A 21st-century M&G

For a relatively small newspaper, the sale of the Mail & Guardian to the Zimbabwean publisher Trevor Ncube in 2002 caused a big buzz.

There was much discussion about what the new and first black owner’s plans for the paper were.

I sat next to the award-winning journalist Khadija Magardie at a Wits meeting on ‘The future of the M&G” hosted by Anton Harber, one of the newspaper’s founding editors with Irwin Manoim.

Magardie, ever sassy, asked Ncube what his plans were: Would a black editor be appointed? There was a discomfort in the hall and he (ever the diplomat) replied that there would be no major changes.

It made me sad because it seemed that our beloved newspaper needed a 21st-century makeover, which many of us hoped he would bring. Too often, transformation is equated only with a change of colour, but the paper needed an injection of freshness and youth to add to its award-winning recipe of investigation and thought.

Months later, Mondli Makhanya was appointed editor. Ncube had scored big: he had had a dream, as a student, to own the M&G. His dream editor, ever since Makhanya wrote a story about tomato-sellers in Harare, was Mondli.

It had always been my life goal to edit the M&G and I grabbed the opportunity when it arose a little more than 20 months later, once Makhanya had left to edit the Sunday Times.

From the time that Harber and Manoim had pooled their retirement packages (of R2 500 each) and persuaded various family members and friends to do the same to start The Weekly Mail, it had always been a newspaper that made dreams come true and which would be run for the next 20 years on the power of dreams.

With no Randlord or monopoly capital to draw on, the newspaper has existed on love, fresh air and benefactors who understood the value of the project started by Harber and Manoim.

Ncube has begun to turn the newspaper around, weaning it off The Guardian‘s deep pockets and insisting that it be run on its own steam. For the first time ever, we have fights with advertising, complaining that there’s too much of it! Shrinking space is often a nightmare to edit around, but financial independence from donors and from large overdrafts is an essential part of the newspaper’s independence.

The M&G turned 20 in June and there was cause for celebration as the newspaper inched out of the red into the black.

But, on the eve of its birthday edition, the newspaper was gagged. It was appropriate, ironic even. We failed to defend against the gag. And, instead of blowing out candles, we spent the night almost literally blowing the ink dry as we struggled to get a new edition on to the streets.

It was all too familiar to the stories I’d read about in the early days of The Weekly Mail: the bleary eyes. The blanked-out pages. The lawyers on site. Angry words daubed on to an unusual page-two editorial. How on earth had this happened in a democracy, the editorial shouted in indignation?!

In the weeks that followed, there was a lot else that was familiar too. Camaraderie and support. People came into the office to offer help with deliveries. A freelance sub—editor offered to work a free shift. A reader pledged R100. Another wrote a poem. Messages of support poured in. The story became a ‘Gate” — Oilgate. Like the range of Gates (Inkathagate; the third force exposés) in the Eighties and Nineties, Oilgate entrenched the newspaper as a publication of fine investigations, one unafraid to challenge power no matter how much tougher it is in a democracy.

Corruption can and does happen in a democracy, but the stakes are much higher when the government is democratically elected, when it is ours, not alien as was apartheid’s order. It was expected then; it is inexcusable now.

Many things Harber has said to me over the years I’ve known him have rung true now that I walk in his moccasins.

But none is more so than his injunction to Ncube at that 2002 meeting: ‘The thing about the M&G,” he said, ‘is that everybody thinks they own the paper .... Its staff think they own the paper. So do the readers. You’ll find that you own it on paper, but it’s not all yours in practice.”

As editor for almost two years now, I could add a few more categories of owners. Political parties. Our very own poet, David Kapp. The left. The right. And certainly, its staff and readers.

An editorial meeting of the M&G on a good night is a thing to behold. It is where the newspaper’s journalists debate the newspaper’s stance on the issues of the day. Our decision on whether to endorse a political party in 2004 took a month to reach. The editorial meetings are (nearly) always intellectually stimulating, passionate and hard-fought. It is often surprising: discussing whether we supported Brian van Rooyen’s robust efforts to reform South African rugby, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya put up a feisty battle while Lloyd Gedye gave him a thumbs-up.

Staff are invested in the newspaper in ways that I have not experienced elsewhere: a missed print slot is not only the business or concern of the chief operating officer on the M&G. On those mornings, the newsroom feels like a funeral parlour. An editorial, with narrow majority support, like the one recently warning the nation to ‘Be afraid — be very afraid” of a Zuma presidency has generated huge newsroom debates on how we will cover the succession in the ANC.

This cacophony of thought and the passion of intense debate, especially among the younger generation of M&Gers, is inspiring and heartening. I hope that our next generation — Thebe Mabanga, Yolandi Groenewald, Moya, Rapule Tabane, Vicki Robinson, Matuma Letsoalo — will stay with the newspaper to form its future leadership core. That the newspaper can attract (and keep) such a fine team of new talent and old hands is testimony to the fact that this has always been home to the finest professionals in whom the newspaper’s culture has become ingrained.

Readers too are invested: the same editorial earned me flaming SMSes from supporters of Zuma and so many letters we couldn’t possibly print them all.

Each had the feel of passionate composition. Every week, we receive enough reader correspondence to triple the size of our letters spread.

And the Comment & Analysis section of the newspaper is largely written by its readers. Every week, readers offer their opinions on everything from palaeontology to politics; from religion to reform. In the new year we hope to expand the letters pages because it is often an exciting spread of opinion that is a nation debating itself.

The brain-power of the land reads the newspaper and it is an enormous privilege and a challenge to write for such an audience, which points out poor grammar and intellectual paucity with equal glee.

In the past six or seven years, there has been pressure on contrarian South Africans to conform around a political consensus, South-East Asian style. We are not such a nation: we debate and we differ; we speak up and march. It is a national attribute we should never lose and the M&G exists to nurture this. Truth, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu argued last year, is strengthened, not threatened, by scrutiny.

Over the years, the newspaper has expanded beyond South Africa. It is a well-known African title and is respected across the continent. In the new year, we also plan to start an Africa section that will help us to grow into our ambitions as ‘Africa’s best read”. In time, the newspaper should be African with different regional editions. And we hope that the award-winning investigation team will become a training ground for a generation of investigative reporters at first from Southern Africa and then gradually from the rest of the continent.

There is still a lot to do to make the newspaper a completely compelling read. Our readers tell us so: be they the ones who claim that ‘I never read the newspaper any more” to those who send considered letters. The Friday section needs a makeover: we have lost our place as a leading newspaper of the arts, literature and lifestyle because there is a lot more competition and because its costs have been cut.

I mean to reclaim the space.

We are not nearly as grounded in poor communities as a newspaper with a liberal and social democratic leaning should be. In the new year, we will tell the stories of South Africa by embedding where it counts. There is fertile ground to be ploughed in working out why there is such a disconnect between political word and deed; in understanding why more than 30 communities rose in anger and despair against local authorities this year.

And we are not nearly as funny and culturally on the pulse as the old Weekly Mail was. As we create a 21st-century newspaper, it is always worth looking backward to what the newspaper was.

And it’s also appropriate that a newspaper like the M&G must be owned again by its journalists, if only in part. Ncube is not averse to the idea of an employee share-ownership plan, which will take the pressure of profit off the newspaper. It should do well enough to earn each of us who work here a decent livelihood, but this is a newspaper run for reasons other than massive gain. As the M&G Media group, we need to find other lucrative ventures to support this important South African voice.

We hope you will continue to do so and that you will continue to own this fine publication. Read it. Write it. Critique it. For the next 20 years and then some.

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