Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eulogy for The Daily News Egypt

Today, the Daily News Egypt folded after seven years of publication. The paper had served as a local insert in the International Herald Tribune, and its editors and writers, several of whom have become friends, have done an superb job covering local politics, business, and culture on a tiny plank of a budget, which has fallen out from under them. It is clear that the end came due to financial machinations out of their control, and had nothing to do with quality. Tourism is down, so hotels stopped buying bulk subscriptions. When circulation dropped, advertising money dried up.

Although English-language newspapers in a country with few English speakers might seem like a minor market, they practice an outsized influence. They are read by foreign businessmen, diplomats, and other influential decision-makers who do not speak the native language. Subscriptions are held by a vast number of embassies and companies, and so the way DNE covers a story subtly influences the responses of those embassies and companies to the events themselves. “Very high political players around the world read us and read the English language press coming out of this country,” Chief Editor Rania Al Malky told me recently, “so on an important level we are influential.”

The Egyptian English-language papers also influence foreign coverage. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and countless other foreign papers publish little breaking news from countries like Egypt. With the exception of the revolution, these outlets wait a day or two and publish longer summary articles. Even if they do their own reporting, the way they tell these stories is influenced by how Egyptians, writing in English, have made sense of them.

And the influence goes deeper than the day to day cycle. DNE has been a testing ground for young journalists. Its writers and videographers have gone on to work for Al Jazeera, Reuters, CNN, and Bloomberg, using the skills they learned under Rania and the other editors as they have moved to bigger international audiences. 

The Daily News Egypt leaves only a single local daily English paper for hotels and embassies to buy, the state-owned Egyptian Gazette. It leaves the Egypt Independent, which might go to paper, but for now only publishs online. Paper is not quite dead yet, and diplomats looking for a break from sitting at a computer now will only have a state-owned newspaper to pick up and open over coffee.

Two of the editors, Amira Salah-Ahmed and Sarah El Sirgany have co-written a book about the revolution last year, which is out in Italian and Arabic, and will eventually come out in English. They have done a great deal in the ongoing work of defining, since the revolution, the sticky relationship between activism and journalism. “A paper like ours, we consider ourselves independent,” Amira told me, “but when your independence entails bringing out the truth, and the truth is very, very ugly, and it’s always against the current regime and the status quo, then you’re instantly opposition. So you’re always put in this position, unwillingly maybe, and sometimes unintentionally, of opposing the regime.”

In 2009, when Israel started bombing Gaza and the Mubarak regime (which could never fall!) would not let Gazans through the border, local activists rallied. A DNE reporter covered the protests and Rania found herself face to face with a security agent, asking for the reporter’s address. Rania refused to give it, but told the reporter to not go home that night. “The agent already knew her address,” Rania told me. “He knew everything about her. He just wanted to send the newspaper a message.”

Mubarak’s censors paid close attention to English-language media, thereby signaling their perception of its importance for world opinion. “Sometimes we would run stories on Mubarak that to me were not at all critical or subversive. They were just news stories about debates going on,” Rania says. “But we would get called in for them,” and this “only started happening in the year and a half or two years before the uprising, when the political street was becoming bolder.”

I was one of the countless young Americans who knocked on their door for an internship. They graciously gave me ideas and sent me to press conferences. Eventually, I moved on to write for the Culture section under Joe Fahim, whose encyclopedic knowledge of film, music, and literature (Egyptian, European, American, Pan-Arab) is truly unique, and whose opinions are bold and fearless. I still would stop in to see the staff occasionally, and every time I  imbibed lessons from their scholarly conversations about the news, which flowed easily through the day as they ordered food and ate at their desks, their eyes focused on the next day’s articles.

With the announcement of DNE’s end came the wave of Twitter praise. “DNE was all over the big Egypt stories years before the rush of post Jan25 media interest,” wrote Tom Gara of The National. “Hard to overstate its importance.”

Lina Attalah, who edits Egypt Independent: “I learned so much by being part of Daily News Egypt’s family.”

Andy Carvin, Twitter-guru and NPR strategist: “May a thousand journalism startups bloom from the ashes of Daily News Egypt.”

Abdel-Rahman Hussein, of The Guardian: “The staff way too good for the ownership, onto bigger and better things.”

Liam Stack, of The New York Times: “My 1st job in journalism. A great paper & crew whose hard work & insight will be missed.”

Amira, the Business Editor, who is also a poet, tweeted on Saturday: “And then the ground fell from beneath us…”

Moments later, she wrote: “A roar of applause, a standing ovation, flowers for everyone *bow*”