Drop in sales, rising costs give tough times to Egypt’s newspaper industry

Behind the sharp drop in newspaper sales are changing readers’ moods and the competition caused by the digital information revolution.
Saturday 20/07/2019
A foggy future. An Egyptian man reads a newspaper in the Zamalek district in Cairo.(AP)
A foggy future. An Egyptian man reads a newspaper in the Zamalek district in Cairo.(AP)

CAIRO - There were times when newsstand owner Mustafa Hussein would return home with pockets full of money.

“Newspaper sales used to thrive, which swelled the profits sellers like me made,” Hussein said. “However, those days are gone and I do not think they will come back.”

Hussein, one of the oldest newspaper sellers in Giza province, which is part of Greater Cairo, has seen Egypt’s newspaper industry collapse before his eyes. It took, he said, only a few years for distribution of the newspapers to go from the very top to the very bottom.

Egypt has 650 daily, weekly and monthly publications. Of  the daily newspapers, 11 are owned and run by the government; 14 are owned by companies or individuals; and six are owned by political parties.

Some of these newspapers, such as Al-Ahram, almost the oldest daily newspaper in the region, used to distribute 1 million copies a day. Now, the 650 publications distribute fewer than 350,000 copies a day, said Osama Heikal, the former information minister and the current head of the Culture and Media Committee in the Egyptian parliament.

Behind the sharp drop in newspaper sales are changing readers’ moods and the competition caused by the digital information revolution, experts said.

“The newspapers cannot stand competition with the new media and social media,” said Mohamed Tharwat, a media expert. “Most readers now prefer electronic media to the print press.”

The drop in sales caused massive financial losses to newspapers and led to online news sites drawing advertisers from print newspapers, leaving newspapers unable to either make money or cover their spending.

The last three years have been especially difficult for the country’s newspapers with the price of newsprint, printing materials and distribution rising dramatically. The increases were exasperated by the drop in the value of the Egyptian pound, further driving up relative prices of imported materials such as ink.

Some newspapers have been unable to cope and seemingly each day another newspaper announces it will stop its print edition or is closing.

On June 24, Egypt’s National Supreme Press Authority, the state agency that regulates the country’s newspapers and magazines, raised the prices of the newspapers 33% effective July 1.

The authority said it was part of an overall plan to reduce newspapers’ losses. It was the latest in a series of price raises by the newspapers, including a 40% bump last September.

The raise, newspaper editors said, is indispensable if some newspapers hope to continue printing.

“The printing of the newspapers is becoming so costly, which is why the decision to raise newspaper prices is necessary,” said Hesham Sultan, editor of the private Akhir al-Anba’a weekly newspaper. “The newspapers are having a tough time covering their costs.”

Even before the latest rise in printing costs, newspapers incurred losses because they had to sell at a fraction of their actual cost. The three major daily newspapers — Al-Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al Gomhouria — sold for 2 Egyptian pounds ($0.12) a copy before the latest price increase, even as printing cost more than 8 pounds ($0.50) a copy.

To make up for the difference between what they spent and what they earned, newspapers depended on advertisements and financial support from the government and borrowing from banks. The 11 state-owned press establishments have incurred total debts of 20 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) to the banks.

There are fears that the latest raise in newspaper prices will effectively end the newspaper industry in Egypt and scare readers from the print media.

This is why authority Chairman Karam Gabr recommended that each of the state-run establishments, which have thousands of workers, including journalists, printing workers, distribution officers and advertising agents, better exploit their assets, including land and buildings.

Heikal said he expected some newspapers to disappear from newsstands and others to stop printing and turn into online sites.

Hussein said he knows why. Every day, he stands for hours on Giza Square, one of the busiest in Giza province, and waits for readers to buy copies from the stacks of newspapers placed orderly in front of him.

Instead of buying, those standing in front of him only look at the headlines of the front pages of the newspapers, which are often the same, and leave.

“Why should anybody buy the newspapers when they know the news already from the sites and TV hours ahead?” Hussein asked. “The newspapers will be scrapped by the readers even more with this latest rise in the prices.”