/ 27 December 2023

Media like the Mail & Guardian are critical for democracy

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The first time I walked into a South African newsroom as an intern — discounting my year in Lesotho following a woman to work in a weekly and now sadly defunct newspaper — was in an internet start-up of a publication in a very small financial news market led by Business Day, then edited by Peter Bruce. That was in about 2003, some 20 years ago. 

The Alec Hogg-founded and -led Moneyweb was ahead of its time in the country, breaking corporate news immediately and online without the assistance of social media to amplify its voice. While you’d have to wait the next day for an in-depth news angle on any corporate activity or rand movements of the previous day if you’d follow our rivals, in that small office at the corner of Bolton Road and Jan Smuts Avenue we’d tell you on that same day and as fast as humanly possible. 

Added to that, there’d be an evening radio show where business luminaries such as Brian Bruce and more rather infamous ones such as Brett Kebble would come into the studios to tell, in Kebble’s case, very tall stories in a manner only he could. 

To those that followed the Moneyweb story, we were disruptors and were showing legacy media houses with their newspapers such as Times Media (now Arena Holdings) and even Naspers with its host of titles such as the City Press what the future of media was. 

It was hard work but, most exciting for me, it was a place where we were the challengers, a place of growth and fast learning. Technological developments weren’t to be ignored, as many a publisher was doing in not only the South African market but many of the world’s leading houses.

Regardless of the “start-up” nature of my journalism journey, there was always the appeal of Johannesburg’s legacy newspapers. Being from the little town of Pietermaritzburg, I grew up with the Natal Witness and its Echo pages, dedicated to news for black people. It was an institution and in my high school years, one I thought I would one day edit.

There’s a reverence that comes with these legacy publications that, no matter how thrilling the start-up, one couldn’t ignore. So despite the groundbreaking manner in which I started my career, I always yearned for the smoke-filled newsrooms that I imagined were alive and well in the buildings that housed the Sunday Times, Business Day, The Star (at a particular point in time) and, of course, my now beloved Mail & Guardian

It’s where I wanted to work and where I wanted to influence change in my own manner — taking the learnings from Presidents Place, the Moneyweb headquarters. I’d always be their future-proof correspondent no matter the beat — because all I wanted to do was learn as much as possible about whatever sector to understand how South Africa works. Apart from The Star, I’ve worked in most of these newsrooms and had spells at international news agencies that are, in some ways, leap years ahead of our local rags, but also rather similar.

But by the time I walked into these newsrooms with people such as Neels Blom, they weren’t smoke-filled, for which we can thank Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma. But in these newsrooms — despite the limitations caused by falling circulation figures, shrinking newsrooms and revenues in the face of the rise of this digital age — there lived a dedication to produce a new physical and digital product to a market every single day. 

It’s a discipline and dedication that not many executives who focus on margins or the earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation line can understand; to some that I’ve met it’s madness. 

In the good old days when newspapers and their sales staff waited for orders to pour in from advertisers, the meetings between suits and the creative class were brief and few and far between. But certainly in the years I’ve been a journalist, there’ve been some bruising encounters between management and the journalists as the ground shifted under their feet. 

In their mad panic, talent has been lost in the industry as managers focused on cutting costs instead of on quality and, much like South African politics today, the newsroom is not as attractive for the best skills. 

Bad managers have risen to the fore, while those with a greater appreciation of journalism have sought greener pastures or been shell-shocked by the shifting landscape. 

It’s a cycle that the Mail & Guardian has been through like all other legacy publishers in the country. The M&G has been less shielded from the changes because of its lack of other titles to offset some of the pressure. There are numerous titles under the News24 platform; there are about six titles under Arena and a number of titles under Independent Media.

The M&G has stood alone, its many mistakes and successes a spectacle for all to see without the smoke and mirrors afforded by a more diverse portfolio. As its editor-in-chief for almost three years, I’ve borne witness to the scrutiny that comes with leading such a prestigious title that has, like all publishers, made some bad decisions in the digital age that promised much initially but was soon upended by the likes of Google and then the social media titans such as Facebook. 

During my time at the M&G, which began during Covid, I pushed everyone to let go of the mistakes made in navigating its future, and build for what media is today and to always be nimble enough for changes to come. From what essentially was a print-first publication — not through a lack of trying by previous and some great editors — we moved to digital-first with a prestigious print offering at the end of every week. 

The cultural changes that this move came with were difficult, especially with resource constraints shared with most of the media industry. The leaders in the team put their shoulders to the wheel and worked at the changes introduced over the past three years and, today, it operates as it should — answering to a digital audience. 

I leave the publication now in need of investment, not further restructuring, like most legacy publications that have faced up to the digital challenges. It’s an industry that has paid some of the hardest lessons in this age. 

But now more than ever, with democracies around the world facing threats of misinformation and the unleashing of artificial intelligence, supporting publications with the depth of legacy that Mail & Guardian is critical. 

Subscription and advertising revenues will not be enough to simply grow themselves out of the position of uncertainty. With 20 years of experience, I leave journalism with a heavy heart but I know it’s time to do so and allow a new guard to take over and reshape our newsrooms, to bring new energy and to inspire confidence among existing media owners and entice new shareholders into the noblest of trades. 

Legacy publications such as the Mail & Guardian, with its long memories, are critical to our democracy.