The receding dominance of print and the pre-eminence of the internet had every writer and reader thinking articles would be reduced to 140 letters.
But just as the internet reigned over the shrinkage of word counts in print as well as online, the backlash and the incessant march of technology has fostered the ubiquity of tools such as the Kindle and iPad, as well as apps like ReaditLater, which to a degree have fostered the resurgence of long-form journalism.
Likewise, curatorial sites such as longreads.com and byliner.com continue to mushroom in response to the demand. Anton Harber and Antony Altbeker, the two men heading the team behind the local long-form journalism portal mampoer.co.za, mention Byliner as a muse.
Byliner kicked off its campaign with Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, a story about fraud and deception involving author Greg Mortenson, a Nobel peace prize nominee who was building schools in Afghanistan.
The local site was conceived last year from conversations between Altbeker, who has written several bestselling books about crime and policing, and Harber, who is Caxton professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. The Mampoer team also includes Harber’s longtime partner in various media ventures, creative director Irwin Manoim.
The aim is to fill the gap between a standard news feature and a book, something print magazines have tried without much success.
The website will predominantly feature in-depth reporting of between 5 000 and 15 000 words.
“The New Yorker and The Atlantic Magazine are already offering that platform,” said Harber, “but there isn’t a history of it in South Africa, because for a long time there wasn’t an outlet to allow people to do more than 1 200 words, which is a standard magazine or newspaper feature.”
At the launch event, held on August 14 at the Troyeville Hotel, paywalls and payment models were boisterously discussed and the mampoer was coursing through the bloodstreams of many of the assembled when journalist Christa Kuljian shared an observation that sparked some muted rumbles: “I get the sense that Mampoer is predominantly white male-dominated and I feel that it must encourage young black talent.”
Many had been thinking that and it was bound to surface at some stage. The subsequent murmurs of disapproval were unnecessary, but they underscored the demographic split of the audience and the suggestion that Mampoer might just be a haven for the established voices, many of them white and male.
Altbeker countered that Kuljian was “pushing against an open door” and Harber added that “telling South African stories would only work if there was a wide range of voices”.
Altbeker said South Africa did not sell a lot of newspapers and books but digital publishing made it possible for a dispersed audience to be served.
“As small as the market is, there is a large enough audience for long form to survive. The distribution costs for a market as small as South Africa make it challenging [to offer this service in print]. For writers, it’s an opportunity to do serious work without the time and delay associated with publishing a book,” said Altbeker.
The envisaged method of payment for commissioned pieces is an advance recoupable against royalties, with 30% going to the writer and 70% going to Mampoer. The articles will be sold to buyers at $3 (about R24) each.
Although a handful of stories have been commissioned from writers – including Kevin Bloom, Philippa Garson, Justice Malala and Jacob Dlamini – the model is mostly set on writers submitting pieces and crossing their fingers. So for a 10 000 word article and 70% of that figure going to the publisher, the writer is left with R7.20 per story sold, meaning the writer has to sell roughly 4 167 stories to earn R3 a word, the going minimum rate for senior freelance journalists.
Is it viable?
Phakama Mbonambi, a publisher of print literary journal Words Etc, which has run lengthy pieces from the likes of Njabulo Ndebele, Helen Moffett and Orhan Pamuk, said he understood Mampoer’s strategy of using big names to draw in audiences and then, hopefully, gradually introducing lesser-known writers.
“I’d hope that young black voices will naturally gravitate towards Mampoer if the experiment works and if they have compelling stories to tell. But, yes, at some point it would be interesting to see the kind of risk they take with younger writers, with opening doors. Young voices are sorely needed right now, if only to get different perspectives on our society – different and interesting stories.
“Mampoer needs to be given time and support. It’s an experiment. As a country we need such experiments. We need to try out new tacks to getting people writing and reading.”
Although long-form journalism has proven difficult, in some instances, to sustain in print, the art form continues to exist in South Africa, albeit for a niche audience, both despite and because of the internet. Perhaps it is with good reason.
In an essay titled Drum: New Journalism, which will form part of his new collection, Bongani Madondo argues that the aesthetic innovations Tom Wolfe christened “new journalism” have their beginnings with the intrepid motley crew of Drum writers long before they exploded into global acclaim in the United States in the 1960s. Lately, we have seen a bit of a resurgence on home soil again.
When the premier issue of Chimurenga appeared in 2002, for example, it carried a 6 000-word piece on reggae musician Peter Tosh and a 9 000-word piece on Brenda Fassie, which Ndebele had written. Some of these stories, founding editor Ntone Edjabe said, were languishing in their writers’ hard drives.
“We didn’t feel like we were doing something new,” he said on the phone from Chimurenga’s base in Cape Town. “In fact, we were linking up to an old tradition of black writing. It was writing about place, almost like travel writing, the kind of stuff you’d find in the journal Transition in the Sixties and Staff Rider. In fact, that Peter Tosh piece was also published in Frank Talk in the Eighties. But that type of writing was becoming more and more difficult to find.”
It started out in print, but Chimurenga has morphed into an internet-savvy operation. But print, in its changing role, remains pivotal. The assembling of its epic edition, a “speculative” newspaper set during 2008’s xenophobic attack, was documented on the Chimurenga Newsroom blog.
The two editions of the African Cities Reader, a collection of long-form journalism and short stories set around the African urban experience, first appeared online before being printed after funding was raised and partnerships established.
Edjabe said Chimurenganyana, a series of stand-alone features published in booklet form and sold online as well as at street-corner newsstands, was an attempt to replicate, in real life, “everything that technology threw at us”, especially mobility.
Edjabe said the two series of Chimuranganyana each had a print run of 1 000 copies and have been reprinted four times, giving him a clear idea of what could work in the streets. For a long time, 1 000 has been the magic number for Chimurenga (its print run for many editions).
Edjabe said now, with the publication in its 16th edition, they can afford to pay writers a standard rate – standard because “longer does not necessarily equal better”.
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