Media Entrepreneurs: Tarek Atia on the importance of hyperlocal journalism in Egypt

Tarek Atia is the CEO and Founder of Egypt Media Development Program which supports the growth of the Egyptian and regional media sectors. EMDP is also the publisher of Mantiqti (which means ‘my neighborhood’), the first hyper-local media brand covering downtown Cairo, and Zahma, the popular Arabic news and entertainment website.

Q: Tell me about the entrepreneurial work you’ve seen in journalism in Egypt.

A: Actually I haven’t seen that much and to me that’s a big problem. I’ve become more familiar with the entrepreneurial community over the last two years as I myself have sought out investors as to help grow it. Unfortunately, what I’ve discovered is that so much of venture capital money is going into tech. My problem with that is that it’s not journalism. A lot of these apps that VCs are funding lack the depth of journalism. They’re just interesting platforms that sound good in a pitch. But they’re empty of actual content. They’re divorced from the concept of journalism.

Q: Do you see anything coming up in the wider media tech market, say advertising technologies and serving platforms?

A: There are things like that. For example, there are people working on a technology that would control notifications. So you’re right, there’s stuff in the secondary space. But I’d like to see more entrepreneurial money going into content production, especially if it’s high quality content production.

There’s a little bit of that when you talk about TV, and especially entertainment. But when it comes to journalism that is trying to inform and develop society, and perhaps be a mirror and expose mismanagement, we’re investing in local media. It’s a deeply needed thing. We don’t have a tradition of it. As a result, we have dysfunctional local governments and communities. I don’t quite understand how business people can’t make that linkage. You do need media to improve the climate in general.

Q: When you go out and pitch this, do investors not see a need or a problem to solve? Or is it because the ROI for these startups would take a much longer time to play out?

A: The last part is definitely a part of it. I’ve had investors telling me that this doesn’t fit their ROI appetite. Everybody’s looking for a unicorn right? It’s a rare thing that media is going to be a unicorn. It’s slow growth. It will do an ROI; it’s not like we’re a charity.

But the other thing is in the Middle East, there’s a lack of a tradition of independent, objective media over the last 4–5 decades. The fact is that a lot of the media was propagandistic and much of it was antithethical to business. The economy pages are full of wonk-ish coverage of the economy and the front pages will only cover a businessman if there’s a scandal. So there isn’t this idea that the economics of everyday life — that we would see in the West or perhaps in Asia — where consumers would see content that’s relevant to them.

Trends in housing, or mobile communication or education, useful guides to what schools to send your kids to. We don’t have a tradition of that. So business people tend to shy away from media. They tend to be nervous about it or scared of it. They either think it’s going to be irrelevant to the larger audience or they think it’s going to be negative stuff about capitalism’s role in society.

Q: What is it about hyperlocal content that excites you? Where’s the opportunity there?

A: It started when I moved out of Cairo to suburbs called New Cairo. I began to understand that a lot of the endemic problems of Cairo were related to zoning, traffic and poor management of neighborhoods from a local government point of view. These probably happened because of a lack of two things: strong civil society and strong local media.

So when I moved into this suburb — which is larger than many European cities — I found that it doesn’t have media covering it. So how can you have this kind of explosive growth with housing, roads and parking, and yet there’s no one monitoring or covering this. It’s crazy when you think about it. So that’s where my passion for this comes from.

I grew up in the U.S., where there’s a strong local media culture. People know what’s going on. If there’s a bridge being built, you know why it’s being built — to solve a certain traffic problem and you know how much it costs. But where I live [now], the traffic problem that caused the bridge is not covered and the solution after the bridge is built isn’t covered. I just think that needs to be covered.

This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.

We want to showcase both the ideas and the courage that goes behind breaking new ground on the business of media. If you know of someone who should be interviewed here (or yourself), please drop me an email: