Written By Amira Fekri
CAIRO - The Egyptian National Press Authority said it was finalising the digitisation of some national press institutions in a project implemented with the participation of the Ministry of Communications and information technology companies. Officials said they hope the plan will help printed media reduce financial losses.
The move is part of a new press and media law, which gives the government the right to oversee and manage work at press institutions, merge or end some press and publishing institutions or publications that the state deems no longer profitable, while retaining print editions of main publications.
A number of editors-in-chief of print newspapers and publications, including Al-Ahram, Al Akhbar, Al-Jumhuriyah, Rose al-Yusuf and Dar Al-Maaref, were informed production of print copies of their publications would stop but the publications would continue in an electronic form.
They were told the decision was final and not open for discussion, which led journalists and staff members at the publications to complain.
The move will lead to high rates of disguised unemployment in the editing, printing, layout, circulation, subscription and advertising departments of those papers, and that situation will represent an additional burden on the budget of each institution because it will be compelled to employ people whose jobs have been suppressed.
Newspaper employees said they fear digitisation of the publications could lead to layoffs under the guise of early retirement. Officials in charge of restructuring national institutions admitted the changes would reduce the number of employees to ease financial losses.
A media source said the plan would be applied first to weekly publications that have reported heavy financial losses and cannot cover operating expenses.
The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said the decision would not apply to weekly publications that make reasonable gains, even if they have limited distribution, mainly through yearly advertisement contracts. “Each journalistic institution is going to have one portal that will give access to all of its publications that had been transformed from paper-based ones to digital ones,” said the source.
“The new project is like an integrated system to strengthen the printed press and expand its reach and not to eliminate it,” National Press Authority President Karam Gabr said on national television. “It is going to include a new system of digital advertising and it will maximise the relative value of each press institution by offering to the general public at home and abroad a distinctive style.”
An industry observer said newspaper managers in Egypt “don’t realise the danger of persisting in having them (the papers) speak only on behalf of the government, regardless of changing their publication policies or forms, from print to electronic versions.
“These papers will not improve their condition or end their crises unless they switch from being the voice of the government to being the voice of the street or at least strike a balance between the two.”
Another problem is a lack of qualified workers to run a digital newspaper. Many journalists are accustomed to working in the traditional style of journalism and it will be a challenge to change culture and habits to convince them that what was being published in the print version may not attract e-readers.
The National Press Authority said the major problem is not in converting publications from print to electronic versions but in the human element. The authority has established training programmes and workshops for journalists in the affected publications.
Observers said the government’s move to indirectly end the national newspapers is a tacit admission of its inability to effectively manage the publications. The decision reflects a regression in the government’s view of the national press as the media platform to convey the government’s messages.
Magdi Badr, professor of journalism and television at the Higher Institute of Information in Cairo, said the developments are a message that the government considered the national press a heavy burden.
He said the decision to exclude some national press was linked to the increased loyalty of the private media to the government and that the government would not have moved in this direction had it not found alternative platforms playing the same role as the official press.
The next step in the plan of converting official print media to electronic versions would include changes in the boards of directors and editors of the papers. Managers with business administration backgrounds would be appointed for each publication but are not expected to interfere with the publication’s editorial line and content.
This means government policy in dealing with national newspapers will be essentially business-focused in terms of asset management, maximising resources and introducing business projects while editorial content was said to not matter much to the government.