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Digital pioneer whose kindness stood out

OBITUARY

Matthew Buckland, 1974-2019

Matthew Buckland’s obituary should be a word cloud of the most commonly used terms in the tributes that flooded social media after the announcement of his death. Besides the ubiquitous “digital”, the words “mentor”, “pioneer” and “friend” were writ large. Outsourcing his tribute to an algorithm might have amused the digital part of his being. But he would also have been mildly annoyed, because as much as Buckland was one of the founding citizens of that country we call the internet, he was also a writer who valued the authority and complexity of more traditional forms of journalism.

His journalism training, courtesy of Rhodes University, stood him in good stead when he took over the running of the Mail & Guardian’s digital properties in 2001. Before accepting the job, he met me in a pool bar in Cape Town so that he could pick my brain about the relationship between the M&G and the Naspers company MWeb, which were majority owners at the time.

For him, the chance to work for a prestigious newspaper wasn’t enough of a draw. He was intent on making use of the huge technology muscle of MWeb to turn the M&G into a digital force, and when that relationship ended, he and his team just built everything themselves anyway.

That confluence of publishing and tech innovation threaded through much of what Buckland was. He has been given deserved credit for his entrepreneurial skills and pioneering work in the digital media space, such as Creative Spark, the company he founded after leaving 20FourLabs, 24.com’s app development division. But what really set him apart was his ability to inspire people to believe in, and understand, the promise of digital, and especially those most difficult people of all, media professionals.

At the M&G, Buckland and then owner Trevor Ncube forged a powerful relationship based on a mutual belief in the potential of digital to transform the landscape of journalism, and to thereby strengthen and protect democratic institutions.

Many of the other Buckland obituaries will foreground the incredible success he had with building, consolidating and then selling his digital agency, or as a publisher/owner in his own right with Burn Media. But for me, the true measure of his talents was his ability to forge the M&G into a digital property punching far, far above its under-resourced weight, and to thereby provoke and inspire competitors to pay a lot more attention to their own digital media innovation. At the time, there were very few legacy media companies in the world with management and editorial so in sync about the importance of building digital news.

But Buckland wasn’t just adept at selling the business vision — he was also good at inspiring on an individual basis, and many stories have surfaced about his willingness to help people on the difficult path from print expert to digital beginner.

Ncube, for example, credits Buckland with introducing him to the internet. On social media, former M&G editor Ferial Haffajee wrote of how Buckland taught her to tweet, how to blog on Thought Leader, the pioneering (there’s that word again) M&G blogging platform that he started and also how he taught her, “gently, that we could not kill the internet when I was a nervous print editor faced with the Great Disruption”.

In these testimonies, Buckland’s kindness stands out.

When I arrived at the M&G, shortly after Buckland left, I was amused to find that about 13 different content management systems had been built to manage the M&G’s — and therefore Buckland’s — digital aspirations, all with passwords that were variations of the quaint phrase “electronic Mail & Guardian”. It spoke of a history of bootstrapping and pioneering, of making magic out of limited resources.

Many people besides Buckland were prescient enough to see the future but, as Arthur Goldstuck (who Buckland introduced to Twitter in a bar in Grahamstown) wrote, he was one of the few who could also make the future happen.

Buckland was that rare breed of internet evangelist who was intensely, vehemently passionate about its potential, but also ruthlessly pragmatic about what was possible.

As much as he was an inspiration to many, he was also perfectly capable of crushing someone’s misplaced dream. But few of the people who suffered his more hard-nosed journalistic or business side questioned his expertise.

Strangely, the outpouring of grief on social media appears to come not only from people who knew him well, but also those who only tangentially encountered him. It appears that we haven’t just lost a man who was loved, but also a symbol of a certain kind of belief in a future built on a crumbling past.

Buckland is survived by his wife, Bridget, and their two daughters. — Chris Roper

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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