Print is dead. The digital revolution continues

The staff of the early Weekly Mail were united by a shared antipathy to implements with plugs on the end. The lifespan of a kettle was a half-dozen mugs of Nescafé. A car would live longer, but suffer more deeply, paint lacerated, doors sagging, carburettor hyperventilating.
The newsroom was the epicentre of technodread. Daily, there came this plaintive cry: ‘The *@^#% computer won’t %$#&* print my %*@# story!”

You will understand, then, why I have waited 20 years before taking this opportunity to reveal the following: unbeknown to most of the staff, and despite their worst efforts, the paper was something of a technological pioneer.

The Weekly Mail was the first example of desktop publishing in this country. It might have been the first commercial newspaper on planet Earth to use this technology. The Weekly Mail was also the first newspaper in Africa to venture on to the internet. It did so at a time when most highly educated people said: ‘Interwhatwhatsthat?”

The story begins in April 1985 when a small group held nightly vigils in a Yeoville flat to fantasise, not entirely convincingly, about starting our own newspaper. One lunchtime, I was browsing the stacks at the CNA, when I chanced upon a magazine cover announcing an amazing new device, a laser printer. Inside were sample printouts that looked plausibly as if they’d come from a commercial print shop.

It dawned on me that if a laser printer could produce text that looked ‘printed”, it might eliminate the need for typesetting equipment, darkrooms, chemicals and skilled technicians. It might make it possible for people with almost no money to produce a newspaper.

And that, give or take a few matters of detail, is what happened.

The first purchase by the nascent Weekly Mail was an Apple LaserWriter. It was flown in especially from Holland, arriving 10 days before lift-off. I became rather fond of that squat white box. It was, in many ways, the reason The Weekly Mail became more than just a dream.

Not that the laser printer’s talents turned out quite as sophisticated as advertised in the magazine. When we finally coaxed the first page from it — and that took hours of anguish — the text proved scraggly and unusable.

Frantic experiments followed. In the end, we discovered that acceptable text could be produced by printing everything three times larger than needed, then reducing on a photostat machine.

The early Weekly Mail was a peculiar paper, set entirely in Times Roman (Times Bold didn’t work properly), its oddities dictated by the limitations of the laser printer. The most severe side effect was its effect on photographs, which resembled the mud-encrusted relics of an ancient civilisation.

It didn’t matter. The laser printer’s legacy went beyond The Weekly Mail. It brought newspaper publishing within the budgets of communities around the country. Within a few months, an ‘alternative” weekly press had mushroomed, based on The Weekly Mail‘s production techniques. Today, every newspaper in the country is produced this way.

The Weekly Mail‘s next technological revolution had to wait eight years. In the dying days of apartheid, the paper built up a sizable audience of homesick expats abroad, who would pore lovingly over every last word. But each copy they bought cost us more than we got back. My colleague, Bruce Cohen, suggested a solution: making the entire text of the newspaper available by e-mail.

E-mail? Not many people even knew what it was. But expat South Africans were among the rare exceptions — e-mail kept them in touch at long distance.

Huge discounts were offered to any subscriber willing to switch from print to e-mail. There was an added temptation for readers abroad: the e-mail edition arrived promptly on Friday morning, not half a week late like the print edition.

The e-mail edition quickly led to other things. An online newspaper archive, free to the public. An online discussion forum, some of whose participants would one day shape South African politics.

But the big moment was taking to the newly invented World Wide Web. In early 1995, Cohen and I quit the print paper to devote ourselves fulltime to the pursuit of ‘electronic publishing”. We moved to cramped offices in a distant, leprous corner, where our print colleagues could safely avoid us.

The few who asked, and none was foolish to ask a second time, would be treated to discourses on these lines: a revolution was afoot. Print was dead; online publishing the future. The company’s survival depended on staying a jump ahead of the opposition. We would be first to market, the dominant player in electronic media.

Cohen sold his first advert to Mercedes-Benz. It cost less than a classified, but the company never paid. What should an online advert look like? Cohen wanted it at the top of the page, an idea so crass that our partnership nearly ended there and then. It took a while before a second brainwave struck home: the advert should click through to a Mercedes website. Mercedes said it didn’t have a website. Further, it didn’t want one.

We hired a tiny staff, true believers like the early Weekly Mailers. We began doing what no other South African newspaper website has done, before or since: we wrote our own articles and produced a publication entirely distinct from the print edition, updated 18 hours a day. We were masters of the field, and we knew it. Unfortunately, we alone knew it. Some of the kindlier people on the print edition staff said: ‘You guys must miss being journalists.”

The electronic Weekly Mail (later called the eM&G), dominated online news in South Africa until the end of the Nineties. For several years it drew more audience than all the websites of its newspaper rivals added together. It did something else that I was careful not to advertise too widely: it drew more audience than the printed paper.

On the other side of the office, our colleagues on the print edition saw our efforts slightly differently. A tiny newspaper company that could barely pay its own bills was funding an experiment that showed no signs of bringing in revenue.

When a cash-flow crisis struck the newspaper in 1997, there seemed one ready solution. The website was sold to a new company willing to pay an absurdly generous sum. The company was called M-Web. It owns all online rights of the Mail & Guardian to this day. The price it paid was half a million rands.

I am occasionally asked what happened to the online renaissance and the death of print. Like any respectable prophet, I am unmoved by various facts that seem to trouble others. Just wait for the 30th birthday. They’ll be holding it online.

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