The death of a newspaper

The death of a newspaper

It’s an old story: Journalists tend to see their occupation as a calling, and investors see newspapers as a business. At Egypt’s only independent English-language print daily, the balance sheets won out.

Daily News Egypt announced yesterday that it was closing after over seven years in business. In a combative editorial, the Daily News staff lamented that the paper’s closure had come "quite abruptly" and noted that they had "specifically and repeatedly requested" that the paper’s owners allow them to keep the website online – a request that evidently went unheeded, as the website went offline yesterday,

In the somber Daily News offices last night, the white board that laid out the next day’s agenda of stories had been wiped clean, and the collection of tchotchkes that gathers in any newsroom — in the case of this Egyptian paper, a gas mask that allowed its staff to cover the revolutionary upheaval over the past year — had been stripped away. The staff’s editors were busy downloading their archived issues — insurance that their years of work would not disappear should they fail to reclaim the website.

The paper was one more casualty of Egypt’s deteriorating economy, which is projected to grow at a paltry 1.5 percent in 2012 and has bled $21 billion in foreign reserves during the past year. "The paper was without ads for a whole year," said Rania al-Malky, while bouncing her toddler, Hassan, on her lap. "And the hotels are empty, so nobody is buying newspapers."

Egypt’s problems aside, the truth of the matter is that independent journalism in the Middle East is always a tenuous endeavor. The only question is how tenuous. Newspapers in the region face two primary ills, both of which can be fatal to quality journalism: a shortage of money and an excess of political influence. It is a testament to the long hours that employees put in, and a shared sense that the work carries a meaning not expressed solely in a paycheck, that newspapers like the Daily News exist in the first place.

Sometimes, newspapers in the region are forced to pick their poison: poverty or politicians. Lebanon’s Daily Star was at one time the Daily News‘ sister publication — both were the local partners for the International Herald Tribune in their respective countries. In 2009, the Daily Star was subject to a court-ordered shutdown after the publisher fell hopelessly in debt — without warning, security officers showed up at the paper’s Beirut offices and evicted the staff, even ordering them to leave their personal laptops. The Daily Star would return to newsstands, but its money problems would only be solved when it was purchased by one of Lebanon’s wealthiest politicians, Saad Hariri.

Back in the Daily News offices, there were plenty of good memories about which to reminisce. The newspaper covered the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak with aplomb — it was one of the few offices with working Internet access after the Egyptian regime ordered Internet service providers to cut off service in a failed bid to stop the growing protests.

Hassan, the only one in the office unaware that the Daily News had put out its last issue, entertained the crowd by playing with a BlackBerry. When he handed it back to one of the editors, the staff, to his delight, cheered in approval. "Someone’s getting some applause in this office, at least," said Malky.

Finally, the inevitable moment came — the investors, perhaps irked by the editorial, pulled the plug on the Daily News last remaining connection to their audience. "That’s it; they closed the site," Malky announced, clicking her mouse at the computer. And then Hassan banged his head against the doorway and started crying, and shortly after, the staff drifted out.