Final Issue: How poor management destroyed a leading voice

This piece was written for Egypt Independent's final weekly print edition, which was banned from going to press. We offer you our 50th and final edition here.

There was once a vision for Al-Masry Al-Youm. Publisher Hisham Kassem fought for this vision, prying it from the hands of the paper’s business-minded proprietors.

Al-Masry Al-Youm, initially celebrated as Egypt’s first independent newspaper, is now struggling with accusations of editorial bias and a deep financial crisis.
Kassem eventually abandoned this project, blaming poor management and an intransigent resistance to the original editorial proposition. These pitfalls are what have landed the paper in its current crises, he argues.
A collapsed editorial proposition
When a group of heavyweights decided they wanted to invest in a newspaper, Kassem saw it as “the opportunity of a generation.” Here was a chance to fill the gap in Egypt’s newspaper market.
“At the time, journalism in Egypt was polarized between the binary of Al-Ahram and Al-Wafd, either with or against the government. There was a gap, a vacant space for news,” says Kassem.
He reiterates the vision he proposed to investors when they approached him in 2003 about starting a newspaper. “My vision was that we get in and do news — be a paper of record,” he recalls.
Kassem initially refused the task. He foresaw the inevitable failure due to an ambiguous editorial line and the adoption of the same tabloid approach prevalent at the time.
After the pilot issue was labeled “a moral and financial catastrophe,” Kassem says founder Salah Diab approached him again, giving him free rein to adopt his “weird ideas.”
All Kassem wanted was a paper that did not mix news with opinions, focused on accuracy, and was supportive of human and civil rights and freedoms, he says. He calls this quest “an uphill battle.”
The owners consistently challenged Kassem’s stringent policy against their intervention in the paper’s content.
Kassem recalls once rejecting a request by investor Naguib Sawiris to publish a piece insulting Mostafa Bakry, who had insulted Sawiris in his paper Al-Osbou.
He also recalls refusing a request by Diab to run an article praising a friend’s electoral campaign.
The owners also attempted to force their own poorly studied propositions on the paper, insisting their business expertise could generate valuable ideas, he says.
A power struggle began to unfold from day one between Kassem and the paper’s editor-in-chief at the time, Anwar al-Hawary, who attempted to interfere in advertisements and failed at times to implement Kassem’s vision for the paper.
“[Hawary] started going straight to Salah [Diab], and Salah, realizing that I wasn’t responding to his editorial requests, welcomed this open line of communication with the editor-in-chief,” Kassem says.
Kassem often found the board discussing business-related aspects with the editorial team. He rejected this, arguing they had overstepped their jurisdiction.
After one fallout six months into the start of publishing, Kassem dismissed Hawary from his position and replaced him with Magdy al-Gallad.
Eventually, Kassem decided to leave the paper in 2006, aware that it was contributing to a dangerous trend in Egypt — an oligarchy of businessmen had seized control of the media and public opinion.
“I thought, I took the paper to a point where it was a success story, but how long was I going to be able to sustain its editorial independence for? I doubted it,” he says.
Kassem says the paper now owes its survival to the lack of a better alternative, rather than its own quality content. Still, “if the business side isn’t fixed, the paper will be a continuous hemorrhage for the owners,” he says.
A business failure
Even though the paper broke even in an impressive 20 months, Kassem says a series of poor decisions failed to capitalize on this success and dragged it into a financial crisis.
The investors approached the paper mainly as a prestige project, aiming only to have it finance itself and not to turn into a profitable investment.
“I don’t believe in this view: that in order to produce a good paper, it has to be bankrupt. No, I believe in the saying that there is no press freedom without a business plan.”
Subsequently, he says, the investors adopted a policy in which a steady stream of revenue was prioritized over the continued growth of the paper.
Since its inception in 2004, the revenues of the paper increased steadily until investors in 2007 decided to contract an advertising company in the hope of guaranteeing regular returns. This, Kassem argues, put a ceiling on the paper’s growth.
Kassem also says the distribution and printing arrangements were costly and not well thought through.
“A lot of mistakes were made, expenses rose without justification, decisions weren’t made rationally,” Kassem says.
When the circulation of the paper exceeded that of state-owned Al-Ahram in 2011, Kassem says the paper failed to capitalize on this success.
Crisis hits
Following institutional losses in 2012, Al-Masry Al-Youm decided this year to shut down its recently established weekly magazine, Al-Siyassy, and the English-language Egypt Independent news website and weekly paper.
Sherif Wadood, former CEO of Al-Masry Al-Youm and current board member, says that in 2006, owners believed an English translation portal would be a cost-effective way to maximize on the existing news production and benefit from the perks that an English edition brings.
“Our motive was to increase our reach and our brand value, which is the most valuable asset for Al-Masry Al-Youm,” he says.
When the English edition’s first editor-in-chief, Fatemah Farag, was hired, she immediately understood that a mere translation site was too limited and could not offer a high-quality English-language service.
Wadood says, “The translated content was not addressing the needs of the English reader, who required more background and analysis.”
This is when the newspaper decided to invest in original English content and in-house translation. “It was the normal development of the project,” he says.
Wadood says the English edition was first conceived as a profitable endeavor. With no high-quality daily English-language newspapers in Egypt, he says, the market was wide open.
But a combination of poor management and circumstances kept the paper from reaching its fiscal potential. The first glitch happened, Wadood says, when it became clear that the bulk of the advertising share would always be allocated to the Arabic edition of the paper, to the detriment of Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, which later became Egypt Independent.
The year 2011 witnessed a defining schism between the two editorial teams. Following an editorial fallout between the English edition and its Arabic stepsister, Egypt Independent acquired a separate printing license and chose its new name.
Even though Wadood says the owners admired the English edition for its quality, it was eventually sacrificed when the financial crisis hit.
“On countless occasions, Salah Diab admitted that the content of Egypt Independent was superior to the Arabic paper,” Wadood says. “He would bring the English weekly paper to meetings and was very proud of it.”
Wadood blames the decision on economic struggles.
“Although genuine praise came from everyone, the gloomy economic situation the Arabic paper was in caused them to worry about the financial well-being of the original publication,” he says.
In spite of this, Wadood is adamant that one more closure will by no means solve Al-Masry Al-Youm’s current crisis.
This article has been changed to reflect Al-Masry Al-Youm board member Sherif Wadood's correct quote regarding founder Salah Diab.

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