The issue transcends the basic print-digital divide that is now familiar to newsrooms around the world. Al Ahram’s approach to news is a product of the Egyptian media regime, which until the 2000s allowed only state and party media to report the news, thereby stifling the development of, and respect for, a culture of independence, innovation, and transparency. Since the 1952 coup that created the modern state of Egypt, Al Ahram’s leadership has been closely aligned with the state propaganda regime. Today the organization is an aging and financially troubled beast—a conglomerate of more than a dozen publications (each with its own website), a publishing house, an advertising agency, a research center, and more. Founded in 1875, Al Ahram’s downtown headquarters is in disarray, its public image shattered by the uprising, its newsrooms overstaffed and underproductive, the years of corruption, patronage, and self-censorship a toxic stain.
Despite this tarnished heritage, Al Ahram is also not one-dimensional. Journalists recall with pride the storied national figures who walked the halls of the headquarters. For over a century the newspaper’s name has been synonymous with Egypt, its news and views read throughout Egypt and the Arab world. And there are journalists there who have a genuine interest in professionalism. Several led a failed push for institutional reform during the revolution.
Al Ahram 2.0?
Al Bawaba launched on October 6, 2010. Al Ahram editors chose this date to coincide with commemoration of the 1973 October War. Omar Samy, chairman of the Al Ahram board, attributed Al Bawaba’s birth to shifting priorities: The leadership wanted more local content—the print edition had only two pages—and a website for breaking and 24-hour news.
It was a big change for a place where many journalists still wrote their stories by hand and working computers with internet access were relatively rare. Abdel Monem Said Aly, a former chairman of the Al Ahram board, was a main force behind the digital initiative. He envisioned Al Bawaba as part of a larger transformation of Al Ahram into an integrated media company where a central newsroom fed content to a network of mobile, radio, video, print, and online platforms.
Dubbed the Al Ahram development project, under Said’s leadership Al Ahram spent millions of Egyptian pounds to digitize its archives and create several niche sites, including Al Ahram Online, a 24-hour English-language news site.
The project struggled from the start. Many journalists had little digital experience or interest, and the website’s faulty design led to technological glitches. Said says further digital developments were planned for Al Ahram—and deferred when the revolution came.
But for Sabah Hamamou, Al Bawaba’s first multimedia editor, management’s claims that it was sincere about the project were insufficient. “Nobody had a sincere vision of where we wanted to take Al Ahram,” she says, calling the reforms cosmetic. Hamamou, a 2009-10 Knight-Wallace fellow in the United States, brought a passion for multimedia storytelling to Al Bawaba. She was soon frustrated with the lack of resources—a stark contrast to management’s grand spending on things that didn’t really benefit the journalists. She recalled a constant shortage of working computers, internet connections, camera cards, and even drinking water in the office. “In the beginning there was really good hopes that we are developing this tiny spot, and that it will spread to other parts of the institution,” she says. But instead of rewarding journalistic merit or empowering the website to do the kind of reporting that was envisioned, cronyism and a lack of vision from management was typical, she says.
A political calculation