M&G needed now just as much as it was 30 years ago

When the Weekly Mail started printing 30 years ago, Billboard magazine’s top 100 songs for 1985 had George Michael and Wham! at number one with Careless Whisper, and featured artists such as Prince and Huey Lewis and the News.

It also included We Are the World by USA for Africa, a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, the proceeds of which went to famine relief in Africa.

Almost all the assumptions people had about the things and people mentioned in that opening sentence have been confounded by the passage of time. In 1985, most fans of Wham! would probably have picked Andrew Ridgeley as the band member most likely to get bust for “engaging in a lewd act” with a man in a public toilet. If you’d asked people who the weird one was out of Prince and Michael Jackson, we’d have chosen Prince. And a band name like the News signified freshness, currency and a certain privileged knowledge: now, news to most people is a 24-hour commodity washing over us like a river of warm sludge, enlivened by the occasional drowning that’s broadcast live on TV, or tweets surfacing like polished turds.

And the Weekly Mail itself is no more, a name that, at the time, evoked two things no longer necessary to the transmission of news: “Weekly”, a structured delivery time to plan your news consumption around, and “Mail”, a delivery platform that guaranteed familiarity and stability.

Now we are the Mail & Guardian to some, mg.co.za to more, and an anonymous link from social media to many. News now demands that we publish on multiple platforms at any and, it sometimes feels, every time of the day and night.

Like all great mythological beasts, the M&G has its own origin myth. Group of plucky anti-apartheid journalists bands together against the odds, fights the evil dragon of government oppression and becomes the sweetly lucid voice of rebellion and goodness.

But unlike other fairy tales, this one isn’t allowed the satisfying and convenient privilege of an ending.

One of the reasons is that this tale is actually true – the women and men who started the M&G and fought the good fight were, indeed, some of the finest and most courageous journalists South Africa has seen. They didn’t stand outside history looking in – they made history. And history, like Jacob Zuma’s evasion of responsibility for Nkandla, is endless. History never pays back the money, it just keeps racking up the bills.

This is why the M&G is as important now as the Weekly Mail was in 1985, and as necessary. Because governments and big business might be good, or they might be bad, but in either case they require exactly the same amount of oversight and investigation by media and civil society. Necessary, however, doesn’t mean inevitable.

When I said that the M&G‘s creation myth isn’t allowed an ending, I was of course alluding to the fact that the business of newspapers is irrevocably broken, and we are now consumed by the reinvention of the business of news.

All print newspapers are threatened with extinction, and most in South Africa will inevitably succumb, either eaten by their own newborn digital children (if they’re lucky), or obliterated by a new species such as social media.

The imperatives of the Weekly Mail‘s creation are irrelevant in the world today. There is no clear-cut “us and them” any more: it’s all a massive multiplicity of “me”.

This is a bad thing for the business of newspapers, but a great thing for the craft of journalism. There are so many different ways to tell stories, so many new audiences, and so many more people producing news.

The paradox that beggars us, contrary to the misconceptions of legacy media management, is that digital journalism is way more expensive to do than print journalism.

Awkwardly, it also brings in a fraction of the revenue. And investigative journalism is expensive in two ways: it requires large teams, and it produces too slowly for the insatiable demands of current news platforms.

Yet South Africa needs investigative journalism. Our continent needs it. Another of the confounded assumptions in my opening paragraph is the paternalistic tone of We Are the World – and the pessimistic view of Africa. It’s now 30 years later, and Africa is booming.

But only the wilfully blind would pretend that problems do not multiply with progress.

The M&G is committed to telling the stories of our continent, not just our country. The new digital opportunities allow us to do that, to contribute to larger conversations and to reach different audiences. As much as we enjoy the indulgence of looking back on 30 proud years, we know that it’s irrelevant. It’s what we do next that counts.

So I would ask you to support us, and to come with us on our journey to the many new M&G‘s of the future, and help us shape what the next three years (that’s 30 years in digital news time) brings.

Chris Roper is editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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