Newsletter No 5 03 November 2005
 
Financial Management:
Gaining Independence in Algeria

El Watan is one of Algeria’s most trusted and popular newspapers. Despite continued pressure and interference from the government, the paper has managed to gain editorial and financial independence. Three major business decisions have been crucial in that battle.

In 1990, a group of twenty journalists left the government-owned El Moujahid newspaper to launch their own paper. “When we launched
El Watan, Algeria had recently introduced a new constitution which aimed to liberalize the political scene and allow media pluralism. So we decided to embark on what we called an intellectual adventure,” says Omar Belhouchet, publisher of El Watan. However, one year later, the victory of the Islamic Front of Salvation in the first round of the 1991 legislative elections and the following coup d’état by the army changed everything. “The country was thrown into a spiral of violence. The authorities fought the independent press in order to prevent them from speaking about what was happening in the country. At the same time Islamists were killing both civilians and soldiers. They killed a lot of journalists.”

El Watan managed to survive the conflict that lasted throughout the 1990s and is today one of the largest and most influential newspapers in Algeria, with a current circulation of 130,000 copies. According to Belhouchet, a key factor for this has been to follow the philosophy: “a good editorial product must be backed by a strong business.”

Nevertheless,
El Watan continues to face interference from the authorities, which use different methods to control and punish media they consider too critical. To insulate itself from government pressure and in order improve the paper’s quality, El Watan acquired its own printing press in 2002, together with the leading Arabic-speaking daily El Khabar. “We bought a German KBA printing press. When the press arrived in Algeria it was stuck in the harbor for four months, due to a governmental importation ban. However, thanks to the pressure by the World Association of Newspapers and other international organizations we finally managed to get it out of customs,” says Belhouchet.

The new printing press had a great impact on
El Watan’s quality and circulation. “The government printing press produces newspapers of very low technical quality. The new press has revolutionized newspapers printing in Algeria, for instance through the introduction of color. It has also allowed us to introduce a better layout that fits European standards, which the readers appreciate. Furthermore, it has allowed for us to introduce new technical standards, which have helped us grow in terms of circulation.”

In addition to its own printing press, El Watan has its own advertising agency, established in 1995. In Algeria, the government decides through a special agency (Agence Nationale d’Edition et de Publicité), which independent newspapers can benefit from the ads of state-owned companies. Obviously this extends the government’s control of the largest source of potential income for Algerian newspapers.

El Watan’s advertising agency proved to be another major step towards financial independence. “Our advertising agency is not linked to any state agency and all of our advertisers are private companies. As more money is circulating in Algeria, the number of private advertisers is increasing. Among the biggest advertisers are mobile telephone companies, car brands such as Renault, Peugeot and Toyota, and computer companies. Another big source of advertising revenue comes from classified ads. They have has become very popular because of the reach of El Watan. Today, the advertisements represent fifty percent of our revenue,” says Belhouchet.

Another fundamental factor for gaining economic independence was the setting up of a distribution network, once again in partnership with the El Khabar newspaper. However, creating the network was a big challenge. “We were journalists. We did not have the knowledge required to carry out such a project when we started it in the early nineties. We did not have any experience in the field. For instance, we had to carry out reader surveys as well as a market research. We also had to invest in transportation and staff. The distribution network required a lot of work and energy. It also cost us a lot of money,” says Belhouchet.

Bu the effort was worth it. “The network works really well. It has allowed us to improve the quality of our distribution. But above all, it has allowed us to make money. Before, we used the government’s distribution network, which dates from the sixties, and whose agents never paid us for the newspapers sold. Now, we have escaped from that pressure.”

From an editorial point of view, El Watan has always been very attentive to the demands of its readers. During the years of civil war, the newspaper focused on covering the ongoing events in the country. “In 1998, when security conditions gradually started to improve in Algeria, the demands of the readers begun to change, which led us to modify the whole editorial structure. We moved from a highly political content to a more diverse one. We opened the paper to other topics such as health, economy, motoring, leisure and IT.”

Originally, the typical reader of El Watan would come from the intellectual and liberal middle classes. Lately, however, the paper has sought to expand its readership among women and young people. “Young people are less and less interested in newspapers. They prefer Internet or TV as sources of information. Nevertheless, we try to attract them. We do it by dealing with issues of their concern, like unemployment or education, one of the major problems in the Algerian society of today,” says Belhouchet.

When asked about what makes his newspaper different from the others, Belhouchet replies: “We are very demanding when it comes to the journalistic work we carry out. We are concerned about our credibility, which is something you can only acquire through a daily work. We try to verify every source and all data before publication. Respecting the reader is a must.”

Facts about the newspaper
El Watan is owned by the twenty journalists who founded the newspaper in 1990. It employs 230 people, of which one hundred work in the editorial department. It publishes local editions in Oran (West Algeria) and Constantine (East Algeria). These are printed at printing presses owned by the government, however, El Watan is planning to buy new presses soon.

Algeria has a large number of dailies in both Arabic and French. Besides El Watan, other major newspapers are El Khabar (Arabic), Le Quotidien d’Oran (French and Arabic), Liberté (French) and l’Expression (French). The state owns four newspapers, the French-language El Moujahid and La Nouvelle Republique and the Arabic language El Chaab and El Massa.