History

Mail & Guardian Online

The Mail & Guardian Online, previously known as the Electronic Mail & Guardian or the Daily Mail & Guardian, was founded in the mid-Nineties by Irwin Manoim and Bruce Cohen. It is one of the world's oldest news websites and among the first news sites on the African continent.

The M&G Online was previously co-owned by internet service provider MWeb, but was purchased back in 2008 by M&G Media Ltd. It is now a profitable online business, deriving revenues via online advertising.

Mail & Guardian newspaper

The Mail & Guardian was conceived, funded and launched in just six weeks in early 1985, by a group of journalists who had been retrenched after the closures of two of South Africa's leading liberal newspapers, the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express.

The paper, originally known as the Weekly Mail, was launched on a shoe-string budget of R50 000 (about $8 000), and relied for its survival on the sweated -- and often unpaid -- labour of a small staff and part-time volunteers. The early shareholders were liberal professionals, academics and business leaders who contributed a few thousand rands each as a gesture towards maintaining a tradition of critical journalism in an increasingly harsh political climate.

Since the fledgling company could not afford to buy mainstream technology, the paper was produced entirely on personal computers, becoming one of the world's earliest examples of Apple Macintosh-based desktop publishing.

During the Eighties, the Weekly Mail built up an international reputation as a vocal apartheid critic, leading to a number of clashes with the government that culminated in the paper's suspension in 1988.

The paper became a must-read for anyone interested in South African politics, and it built up a readership ranging from the still-jailed Nelson Mandela and the exiled African National Congress (ANC) leadership to key foreign policy decision-makers in Washington, London and Bonn. Indeed, it was an article in the Weekly Mail (describing plans for secret talks with the ANC) that precipated the resignation of president PW Botha.

In 1991, the Weekly Mail, together with the Guardian in London, broke the "Inkathagate" scandal, which described how police funds were being secretly channelled to Inkatha to block the ANC. Two Cabinet ministers fell from grace in the wake of the scandal and the weakened National Party government of FW de Klerk was obliged to reopen its stalled talks with the ANC.

Inkathagate was also the beginning of a closer relationship between the Weekly Mail and The Guardian, which bought a large share in the Weekly Mail, and helped to stabilise the small paper's precarious finances for the first time. In 1995, The Guardian became the majority shareholder in the paper, which was renamed the Mail & Guardian.

With the arrival of democratic government in 1994, many observers predicted that the M&G would lose its purpose -- and its voice. But in fact it has adapted admirably, and average circulation has gone up from about 25 000 a week to more than 50 000 per week.

The newspaper has demonstrated it is capable of being no less critical of the new dispensation than the old, without deviating from its former humanist philosophy. The paper is now particularly well known for its investigative reporting, particularly into corruption.

The paper has also found international credibility, winning numerous awards both internationally and locally over the years.

In 2002, the Guardian reduced its shareholding to 10%, selling a majority share in the newspaper of 87,5% to Newtrust Company Botswana Limited, owned by Zimbabwean publisher and entrepreneur Trevor Ncube. Having relocated to South Africa, Ncube also took over as CEO of the company.

What made it different?

The M&G has not become rich. There are no graphs to demonstrate that from day one circulation rocketed skywards. There are no trophies glittering in glass cases because we defied Cabinet ministers such as Adriaan Vlok, Magnus Malan, Stoffel Botha and their ilk, or because the paper was closed down. So what was it that made this newspaper... a little different?

- It was the first national newspaper in decades to be launched by an independent company outside the huge corporations that dominate English-language newspapers... and survive.

- In a frightened era when newspapers routinely vilified the ANC and its leaders as "terrorists", this was the first paper to put human faces to ANC leaders and provide balanced accounts of their activities and policies. It was also the first to discuss sympathetically such "fringe" issues as environmentalism, gay liberation and gender.

- This was the first paper whose news selection was colour-blind. All South African newspapers of the 1980s were aimed at racially defined markets, either black (Sowetan) or white (Business Day). Those newspapers that did reach black and white audiences (such as the Star or the Rand Daily Mail) provided separate "white" and "township" editions.

- This was the first newspaper to cover the emerging indigenous culture that arose in the early non-racial bars in central Johannesburg such as Jameson's, Kippies and the Black Sun; the fringe cabaret; and "cross-over" music.

More about the Mail & Guardian

- About the Mail & Guardian Online

- M&G's 20th anniversary

- Former Weekly Mail co-editor Irwin Manoim recalls the youthful enthusiasm and naiveté which got the newspaper off the ground

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