LA LOOKS MORE LIKE CAIRO THAN YOU’D THINK
Sherif Tarek, Daniel Pearl Fellow
The Los Angeles Times newsroom might be a lot neater, calmer and more spacious and sophisticated than my beloved newsroom in Cairo. Yet similarities are obvious among the two, including mounting workloads and uncertainties.
The sense of cooperation and genuine friendliness, without the typical competitiveness among reporters, are common to both workplaces. Serious, yet not stiff, top-notch and relentless journalists together create a relaxed working environment where an outsider wouldn’t feel even a little troubled trying to fit in.
Such a cozy atmosphere, whether in Ahram Online or the L.A. Times newsroom, is evident, although everyone is up to his/her neck with tasks. Such a chronic overload can be logically put down to a bleak reality: many departments are understaffed, thanks to disturbed economics caused by radical changes that have left the industry of journalism hanging in the balance across the globe.
While most news organizations worldwide still primarily rely on papers to generate revenue, readers, especially from younger generations, are progressively opting for free, more up-to-date digital platforms. And as the subsequent decline in paper distribution has been frightening off advertisers for more than a decade, the digital market—despite its continuous growth—is still unable to financially counterbalance dwindling newspaper sales.
Cornelia Hass, the director of the German Journalists’ Union, said in 2012 that online journalism in Germany is anything but lucrative, adding that in the U.S. digital advertising is far ahead. Much as the digital market is indeed more developed in the U.S. than Europe and the Middle East, many American news organizations are still facing financial difficulties because of their print losses and unprofitable digital media. LA Times is no exception.
Before coming to Los Angeles, I met Laura King, the Times’ Cairo Bureau Chief who was kind enough to tell me quite a few things about the paper. Among many issues, she highlighted the turnover rate and layoffs due to the unstable situation of the paper. After less than two weeks with the Times, I noticed how editors and copy editors are always overloaded, a problem I am very familiar with in Cairo.
As a matter of fact, the status of the Egyptian press is more critical as a result of a deteriorating national economy amid prolonged political turmoil. Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest news organization and one of the most prestigious in the Middle East and Africa, has been struggling to keep its products afloat.
Omar Sami, former chairman of Al-Ahram, which owns Ahram Online, thinks that by 2016 all Al-Ahram publications will shift from paper to online, except for Al-Ahram national daily newspaper. This has increasingly become a trend all over the world, including the more digitally developed U.S. Well-known American magazine Newsweek, for instance, cancelled its print edition before its 80th anniversary in October 2012 and decided to go digital with the intention of cutting costs.
But meanwhile, tablets and smart phones are still not that commonplace, online papers sales are nowhere near impressive, and news organizations haven’t successfully made the transition to digital. Thus, advertisers are still unwilling to pay much for ads on digital platforms.
Practically speaking, it’s a matter of time until the online market fully develops. Until that happens—hard to tell when—many media houses will suffer. And the more dedicated a staff is to its paper, the higher chances for survival.
Lastly, my favorite similarity between Ahram Online and L.A. Times? Journalists, senior editors in particular, work their socks off to maintain intact the caliber and level of coverage they have been producing despite inadequate resources.
Papers direly need this kind of loyalty these days if they are to avoid an unpleasant fate.