Innovative leader has to keep its sights on the future

Big birthdays are bound to be nostalgic. We are probably thinner in the photographs dug out for the occasion, perhaps we are laughing. If we are newspaper people, we may be doing earnest things in black and white, which makes us feel like the faded first draft of the history we were trying to write.

For those who were present at the birth of the Weekly Mail (later to become the Mail & Guardian) – and midwifed it into the cold and violent winter of 1985 – the family album is the paper itself, with its tone of defiance and its roster of great bylines.

But what do those memories mean for the rest of us, 30 years later? Plenty.

The Weekly Mail surely could not have been expected to survive. It was a financially ludicrous proposition, floated on the savings of impecunious journalists and kept alive by erratic donations. It was legally risky. And it was powered by the new, agile technology of desktop publishing, which kept its fixed costs low. Of course, it was editorially thrilling, a Friday jolt of utterly committed reporting in an environment dominated by the journalism of the status quo, and it seemed in every way a product of its time. It might have been expected to die sometime around 1994, with the consolidation of democracy and big media. Of the alternative press that sprang up amid the wreckage of late apartheid, no other title remains.

Why did the M&G survive?

It found a reliable source of funding for its persistent losses in the Guardian. And later it had, in Trevor Ncube, a proprietor determined to make the paper stand on its own feet commercially.

But money, as utterly crucial as it has been since the start, cannot tell you why it is that the M&G not only still exists, but also still matters.

The real answer is its journalism, recalibrated – with some difficulty – following the 1994 elections to function not from the outside of an illegal system, but woven into the accountability framework of a democratic one.

And it is major acts of accountability journalism that have kept the M&G relevant ever since, both through epochal scoops – the arms deal, Jackie Selebi, Nkandla – and utterly dogged follow-up.

The late Mandy Rossouw first told the country about Jacob Zuma’s palace on a hill after a reporting trip to Nkandla, on which she had hoped to discover how the president’s home town was developing following his election, a classic piece of shoe-leather reporting.

As the scandal built momentum, however, it was legal action under the Promotion of Access to Information Act by amaBhungane that forced thousands of pages of documents into the public domain and laid the foundations for public protector Thuli Madonsela’s critical report on the process.

That approach, weaving together basic journalistic discipline with a determination to test and develop the constitutional framework around freedom of speech and information, is the hallmark of the M&G‘s approach, something no other media outlet has invested as much in.

Of course, a great newspaper needs more than big investigative stories. It must make sense not just of Marikana but also of Maboneng, it must be in our neighbourhoods, and boardrooms, and across the borders of neighbouring countries. Its readers must recognise their own world in it, if they are to accept its accounts of the unfamiliar or the shocking. It must whistle and dance and speak a language more subtle than outrage.

At its best, the M&G has always achieved all these things, which is why we are able to celebrate its 30th year. That does not mean we can be entirely sanguine about the future, however.

South Africa is an immeasurably more hospitable environment for journalism now than it was in 1985, but the changes sweeping the news business, as well as growing regulatory and political pressure, are vectoring in sharply.

Print circulation and revenues are in steep decline almost across the board. In many countries afflicted by similar economic and technological change, that decline is being offset by extraordinary innovation in both journalism and the business model for news.

From New York to Manila, new revenue streams are being tested and new capabilities being developed. Journalism powered by data, distributed across social platforms, and engaged with its audiences is reaching and empowering more people than ever before.

When I moved to Delhi in late 2013, South African news organisations seemed well ahead of Indian ones in their digital capabilities, both commercial and journalistic. In just two years, that has reversed as big Indian media companies respond to the whiplash speed of change in audience habits and new start-ups launch every few weeks.

Here at home, as Anton Harber has pointed out, too many established news organisations are reliant on putting into print what was said yesterday on social media. And the start-up scene seems thin and unimaginative. Where are the mobile first-vernacular sites? The socially accelerated offerings for a young, demanding new audience?

The M&G‘s clarity of purpose and voice positions it better for success in the digital present than some of its larger rivals. But it is not enough to be well positioned. The M&G succeeds when it leads. In 1985 that meant great public-interest journalism, product innovation and deep engagement with new technology.

Nostalgia is a warm and hazy pleasure, but the relevance of those lessons is hard, bright and clear.

Nic Dawes is a former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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