa in an editorial meeting at Mada Masr.

The authors stress that it is crucial to preserve these alternative language outlets in today’s Egypt when the Arabic language media houses are so easily perverted by the whims of the powerful.

While Mada Masr‘s journalism embraces this line of thought, it’s the sheer numbers and demographics of Egyptian society that tell another story.

“It’s 1.5 million people who would rather read news in English compared to a population of around 90 million,” Zaazaa says. “It’s small but these are the people who represent policy makers, NGOs, and civil society.”

If Mada Masr really wants to make a difference they have to approach the masses – i.e. the Arabic speakers – and not just the upper crust of English speakers inside the country or Egyptians abroad.

“You can’t drive the political change agenda in Egypt without being an Arabic language title,” Rahmena says. “On the other hand, they stand to make more inroads into some commercial independence by sticking to what they really do best: English coverage of culture and politics. It’s a really tough one.”

The battle of languages is something Mada Masr will have to contend with for a while. Rahmena lays out two scenarios: either excel at producing news in English and then venture into Arabic later, or focus simultaneously, which would require spreading resources even thinner.

Adding to the dilemma, the team has also spent their recent careers working primarily in English with Egypt Independent – as a result, only half of them can write in Arabic. Consequently, making the transition to a fully bilingual news site has required adapting and honing skills as well as taking on several new hires.

To help boost the Arabic content, the team has hired a translator as well as one full-time and one part-time Arabic editor. There is also a detailed strategy in place for the Arabic writers as well as for the marketing manager to better target an Arabic-speaking audience.

Spotlight on Mada Masr:

  • A digital English and Arabic language news site focused on politics, opinion and culture founded by former employees from the defunct Egypt Independent weekly paper.
  • Venturing into events and journalism training to leverage financial viability as it seeks to move on from being uniquely donor funded.
  • Predominately in English, the team is looking to expand its Arabic coverage to act as an agent for social change in Egypt.
  • Developed a strong brand and following in one year as monthly page views have reached 500,000 by the six-month mark.
  • Working with WAN-IFRA to secure financial viability after its first year of operation.


Revenue streams  

On 21 June 2014, Mada Masr celebrated one year of providing progressive, independent journalism with an outdoor evening   celebration. With an outpouring of support, more than 700 people purchased tickets. The evening also marked the start of Mada Masr‘s event platform, one of the many different revenue streams the publication is building up to stay afloat during difficult economic times.

“Having events is a real opportunity,” Rahmena says. “Yes, Egyptian politics is important to cover, but it’s important to not lose sight of culture because political change can come from so many forces. It’s not just about political critique and analysis.”

Given the marketing and financial success of the anniversary party, Mada Masr is organising a year-end event that will be styled after a tech bazaar.

Ensuring that these diverse projects are sustainable is especially crucial given Egypt’s small culture of investment and advertising monopolies that can sideline smaller companies like Mada Masr.

As Zaazaa explains, many of these side ventures are still in their nascence but they represent the overall determination and innovation of the team.

“We are always looking to develop things because we have a very diversified team from different backgrounds,” says Zaazaa. “The main idea is to try to capitalise on these talents as much as possible.”

In addition to hosting events, Mada Masr is also exploring content production for outside clients and companies, as well as university journalism training courses. So far, contracted editorial services consisting of writing, editing and video production services appear to have brought in the most revenue.

InMada Mix_sheriff addition to its normal content the company’s subscriber-based email newsletter called the ‘Morning Digest’, that gives a daily overview of what’ is covered in the Arabic press, has also brought in financial gains. It is now entering a second phase with additional content, layout redesign, and a reduced price to expand its customer base. The paper also has a weekly music roundup known as ‘Mada Mix’, which highlights local Egyptian artists and has helped give the company a unique editorial edge.

Looking to the future

When Egypt Independent by in large shuttered its doors, the team promised to be back. In just a couple of months, the Mada Masr site was up and running.

With more than two-dozen journalists abruptly laid off the group brought together their resources and passion to launch the new venture. A strong brand quickly followed suit and despite an uncertain financial future, the content – especially opinion, politics and culture – has been strong.

Rahmena says he is confident the team can get through a second year, but there will be hard decisions to make, from which language to focus on to developing an easier to manage website, and fashioning an organisational structure that further divides tasks and decision-making among all of the founding members.

Already, Zaazaa says the future is looking brighter with the external assistance they are receiving from WAN-IFRA.

“Sometimes the problem is just staring you in the face but you need someone to spell it out for you and I guess that is what has been happening,” Zaazaa says. “I’m actually very optimistic about the changes that have been happening recently.”

But while the economic prospects begin to line up with the editorial drive and creativity of the group, an external factor continues to loom over its existence. The environment for independent media in Egypt has become increasingly constricted.

Egypt’s non-governmental organisations are facing uncertainty after the government announced in July 2014 that they must officially register under a Mubarak-era law passed in 2002. Rights groups have since slammed the move, saying the government aims to create a civil society populated only by regime supporters. Independence would be entirely lost.

While so far directed at NGOs, concern has grown among rights groups and media workers that the regulation, dug up from over ten years ago, could witness a second wave in a new guise that targets independent media.

A young media company like Mada Masr could be prime bait in an increasingly suffocating environment. While there have been no threats of closure, Mada Masr has remained diligent in ensuring all regulations are met and financial papers and justifications are in order. For a group of content-savvy journalists imbued with the same furore that has brought on so much recent change in Egypt, the business of journalism has never proved more important to a lasting future.

Lindsey Parietti, co-founder and multimedia producer at Mada Masr produced this video celebrating the one year anniversary of Mada Masr.

-Alexandra Waldhorn

The WAN-IFRA Media Professionals Programme Middle East and North Africa (MPP MENA) equips media with strategies, skills and support networks to progress both editorially and commercially. The programme aims to contribute to the growth of strong independent media enterprises in the region.


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