The woman putting all of Egypt on the map

01 Fatemah Case Study 1

Fatemah Farag, the founder and director of Welad Elbalad, during an editorial meeting.

When Welad Elbalad Media Services first launched in 2011 with a handful of hyper-local community news services across Egypt, its journalists grumbled about not being granted press cards because of restrictive laws dating back to the 1970s.

“I remember the journalists complaining that government officials would not answer their questions,” says Fatemah Farag, the founder and director of Welad Elbalad. “We couldn’t get them press cards so I told them you will create your presence in the community and then they will answer you, not because you have a press card but because you are influential.”

Farag, an ambitious, dynamic media professional with 20 years’ experience in journalism, couldn’t be sure of that happening. The idea of local journalists covering a specific city, town or region was an infrequent find in Egypt’s media scene. Prior to Welad Elbelad, Egypt’s Cairo-centred mainstream publications had only a fleeting presence outside of the capital, dipping in and out for stories like the Port Said stadium massacre, clashes in Aswan in Upper Egypt, or for worker strikes in Mahalla.

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Welad Elbalad informs and engages readers with infographics and text that breaks down complex issues (courtesy of Welad Elbalad media kit).

After the 25 January 2011 uprising, there was an upsurge in community media initiatives spanning all media that sought to break the decades-long grip of Cairo-centric news. However, no other venture has proven as diverse, innovative and comprehensive as Farag’s vision.Farag wanted to break this tradition and empower local communities by giving them a voice on issues important to them.

Two years on, she says the 120 journalists working for the ten Welad Elbalad hyper-local newspapers across the country wield significant local influence and can easily call up officials –even without a press card.Welad Elbalad first launched with four different print titles. In two years, they have quickly flourished to include 10 titles across the country, from the country’s second largest city Alexandria, located on the Mediterranean Sea, to Deshna in Upper Egypt

By summer 2014, the overall total circulation reached 900,000 and boasts an estimated annual readership of 3,250,000. Farag says that the papers could see an expanded market share by 300 per cent over the next five years in part because there is so much space for growth in these long-underserved parts of Egypt.

But the company’s success can be gauged beyond the numbers. Concrete policy actions and government responsiveness has shown how influential hyper-local news can be.

In the aftermath of the 30 June 2013 Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, the local government in Beni Suef neglected debris for months that caused major traffic problems in the Nile River city. It was only removed after the company’s El Sawayfa paper lodged a sustained campaign.

In another example, a May 2014 edition of the paper El Fayoumia, which services the Middle Egypt city of Fayoum, published a one-page report on government negligence in draining waste water in several villages. The story led to a government visit and assurance that the problem would be fixed.

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The image of the article and explanation of how local news spurs local impact (courtesy of Welad Elbalad media kit).

Beyond print

While print remains at the heart of Welad Elbalad, the company is expanding onto multiple platforms, including mobile, online and video. Multimedia and data journalism have also given stories a fresh edge and clarity.

Whether it be presenting information from large troves of government data, a guide on how to make sense of new constitutional amendments, or understanding a soon-to-be implemented minimum wage law, colorful graphs and infographics have helped readers understand complex policy issues of the day.

Online, Welad Elbalad readers can find its content on the Egyptian web portal Masrawy. Up-to-the-minute news covering 20 governorates across the country is posted, amplifying the local content in the print versions to a national, regional and even international level. Still in the beginning stages, the company has seen an over 170 per cent weekly audience growth rate from online news.

New platforms have also meant new skills and revenue streams. In late 2013, Welad Elbalad officially partnered with YouTube and set up individual channels for each newsroom as well as one master channel that pulls the best content from all of the local streams. The journalists also receive frequent training on how to use a camera, conduct video interviews and upload their materials.

“We really build people’s skills up from scratch,” says Farag about the intense training staff have gone through. “People had never held cameras before and are now setting up their own YouTube channels.”

Mobile has also emerged as a central service of Welad Elbalad. Currently, the company runs a localised SMS service as well as a national news alert service.

As the company emerges as a leader in new media and a first in hyper-local printed weeklies, Farag has also established a strong training programme beyond her newsrooms. Last year alone, Welad Elbalad trained over 800 student journalists across the country. Building on its success, the company has recently opened a permanent training centre working with regional universities on a revenue share basis.

International expertise gives local edge

As Welad Elbalad increasingly becomes a multi-faceted media company spanning print, video, SMS and online, Farag says she has had to develop her business skills to keep up with its fast growth. This is where WAN-IFRA’s Media Development Programme (MPP) has particularly helped her hone her financial management skills to sustain rapid expansion.

“I’ve been a journalist all my life and I think like one to a great extent,” Farag said in 2012 when she had just finished the first year of the MPP programme. “Making that mind shift that now you’re also a business person and you need to think in different terms is something that I didn’t really understand on a day-to-day basis.”

During her first year in MPP, Farag sharpened her business plan and learned from leading experts on how to broaden readership and increase market shares. Today, now in her second cycle of MPP, she is getting one-on-one expertise from media trainer Ali Rahnema who is the Vice President of Digital Media at Canada’s Toronto Star.

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170 staff, including 120 journalists are employed by Welad Elbalad (infographic courtesy of Welad Elbalad).

Being part of MPP has also enabled Farag to step back from the constant shifting and volatile post-2011 revolution climate – the daily grind, as she puts it – and really think about what her company’s position is within a larger, international context.

The one-on-one meetings with trainers, dozens of new peers working in media around the world, and a series of international conferences she’s attended through MPP have all been a vital source of inspiration for her.

“It was the brainchild of sitting with people who are leaders in the business,” Farag says as she describes all of the different products and services she is developing, from hyper-local websites, the YouTube partnership to SMS news alerts. “There is no other example in the region. The access to people has really opened up how to think like this.”

MPP has also given her ideas on how to maximise productivity, such as centrally producing national news in Cairo so the hyper-local news site can focus on what they do best: zooming in on their audiences and acting as a sole avenue for accountability and an exchange of information between government and citizens.

“The events and training [from MPP] have influenced much of how Welad Elbalad has grown in the past two years – we now have an eye to what is happening within the business internationally and can extrapolate from that what is relevant to our own growth and relevance,” Farag says.

Independence on all fronts

Under Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, there was a narrow margin for press freedom. On paper, Egypt’s media were partially free, but red tape and regulations made launching an independent newspaper virtually impossible.

01 Fatemah Case Study 2

Fatemah Farag pictured during an editorial meeting.

Farag says there had been no independent press for decades. Community news was also stunted and hadn’t been allowed to grow into a viable news source. Where it did exist, in small quantities, it was often co-opted by local governments and used as a mouthpiece or platform to push forward candidates during election season.

Welad Elbalad is breaking the mould and becoming a first on many fronts in the Egyptian media scene – from running local independent newsrooms and publishing local weekly papers across the country to pairing up with mainstream media to amplify its content and starting an SMS mobile service.

However, the MPP programme has taught Farag that independence is multi-faceted and doesn’t only refer to overcoming the influence of politics or power in one’s editorial or business strategy.

Ali Rahnema, who is helping guide her through the creation of a strong business plan, says Farag really understands how to use help from donors to ensure that she achieves full commercial independence down the line.

Like many other publications in Egypt, all of Waled Elbalad’s weekly papers are printed at the printing facilities of government-owned newspaper Al-Ahram. As one of the biggest printing houses in the Middle East, Farag is developing print expertise that she hopes to channel into her own printing facility.

Rahnema, who is guiding her through this project, adds that there is a prime opportunity here to contract printing out to other publications and companies as a way to expand revenue and cancel out the costs of printing the ten Waled Elbalad weeklies.

“Her ambition is to start big. It’s a brand new business and they are kind of hitting on all fronts, which is great, but is also has potential danger in terms of where do you really focus your energy,” Rahnema says. “I think she is really taking that to heart to solve the printing problem first.”

Through the MPP programme, Rahnema is helping Farag on every step of the way – from the conception of a business plan to putting her in touch with people who have experience in importing printing presses from abroad.

Spotlight on Waled Elbalad

  • An Egyptian hyper-local news service that is making firsts across the country: independent, community media company spanning multiple platforms and serving a market need.
  • Combined circulation exceeds 16,000 weekly and a staff of 120 journalists in 10 newsrooms countrywide.
  • Alternative revenue models are being explored including printing and distribution services, university journalism trainings and
  • online partnerships including YouTube.
  •  The company is a journalism project at heart but is harnessing onto the power of strong business skills for a viable future.
    A fledgling presence across Egypt where news has often not reached before and is making a name in communities often bereft of coverage.

Learning through hard times

The 2011 uprising initially engendered new hope for a free press. Independent media companies began to emerge and there was renewed vitality. However, over the past few years, journalism for many in Egypt has become more treacherous.

When Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed control of the state-owned media. The overall media climate became fiercely polarised between the Islamists and its secularist opposition. Now, under the new military-backed government, censorship has reached new heights and repressive measures against journalists remain in tact, and deployed ruthlessly.

In this context, Farag has been persistently reminded of the dangerous climate her journalists often work in. She refers back to June 2013 when massive protests broke out against Morsi’s rule in Cairo as well as in other parts of the country.

“There was a lot of violence on the ground and the journalists were caught in the middle of it from all sides,” says Farag. “Especially when working on the local and hyper local level people were to a great extent a part of the story and in such a volatile situation this makes for a very difficult working context.”

More than 20 million people poured onto the streets demanding for his ouster until the Egyptian armed forces announced the end of Morsi’s rule on the night of 3 July.

“Two of our offices were shot at directly. We had to take signs down. One journalist was kidnapped and electrocuted for several hours. One had petrol poured on him and they wanted to light him up. Not to mention being assaulted just for holding a camera,” she says.

There was no textbook example of how journalists   should cover the protests and the tumultuous period that followed. But despite the difficulties of covering clashes right in their backyard, Farag says she was stunned to see not one deadline missed and such dedication to covering the story – especially as it was one that hit so close to home for so many on her staff.

At one point Farag called the chief editor in the city of Beni Suef, only to hear gunshots ringing around her.

“Where are you?” Farag said she asked her o

ver the phone. “She responded on the roof and I said get off. But she said that the Internet connection was really bad inside. We came out on the other side of that, so what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

-Alexandra Waldhorn

The WAN-IFRA Media Professionals Programme (MPP) provides media professionals with personalised, high-impact leadership development opportunities, supported by local and regional experts. It equips them with sustainable strategies, skills and support networks to advance their careers and contribute to the growth of strong local media enterprises. In Egypt, MPP is currently helping two innovative, independent news outlets cement their position in an ever-changing media landscape.


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