College Media Geeks: Shaheer Shaheen, Founder, Egypt’s ‘Nationwide Student Paper’
At the moment, The Insider may be the most powerful, pervasive student newspaper in all of Egypt. Four years ago, it didn’t even exist.
Started by a single student in spring 2011 at German University in Cairo (GUC) amid the backdrop of rising protests and political upheaval, Insider outlets now operate in various forms at a dozen colleges and universities across Egypt.
As student founder and GUC senior Shaheer Shaheen (left) tells Al-Ahram Weekly, the online and print pubs regularly reach a combined 120,000 readers and boast more than 250 student staffers. To that end, Shaheen, 23, a computer science major, describes the Insider as nothing less than Egypt’s “first nationwide student newspaper.”
While still young and finding its footing on some campuses, it appears to be firmly rooted at its starter school. In little more than three years, The Insider at GUC has collected 25,000 likes for its Facebook page.
In the Q&A below, Shaheen shares a bit about what staffers and readers really like about the Insider, his motivation for launching it and the challenges of getting it off the ground and growing it nationwide in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
What motivated you to jumpstart and expand the Insider across Egypt?
The idea occurred to me out of necessity. During the spring semester of my freshman year back in March 2011, it was just a few weeks after Egypt’s January 2011 uprising. Older students in my university, as well as almost every entity in Egypt back then, angrily erupted in protest over conditions and complaints that being a freshman I had no idea about.
While I was trying to get to the bottom of it, I was told vague complaints about the university and administration. When I asked the administration, they highlighted how the protests included verbal insults. I asked myself, “Now what? One party isn’t able to make a good case, while the other is not being objective.” Then I thought [what is] needed is a news platform that is not involved with or biased toward any of the disagreeing parties — written by the students and to the students.
Our vision is to unite and empower students. There are 2.8 million higher education students in Egypt who barely know anything about each other as students. Unlike the U.S., the vast majority of students here live with their parents until a few years after graduation. That of course greatly … limits what an average student would know about other students in other cities to merely what mainstream media report, which is in most cases stories on a student who was killed or a female student who was sexually harassed.
High-profile newspapers have closed their education sections. They don’t cover stories from that perspective anymore. Now, three years [after launching], the Insider has teams at 12 universities with an estimated overall reach to 120,000 students. We anticipate that number to become a half million in 10 months.
What are the biggest challenges of launching a student news operation in Egypt?
The Insider came to existence and became a success after being challenged in every corner. [First] the Insider started at a time when almost every media organization in the country had been discredited for their sham coverage of [the 2011 Revolution].
We now proudly hold a clean record of zero false, fabricated or misleading stories after three years of continuous work. Moreover, there is no single incident when we ever submitted to any influence to run or not run a story or [that determined] which angle we should cover it from.
[Second] the administration of Egyptian universities — both privately-owned and state universities — haven’t had for nearly 30 years … a campus publication focusing on something other than the achievements of its senior management. Let alone [a student outlet] freely and fairly reporting on them and everything else on campus without any bias, and a publication run entirely by students.
Considering our process of publishing, getting advertisers for our costly print edition, which we give away for free, has [also] been and somewhat still is a challenge. Finally, most of us, including myself, majored in engineering, pharmacy and other fields that have nothing to do with journalism.
[In the video below, captured in December 2013, Shaheen welcomes new recruits to the publication. English subtitles can be activated from the captions button.]
With so many students from different majors gravitating toward the Insider, how do you teach them journalism basics?
We always start with the most obvious place — we report because we care. We do this to become aware of what is going on and the things that matter. We are not just journalists, we are student journalists. We are “Insiders” and that is our advantage. It is what gives us credibility over any other reporter that works in a big media company. That way, our members adopt the scrutinizing attitude of a journalist. Then, out of need, they start looking for tools, methods and skills to do the job. That’s when they feel the urge to know more about journalism basics.
What’s an example of an Insider story that symbolizes the paper’s potential?
One time, we reported about a male student who was bullied and physically attacked for having an earring. That sparked a debate on what’s traditionally accepted and freedom of appearance on campus. After the news went viral, a stand against bullying was organized the next day on campus by students who did not personally know the guy and only knew about the incident through our published story. …
We are proud every time we effectively deliver crucial news to our readers that makes a whale of a difference to them. Many universities fail to communicate properly with their students. One example among many: One university changed the bus times and forgot to notify the students of the new times. If it weren’t for the Insider‘s role in letting everyone know about it online, most people could have missed their buses, some of whom had quizzes.
What is your advice for students who want to similarly start a news outlet at their own school?
Keep reporting. Whether you are one student with a smartphone and a social media account or a work-group with a common vision, just keep reporting. People say: If Google doesn’t know it, it does not exist. Same goes for everything. Unless you report it, take a picture or get it on video, it won’t get out there.
What has been your favorite memory related to the Insider since starting the publication?
It’s definitely when we held “The Insider Student Journalism and Media Conference,” the first student journalism conference in the history of the Middle East, in May 2014. It was hosted by The American University in Cairo and nearly 500 students attended.
The conference was a long sought after event that we have been telling our members about for 14 months. It is the event where every hardworking member was given an award and seen themselves beating all their student colleagues doing their same job. TV personalities and public figures gave the awards to the students.
I’m always asked wherever I go: How did you do it? People always want to know how it started and hear about the challenges we had to go through. That evening after that historic accomplishment and the great success of the event, I remembered how three years earlier, I was sitting at the gate of my university (GUC) giving away the Insider‘s first print edition to students. All alone. Students were not sure if it was a promotional brochure or what.
In light of which, I would like to thank all my 250 teammates. I would also like to give a special thank you to our early members Hazem Tarek, May Farrag, Mohamed Ashraf, Rana Fetit and our advisers Christian Sturm and Georg Jung. I owe the Insider‘s success to every single one of them.
What is your ultimate dream for the Insider?
I dream that whenever the Insider is mentioned anywhere in the world, everyone would recognize and credit it for uniting and empowering students like never before. I believe that our annual student journalism conference will become the largest hub for the most promising journalists and change seekers in the world. You will find that successful intellectuals, politicians and businesspeople will have worked with the Insider during their college years.
I believe that students in 10 years can be united to the extent that a student in Egypt along with a student from England would be seen together putting forward initiatives that significantly influence and enhance the societies of both countries. An empowered student can work to achieve world peace and prevent wars.