In an effort to offer an alternative voice to the Egyptian newspaper readers, the independent weekly Al Dustur got a daily sister newspaper with the same name at the end of March 2007. APN interviewed Ehab Elzelaky,
the newspaper's editor, about the challenges and opportunities of
producing a daily newspaper, in a politically challenging
context, where diverging voices are not welcome.
APN: How was the idea to start publishing a daily paper born? EE: The weekly Al Dustur was launched in 1995, but it was banned in 1998 by the authorities, which claimed that it was a foreign newspaper unauthorised for publication in Egypt. The main reason for this ban was the paper's fierce criticism of the government. At the same time it was Egypt's number one publication in terms of sales. Following several years of drawn-out legal procedures, and after Al Dustur had become an Egyptian media enterprise conforming to regulations, as well as following a series of rulings in favour of resuming publication, the weekly finally returned to the newsstands in 2005. Two years later, Al Dustur had become the non-government weekly with the biggest circulation in Egypt (120,000 copies). In view of this huge success, we began to dream of turning it into a daily, given the urgent need for the Egyptian people to have access to an independent daily dealing with topics ignored by other publications; and especially since the number of national dailies is very low. After having received the necessary authorisations, we went ahead with the launch.
APN: When was the first issue of the daily published? Do you believe that the political-economic climate favours this kind of decision? EE: The first issue was published on 31 March 2007. The political-economic climate in Egypt favours such a decision, as readers are hungry for news and topics that differ from those covered by the other dailies available on the market. Moreover, Al Dustur is sold at the going market price of 1 Egyptian pound (0.12 Euros), which is not too expensive for readers who may, in time, stop reading a paper that does not cater for their needs. Egypt's current political environment and the growing protests it is causing was a signal to us that the market needed an alternative voice like Al Dustur, a signal we already received after the highly successful re-launch of the weekly in 2005. Despite the authorities' exasperation at our editorial line, it nevertheless remains difficult for them to take coercive measures against our paper, such as closing it down, given criticism from all sides of the muzzling of freedom of opinion and speech in Egypt.
APN: What has the switch to a daily publication meant in terms of human and financial resources? EE: Our human and financial resources are very limited. When we took the decision to switch from a weekly to a daily publication, we were aware of the problems that such a move would entail. Of course, the number of journalists on our team and our budget has almost doubled. Moreover, all of our employees agreed to make several sacrifices in terms of their working hours and salaries to be part of this adventure and enable it to continue.
APN: What is the circulation, price and pagination of the weekly and the daily respectively? EE: The circulation of the weekly, which still appears under the same title every Wednesday, is 130,000 copies. It has 28 pages and retails at 2 Egyptian pounds (0.25 Euros). The daily is 16 pages, has a circulation of 70,000 copies and is sold for 1 Egyptian pound (0.13 Euros).
APN: What about content? Have you removed or created any new sections? EE: The daily differs from the weekly in terms of both form and content. The latter contains more analysis, as well as a few pages of light reading that include the "youth" sections and cover topics like video games and supernatural phenomena. The daily, on the other hand, focuses on hard news. Several prominent writers, such as the author Fahmi Houwaydi and the thinker Jalal Amine, contribute with articles every day. We also focus on subjects such as sport, which fills two pages every day. One page is devoted to international events, another to crime and a further two pages to various subjects like the weather, the stock market, etc. All of these themes are new and did not exist in the weekly. That said, we continue to provide news and investigative reports handled in the style that has distinguished Al Dustur since its very first issue. We have also maintained the same editorial line, which is opposed to the policies currently pursued by the government.
APN: How has the daily been received by the readers? EE: To date the signs have been positive when you consider sales figures and the interest shown by the readers. Moreover, the first few days of the daily, which in Egypt would normally be characterised by bustle and instability, were peaceful. APN: Did you invest in an advertising campaign ahead of launching the daily? EE: Yes, we ran a small-scale advertising campaign prior to the launch. It began with ads in the weekly for approximately two months. There were also ads in the Sawt Al Oma magazine, which belongs to the same owner as Al Dustur, and is one of the highest selling weeklies in Egypt. A few days before the newspaper's first issue, we boosted the advertising campaign with slots on independent radio and television channels. We also ran ads in other independent and opposition dailies. The most astonishing aspect of the campaign was that an independent and fairly liberal weekly refused to publish our ads without giving any convincing reasons for their decision.
APN: How have advertisers reacted? EE: We find ourselves in a rather paradoxical situation, for although Al Dustur has always been one of the highest selling weeklies, the number of ads has always been very small. The reason for this is simple: the majority of ads come from public or private companies whose owners form an integral part of the ruling class in Egypt. Many of them consequently refuse to run advertisements in Al Dustur due to our critical editorial line and out of fear of facing pressure from the authorities. As far as public companies are concerned, they receive instructions not to run ads in Al Dustur. This is a form of financial pressure on Al Dustur. In spite of all this, our revenues generated by sales alone are among the highest in Egypt. We believe that this situation will continue as long as none of these players change their way of thinking and try to profit from the popularity of our publications to publicise their products.
APN: What are the challenges of managing a daily versus a weekly? EE: When we only produced the weekly, we were working between 4 and 5 days a week and spent a lot of time thinking, planning and publishing each issue, which sometimes involved changing several parts before sending it off to the printers. With the daily, on the other hand, given the general lack of information sources in Egypt - and especially for journalists from Al Dustur - as well as our small budget and limited human resources, our editorial team is forced to work non-stop 7 days a week for around 12 hours a day. This is in order to collect original content and present new information to readers, while putting the newspaper to bed before the competition since it has to go to press very early (we do not have our own printing press and are therefore obliged to go to press at least two hours before our competitors). Furthermore, most of our journalists are young and need to be supervised and given advice in the course of their work. All of these factors place an additional burden on the editorial team. That said, we are all delighted with our lot and know that we are doing far more than just earning a living.