Solving the funding crisis?

Samir Sobhi
Thursday 15 Mar 2018

How can newspapers today solve their chronic funding problems

Today, newspaper journalism faces many challenges in terms of financing, which in turn has caused fewer newspapers to be published.

One factor contributing to the rising costs of publication is the rising cost of paper, which has been increasing annually by 10 per cent. Combined with the costs of printing and distribution, this means that the modern newspaper industry is in dire need of additional financing.

Newspapers have had to compensate for their added costs by relying on an unprecedented number of advertisements. However, while publications that rely on advertising for funding can become more independent, they can also lose them their independence if they depend on just a few big advertisers or sponsors.

If such publications print material not favoured by their sponsors, the latter can easily pull their advertisements.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Egypt there was a newspaper called Al-Siyasa, literally “Politics”, published by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party of the time.

As its name implies, it dealt mostly with the political landscape of Egypt in the period, and according to the late historian Yonan Labib Rizk it had a virtual monopoly on the best journalists in the country. It transformed young members of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, most of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds, into political activists.

Al-Ahram itself was founded in 1876, and like many other newspapers it faced the challenge of financing early on, forcing it to report on rulings from the local and mixed courts (which dealt with the affairs of foreigners in Egypt), since these were of interest to its readers.

However, as well as providing the newspaper with its bread-and-butter, the court reports were also mandatory for Al-Ahram to publish. They were a reflection of the wider society.

The great Egyptian journalist Ahmed Bahaeddin used to say that “when I travel to foreign countries, the first thing I do is read the newspapers, and especially the classified ads, as these can speak volumes about the social and economic situation of the country.”

The same thing could be said of the court reports that appeared in the early editions of Al-Ahram.

Many important changes took place during the rule of khedive Ismail in the late 19th century, and Al-Ahram reflected many of them by giving advertising space to consumer products such as medicines, alcohol and tobacco, formerly only of interest to Europeans.

There were also many advertisements for furniture and novelty products in Al-Ahram at this time, these being designed to appeal to the new social classes that had developed interests in European goods, or at least goods that might have been more appealing to Europeans.

They appealed to the new class of effendis, for example, meaning the growing professional classes, and to urban businessmen and landowners in rural areas. Such readers made up a new class of consumers, and they both advertised their goods and services in Al-Ahram and consumed those advertised by others.

Like all advertising, this early newspaper advertising was designed to appeal to basic desires, and the early copies of Al-Ahram are full of advertisements for new medicines, sometimes endorsed by peculiar physicians. Some of them were claimed to strengthen male virality, or cure female infertility, for example.

Such advertisements also show how society at that time was adopting new ways of doing things on the path to modernity. The traditional kobya pens used by government bureaucrats at the time were increasingly being abandoned in favour of the Hilal-brand typewriters advertised in Al-Ahram in 1907, for example, by a foreign company run by someone called Stephano Mobardi, a foreigner, in Alexandria.

Egypt at the time was undergoing significant urbanisation, and this was mirrored in advertisements in the newspapers of the time. Many carried advertising for cement, for example, from companies such as Ougst in Alexandria and Cemento in Cairo.

The first railways were built in 1854, the same year that saw the building of the famous Shepheard’s Hotel, the first modern hotel to be built in Egypt, in Cairo’s Opera Square.

This new construction even helped Egypt to become a tourist hub during the reigns of the khedives Ismail and Tawfik, and after the beginning of the British occupation in 1882 more foreigners started to reside in Egypt, many of them gaining more rights than Egyptians.

Eventually, the country’s insurance companies started to realise the importance of advertising, with advertisements for policies covering fire or theft beginning to appear in the late 19th century.

The companies in question dealt in Arabic, showing how far Egyptian business had matured. Such advertising also transformed the owners and editors of some publications into millionaires.

Newspaper advertising further developed when printing became possible in colour, particularly in magazines.

After the nationalisation of the newspaper industry in the 1960s, publications started to carry state advertising, printing advertisements from companies taking part in the construction of the Aswan High Dam, for example, among them Arab Contractors.

These eventually helped that company to become well-known in Africa and across the Arab world.

But the management of the newly nationalised newspapers still needed to find new sources of funding to develop the publications. Al-Ahram started its Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a microfilm centre that made electronic archives for state industries.

A major problem facing newspapers today is finding new sources of advertising revenue. Since advertisements are reliant on new ideas, perhaps our young people can come up with more innovations, which can then be advertised in the newspapers.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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