This is the second round of a year folding and a new one beginning for Mada Masr’s team. As we did last year, the editorial and commercial team met this week to discuss this year’s failures and aspirations for the next amid the social and political context in which we function, and the complex question of who we have become.
Amira Ahmed (general manager): I think this whole year, one of our main goals was to define our editorial identity, because we’ve been trying to broaden our horizons. But we haven’t identified exactly how we’re going to do that, what are our boundaries and what we’re comfortable with. That created a lot of stumbling blocs.
On the politics front, we may have also missed important news and issues because there is boredom with the same story. That was the biggest challenge of the year. What are we on the editorial front? On the commercial front, we also had this incongruous phase. How do we monetize the content? I think we’re in a transition.
Heba Afify (news writer): In general, it was a crisis year of being disengaged and struggling with motivation to do stories even though they’ve become repetitive. I also struggled with the change of perspective in risk-taking. We operated before with the perspective that if the story is worth it, then you go and do it. Now we have factored in more risk-taking. I had this problem when we realized that we’re not going to go cover some protests, even though we had set out to cover those things that no one else would cover.
Isabel Esterman (economy writer): We’ve also had the issue that our sources don’t understand Mada, because we’re not like most of the Egyptian press, where they know clearly what box each different newspaper is in.
In some ways, we’re like the foreign press in our aspirations to have some professionalism in the reporting, but we’re not foreigners — apart from me — reporting with the western gaze on Egypt. I think the people I’m dealing with when reporting on the economy see us as hostile, which is often fair. There are things that we should be critical of in the government and in business. But I don’t feel there is that much understanding of the concept of being critical, but still being fair.
I also feel there is no sense of responsibility to speak to the press in Egypt. You know when the story runs and says we couldn’t get a comment from this source, they don’t worry that it looks bad. Sources don’t care.
Amany Aly Shawky (culture writer): But I feel with the Arabic page team, we’ve been more encouraged to call more sources within the Ministry of Interior and the military. Heba spoke to the military spokesperson recently, for example.
Lina Attalah (chief editor): But when Heba called the spokesperson, she feared saying that she works for Mada.
Heba: I was scared to say Mada so as not to put us on their radar. I called him knowing he wouldn’t answer.
Amany: But it’s important to start saying Mada when we call these people.
Shady Zalat (Arabic page editor): The bigger problem is when the spokesperson said to call him again and to meet him, and we didn’t do it. We would have sat down with the military spokesperson, which hasn’t been done by most other papers. The problem is that we have a certain audience who follows us closely, and sometimes we lose them when we fail to cover the issues that interest them. So we need to expand this audience. If we had gone to him and explained that we actually feared saying Mada to him, maybe he would have understood, and we would have built a relation with him.
Heba: I feel this year we’ve changed the way we look at ourselves and our relationship with government and state sources. We understand that we’re no longer an underground outlet, but we also have our moments of doubt. We’re formulating our relation with the state and saying we’re here, and we have to interact.
Mai Shams (news writer): And we took the decision to exist in a very contentious and dangerous moment. If we take a step that courageous, we have to go on.
Waleed Almusharaf (opinion editor): They also want to talk to you to defend themselves, and you have to give them that.
Jano Charbel (news writer): Another problem is the loss of contacts. In 2013, we had many contacts in opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they disappeared, left the country, changed their numbers or they won’t speak to media sources they don’t trust, because they have their own media they speak to. There’s a problem with opposition figures being willing to identify themselves by name.
There is also an issue with many of the stories that we miss, because we don’t have stringers in the governorates. We often get the news through the main sources, like the agencies or the newspapers, but there are many arrests and protests that are unheard of because the mainstream media doesn’t care about covering them.
Lina: Besides the fact that we heavily rely on mainstream media as a source, do you feel that we work more on the issues that we are more familiar with, as opposed to issues that are further away from our consciousness? I’m thinking of Brotherhood cases, for example, but also small labor actions that go uncovered because we don’t have access to them. I’m not just talking about political bias, which we have to be conscious of, of course, but it’s also a question of stepping out of our comfort zone.
Dalia Rabie (news editor): I feel we’re still stuck in this comfort zone. But there’s also a question of newsworthiness. We have to publish what the readers want.
Passant Rabie (news writer): But there’s a responsibility to bring a variety of issues to our readers, and not just give them what they want.
Lina: So do you produce yourself according to what your public wants, or according to how you envisage yourself?
Dalia: If we’re trying to make money, then we have to do what they want.
Passant: But we’re not just here to make money.
Dalia: We want to sustain a business.
Mai: I don’t see that both are mutually exclusive.
Isabel: I think when we’re talking about what the reader wants, maybe we need to be looking at a more broad definition of that, and not just what readers want in terms of content. Ideally, you can take a story that’s obscure and not on people’s radars, but if the reporting is really there you can make a small, dull-seeming story really interesting. People want to see things that other news organizations don’t have, whether it’s anecdotes or visual impressions, and also having a stronger angle and personal voice.
Mai: The thing is, do we know in the first place what our audience wants? Sometimes we have some assumptions that the audience wants certain things, but we haven’t really done research on what the audience wants.
Heba: I think that we’ve also been happily surprised, for example with the piece on sex workers. It is a very serious story, a very long investigation, and yet very well-read. It happened with some of Isabel’s stories, as well. The hopeful take-away is that you can actually get popular with serious journalism.
Lina: When we made the year in review last year, it was only one month that the Arabic had been activated, and there was the excitement of starting something new. The question became that by default, we’re still viewed as an English-speaking outlet. The architecture of the website leads to this direction, but also, we put more resources into the English page than the Arabic site. At the same time, being bilingual gave us an edge because it helped us improve both pages, in the sense that the English page is sometimes informed by the Arabic, and vice versa. What do we make of this?
Heba: The English page was definitely informed by the Arabic, because there are stories that you cannot have in their simple form in the Arabic page, as they are basic news stories that you find in so many other Arabic outlets. But the Arabic team would find different angles, and I feel we’re not doing that as consistently on the English page.
Lina: But not all translations work. We realized after a year of working on the Arabic that not everything is translatable, or at least easily translatable. The question of translatability is a complex one. It’s not just a technical issue, but it’s the different mindset and audiences in question. The challenge is how do we make an investment in what we have in both languages, and make the content travel smoothly between the two pages without it sounding too foreign to the corresponding audiences, or being too orientalist in thinking that some content works in one language, but doesn’t in the other.
Waleed: We have an issue with Belal Fadl’s translations, for example, which are not going to work because he’s half writing in colloquial. He’s writing in standard Arabic, but his rhetoric is … [whistles]. It’s really a question of rewriting the thing into English, but there’s also the issue of content.
Shady: I can imagine what Waleed is saying about Belal. He writes using informal language even if he writes in classical Arabic. It’s as if he’s sitting in a coffeehouse in Moharam Beh and writing, and this can’t be copied.
Waleed: Also the post-modern contemporary art stuff, when translated to Arabic, it turns into indecipherable symbols put next to each other. But they have their audiences too.
Shady: I start cursing when I get these pieces. Eventually, I can’t be 100 percent in control of the taste of the readers. I work on these pieces, which use very complicated language, and keep it this way, because some people like complex writing. It’s good to have a consistent color on the website, but it’s better to have some things for people who don’t like your work.
Lina: Ok. Let’s talk about fear. We met one day here after a series of events that seemed very threatening to us, the last of which was the Penal Code amendment, and those concerns about foreign funding and the state of fear that the government and the regime in general managed to permeate within our practice. There were different reactions that showed a certain accumulation of fear throughout the year.
Can we articulate the extent to which fear was a companion to our practice in the last year? And how did we negotiate with it in such a way that we are actually still here?
Amira: This year was marked by fear for all of us, and for me more than others. I let it get to me a lot. I didn’t negotiate with it at all. It became a very consuming thought and looming threat, and I guess that’s what they wanted. They wanted this to be the state of mind and for you to react like that. If this was a solo project, I would have just run away from it.
There are also some differences in the way people reacted, because we have different liabilities in the project. But I guess it just passes and you learn to deal with it. It’s like a subtle numbing, a dull pain. But this is also where being such a large team and being a collective helps, because that conversation helped me a lot. I saw that it would have to be a personal choice for me to leave, because I can’t force other people to do what I thought was the safe thing to do. I realized I won’t be the mom fearing for everyone.
Heba: My problem was not that I wanted to fight fear, but that I needed to accept that I’m going to operate with fear, and that created a huge crisis for me as a journalist. I feel that the fact that we had a collective moment of fear at Mada and sat together and talked about it was very positive. I don’t think it would have been healthy at all to pretend that all is ok and we’re just going to go our way.
Waleed: People can be fixated on politics in the most dramatic form, but there are other ways of resisting a certain narrative that aren’t directly political. Where is the revolutionary aspect of these events that don’t seem to be directly people raising their fists in the air and shouting? Where’s the politics in all these little things?
Isabel: It’s really productive to talk about different narratives and different ways to cover issues, but we also need to admit that there are things that we’ve all been aware of — which is that we haven’t been covering Sinai well — and that’s because of fear, and a very legitimate fear. We’ve all decided as individuals and also collectively that it’s not something that people are willing to die for — but there is a huge hole in the coverage. That’s a real problem, and a real disservice to the people of Sinai as well.
Lina: Obviously, I have a strong stake in Sinai, and I feel very hurt that this is something that I’m losing completely as a beat. But it’s a question of thinking about it all the time, and trying to come up with different ways to do it without going into all these risks. I think keeping this anxiety with us is important.
Waleed: How does this backing away from things that are scary compare with what was happening before the revolution? And if it hasn’t already returned to that stage, is there a way to keep it from returning to that stage?
Amira: I think 10 years ago when we started, we were pushing the boundaries as English-language journalists, and we felt a little bit safe in that space. There were things that weren’t being covered at all, and that’s where we made our mark at Daily News Egypt and Egypt Independent.
With the revolution we crossed many boundaries, so it was a bit triumphant. Retreating from that is not only a defeat on the personal level, but also on the professional level. You’ve overcome this milestone and now you may have to step back a lot, so what does that mean for you as a journalist? You may feel that you’ve accomplished a goal and they’re taking us back again, so why not quit while you’re ahead kind of thing.
Lina: But the main difference, regardless of what we’re able to publish and what we’re not able to publish, is that we actually decided that all the media models that exist — through which we managed to break these barriers — don’t work for us anymore. So we’re investing in our own model, which is far from retreating. You’re making a new reality by building this institution, and it’s the opposite of retreat in many ways. That’s why I feel that our institutional practice can’t be dissociated from the editorial practice. We shouldn’t lose sight of this.
Final thought. Mada is no longer the place that gathered us after we were collectively laid off from Egypt Independent last year. It’s no longer running on this phrase we like to say, that we’re the child of precarity and crisis. It’s actually an institution, and it’s here because it wants to survive.
Today, to what extent do you feel that Mada, as the institution a lot of you cofounded, represents who you are? To what extent is it something that needs to grow on its own, regardless of who we are and what we do? To what extent do you feel there is a process of maturing that is happening to the institution as an organism on its own? Are we moving away from being a collective to being an institution?
Isabel: I was reading something recently by some media analyst, who was saying the way to judge whether a new media organization is viable is whether it’s an essential source to its readers, and whether it would really be missed if it’s gone. I feel that by that metric, Mada is very viable. We maybe don’t have all the business stuff nailed down, and we have lots of chaos all the time, but I feel the media space in Egypt would be a lot poorer if Mada was gone.
Amira: I do feel that Mada is on its way to becoming an entity that isn’t only driven by the cofounders or people who started it. I think that in the very early conversations that we had when we were launching Mada, we said that our dream would be for it to live on its own. Maybe three, four or five years from now or even less than that, we would be able to go back to being just writers, or to leaving it altogether and handing it to someone for it to be a thing on its own.
Lina: So who of you sees themselves as working in Mada in five years?
Lina: Next year? In two days? Anyone?