Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview, Salah Diab, the founder of Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, highlights the importance of newspapers taking advantage of digital media to boost circulation and profit.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from his office in the upper-scale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, Diab said that he intends to eventually place Al-Masry Al-Youm behind a paywall, once it has secured a prominent place in the media and paid off all its debts. Diab also spoke about the media restrictions that the newspaper faced during the previous Mubarak and Mursi eras, as well as the recent controversy surrounding leaked audio recordings of an interview conducted by the paper with Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Al-Masry Al-Youm was founded in 2002 by Salah Diab and has grown to become one of Egypt’s leading newspapers. Its English-language sister publication, Egypt Independent, was founded in 2009 as a news website.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Nine years after establishing Al-Masry Al-Youm, are you concerned by the threat of digital press?
Salah Diab: If print media has declined due to digital media, then that is something we must take into account. This is a field in which we work well, where we gain on one side, while we lose on the other. But what is certain is that people will continue to read newspapers, whether in paper or digital form, and that is why progress is a must. Al-Masry Al-Youm must also develop into an integrated media platform offering an online TV and multimedia portal. We are currently giving the portal system the most attention and are closely monitoring its impact. We look to Asharq Al-Awsat as a model because of its presence in London and its links to Western publications, whether American or British, something which gives it a sort of distinction. This kind of vision is cross-border and helps the industry to progress in general terms. We also look to Asharq Al-Awsat as a developer of Arab journalism as a whole, but at the same time we do not ignore Egyptian tastes, or Saudi or Moroccan tastes. We are trying to produce an advanced media product, but with an Egyptian touch which suits the local reader. What we are trying to do is produce a modern media outlet which is suited to Egyptian tastes.
Q: It is a fact of life in the media business that any institution that does not make a profit goes to the wall. Does Al-Masry Al-Youm make a profit?
The Al-Masry Al-Youm portal [the multimedia portal] makes a profit.
Q: From advertising, not subscriptions, correct?
We make a profit from advertising, after that we should—once the portal takes its place among the top five or ten internet sites in Egypt or the world—be able to ask for subscriptions in order for readers to receive the service. I do not personally look to Al-Masry Al-Youm for a profit; I want it to make a profit to develop itself, its tools and its staff. This is my wish, but I cannot make this happen until Al-Masry Al-Youm pays off all its debts.
Q: A number of independent newspapers were launched in Egypt after Al-Masry Al-Youm. Have they given you cause for concern? Have they forced you to reorganize in the face of new competition?
We do have competition, but no newspaper can be first, second, third and fourth all at once. We now hold the outright first position in print publications in Egypt. However, this does not mean that we take it easy. The day we become complacent is the day we start to decline. No successful business can sustain success without also constantly maintaining a sense of fear.
Q: Are there any specific projects you will be launching soon to develop Al-Masry Al-Youm in order to maintain the current readership or increase it, especially as the newspaper is now available on the internet and can be read on tablet devices and mobile phones?
Our main concern is development. There are readers who still prefer to buy the print copy because of its specific style, not to mention that reading the newspaper is a habit, and not just an issue of reading the news.
Q: Are you satisfied with the media content provided by the conventional and online newspapers in Egypt these days?
If I said I was satisfied, there would be no development. I, of course, keep my eye on the International New York Times and I like its content and the size of its adverts, as well as its style and the way it is produced. We therefore have a lot of room for development.
Q: When you look at Egyptian newspapers as a reader, are you satisfied with their professional standards?
Of course, there is progress in all newspapers, whether private or state controlled.
Q: I want your opinion on news content in Egypt. Were there more professional editors in the past than there are now?
This field is known for its ups and downs, as in everything else. Any company making a product, whether in the media or in commerce—in food and drink, even—should be open to continual development in all its forms.
Q: Are you thinking of turning Al-Masry Al-Youm into an international institution by opening bureaus in different world capitals?
We are currently trying to cover the issues that concern the 90 million people in Egypt. After that we will start thinking about the international side of things, which is not among our priorities at the moment. I also think Asharq Al-Awsat is taking care of this side, via its coverage and presence in many capitals around the world—and we do not want to enter into competition with Asharq Al-Awsat.
Q: Did you receive any calls from the regime of the former president Hosni Mubarak when you launched Al-Masry Al-Youm? Did they try to test you at the time, or to advise you on issues related to publishing about the presidency, the army or the judiciary?
This never happened. Though, of course, some of our investors were harassed. They were subjected to indirect harassment despite the fact that we launched the newspaper as an independent newspaper, not as an opposition one. An independent newspaper is not a concept that is understood in the Arab world. The situation at the time was ‘you’re either with us or against us,’ which is not right. We did have some leanings that were towards public interest, and we may agree with some people for some of the time, but we cannot agree with all people, all of the time.
Q: When you met with some of the leaders of the former regime, did they speak to you about what was published in the paper, or make any critical comments?
Of course they made critical comments and they continue to do so. If you create a free press you must realize that there is a price to pay, which may be very high. There was a price during Mubarak’s rule and during Mursi’s, and I can tell you that there will be a price to pay in the next era too, whoever comes in. If you want to be independent and say “this is right and this is wrong,” there will be a price to pay.
Q: Do you ever regret entering the world of journalism?
I have had that feeling many times. Every time there has been a problem or a feeling of embarrassment with a certain person, and every time I hear some reproach over the phone—despite the fact that I do not interfere in editorial issues—I have felt regret. However, this is an issue of public interest, so we must bear the consequences of our good intentions.
Q: Al-Masry Al-Youm has published an exclusive interview with the commander of the armed forces Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and some parts of the conversation that were not published were leaked, causing embarrassment to both sides. What really happened?
Of course, the interview was outstanding. But the he leaks did not depart from the context of the dialogue and included no surprises, and all of it was published. There is no doubt that the dialogue raises the professional instincts of some people. Some wanted to exaggerate the issue. [The editor-in-chief] Yasser Rizq enjoyed a lot of respect from the board of Al-Masry Al-Youm and was respected and valued by Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. He is also trusted by readers. I think the issue of what was called leaks did not come up with anything new, and did not reveal any secret that was not in the original interview that was published by the newspaper.
Q: There has been speculation in the media that you will dismiss Yasser Rizq from his post as editor-in-chief because of these leaks. What do you say to that?
Not at all. I do not interfere with that at all and it is not up to me. The decision to appoint or dismiss the editor-in-chief is the responsibility of the board of trustees of Al-Masry Al-Youm. This board of trustees is the norm among all international newspapers. When Asharq Al-Awsat took up the tradition, we also followed it at Al-Masry Al-Youm. We do not punish an unintentional mistake and I am not a penal authority to dismiss or appoint people.
Q: What do you do when you find one of your family members reading a newspaper other than Al-Masry Al-Youm? Do you get angry?
Not at all. My wife reads other newspapers every day. One of her hobbies is reading the Al-Ahram newspaper. So why should I get angry? Quite the opposite, I borrow her copy of Al-Ahram and I find things that I like in it. It does not stop her reading Al-Masry Al-Youm too. Most people do not get enough from one newspaper.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.