Egypt has become a dangerous place for journalists in the last few years. Both citizen journalists and western reporters have suffered attacks in Cairo as the country continues to be rocked by political instability and sectarian violence.
But outside of Cairo life can be very different. Hanan Solayman, a past World Press Institute fellow, recently established Mandara Online, a local journalism portal for governorates in the more rural areas of southern Egypt.
Solayman has been working on Mandara since she quit her job as editor of the Euro Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists in October 2010 and, after receiving a share of the $1.7 million Google-backed IPI news innovation grants, launched as a full platform in February 2013 and is set to open an English-language sister site by the of the year.
“Financially speaking we are an NGO, so the IPI grant was the main trigger for all of this,” she told Journalism.co.uk. “I was then studying entrepreneurial journalism in New York [at City University]. We got another seed fund grant from the school when I graduated and recently I was selected for the pioneers of Egypt programme, something to support social entrepreneurs.”
During her time in the US, Solayman visited a range of news outlets with a mind to establishing a similar model in Egypt. Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post all served as influences and trips to San Francisco’s The Bay Citizen and the Chicago News Tribune cemented the idea to establish a local reporting network back in her native Egypt.
“The idea was to have local portal for Upper Egypt, a very disconnected area,” Solayman told Journalism.co.uk. “We’re suffering from centralisation in different fields and media is one of them, and so we were looking to break the centralisation around Cairo.”
Upper and Lower Egypt, so called due to the flow of the Nile, were united by the first Pharoahs but still have their differences in dialect, culture and historical associations. Giza, just south of Cairo, is considered to be the “main gate” to Upper Egypt, said Solayman, and from there the 11 governorates of Upper Egypt stretch from Aswan, on the shore of Lake Nasser in the south, to the Red Sea in the east and the vast Saharan expanse of New Valley in the west.
Despite having a much larger geographical area and population, Upper Egypt still suffers from tribalism, sectarian violence and a lack of opportunities for women, said Solayman, adding that Cairo-based media often focus on negative issues instead of some of the success stories. Opportunities for journalists in the area are also slim, so training reporters and providing a platform for local reporting became a focus in the initial phases after receiving the first grants.
“We started by training them on news writing and feature writing, investigative reporting, social media and photojournalism,” she said, “and then we started working. That’s how it started. Now they are all over the governorates reporting from there.”
Solayman, along with a content editor, managing editor, social media manager and co-founder Tawfik, work from a central office in Cairo, communicating with reporters around the country via Skype to discuss topics and stories. The financial limitations that come with NGO status restrict Mandara to the one office in Cairo, which seems antithetical to its founding mission of decentralisation, but the local reporters have a rapport and connection with their communities to assuage any suspicions of Lower Egypt elitism.
News stories are an important draw for the audience, but historical content and features on famous individuals from each governorate are equally popular. But just as in other countries across the world, not much can top a talent show.
“Today we had one story that was a big hit, it’s just one guy, a poet from Asyut who participated in Arab’s got Talent,” explained Solayman. “He was dismissed because he brought a cow on the stage and was all dressed in Upper Egyptian clothes and he spoke to the cow as if it was his woman.”
The footage of his appearance on the show went viral and Mandara hitched a ride on its coat tails by interviewing the poet in question. Online traffic soared.
Marketing and social media optimisation are still areas Solayman wishes to build on however. A recent study claimed that Facebook is the third most popular news source in the Arab world, behind Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and non-professional journalists in some areas can gain more traction in terms of traffic and interaction through Facebook than established news organisations.
“I don’t know what their secret is,” she said of some citizen competitors. “To see a Facebook page with more than 40,000 fans on only one governorate. And people are interacting so much with whatever they say, even if it’s not really that important.”
In these cases, old photographs of towns or famous individuals get a lot of shares or interactions, but raising issues of local governance prove to be most popular.
“They would try to take some photos of garbage in some areas, and their comment would be to show the govenor those areas,” Solayman continued. Another story, in which the writer was turned away from a hospital despite being badly hurt, was shared more than 800 times, she said, a high figure for an area that still has relatively low internet connectivity.
Solayman believes the key to Mandara’s future will be in understanding and harnessing the relative nuances of social media interaction in each governorate, and building interaction around different forms of journalism, alongside news.
“We’re trying to build the content now,” she said, such as information on celebrities and public figures, as well as “books and history and photos”.
She added that the goal is “to build a full archive, bank of information”, and “have users generate the content with reviews of local facilities, schools, hospitals, restaurants”.
With this content Solayman hopes to build on the platforms of syndication and advertising, still in their infancy for the organisation, with the idea this will then allow them to employ more reporters and open offices in the governorates themselves.
But internet penetration in Upper Egypt is still low and the last official survey, carried out by Hosni Mubarak’s Ministry of Information in 2010, put online users in Upper Egypt at four million. The population of Upper Egypt was estimated to be just under 30 million in 2012 according to Geohive, based on figures from the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. Nevertheless, Solayman hopes Mandara can become a resource for local communities and internet users
“I don’t worry much about the percentage [of online users] because even if it stayed where it is and we reached half of that number it would be very good for us,” Solayman said. “Even print newspapers. The main daily newspapers, the whole circulation of all of them in total do not exceed 2 million.