A little while ago, we hosted some of the founders of The Weekly Mail, the predecessor to the Mail & Guardian where I am deputy editor. They were there to commemorate a recently deceased colleague, Shaun Johnson. During one of the most repressive eras of the apartheid government’s media crackdown, the suave, Oxford-educated Johnson had joined the paper and quickly went about making a name for himself as a political reporter. He was also able to hobnob with the diplomatic and moneyed set and proved an important campaigner for the paper, at one point playing a pivotal role in ensuring that an imminent banning order was not enforced. Johnson conducted one of the first interviews with the newly released Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in 1990, owing in no small part to the high esteem The Weekly Mail was held in.
I thought of Johnson when the M&G’s CEO announced to staff in March that they’d likely not be able to pay salaries by the end of the month. So, instead of editing the lead story, proofing pages, and helping with the front-page design on deadline day, I was helping craft an appeal to our readers. We told them that our revenue model — split between 70% advertising and 20% live events — was in the toilet due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.
South Africa acted really fast on Covid-19, with a transit lockdown, national disaster declaration, and then a complete national lockdown as the number of positive tested cases was in the triple digits, and before anyone had died of the disease. This meant an immediate and dramatic hit on the economy with no time to think around it. For a small, independent newspaper with an editorial staff of 30 and a reliance on a weekly paper to bring in advertising, there is little leeway.
We know that what we do is critical to this country’s well-being.
We have arguably the best investigative unit in the country, people who were among the first to produce irrefutable evidence of the corrupt tendrils of a nefarious family controlling many levers of the state. We are the only media house to have a dedicated desk that produces original content from and about the rest of Africa. We’ve exposed the scourge of sexual harassment across the NGO sector and are challenging the rules around reporting it. We have a lawyer-turned-journo who the legal fraternity turns to, a veteran climate change and environmental expert who’s convinced us on more than one occasion to lead with the topic, and a data desk that has quickly proven invaluable. And in South Africa, when everyone else’s gaze seemed to be elsewhere, we were leading with hard-hitting investigative and data stories related to Covid-19.
We have a lot going for us. We always have.
From the founding of the paper in 1985 and the introduction of the then-revolutionary idea of desktop publishing to launching the first online news publication in Africa in 1994, the M&G’s early adoption of technological advances has been integral to its success. What went wrong between then and now is a story that has more answers than column inches allow.
This bought some time and, in moves that may seem counterintuitive considering the technological leaps of the past, we’ve gone back to the basics — we’ve rebuilt a strong newsroom that produces quality, compelling journalism; we’ve successfully partnered with donors who’ve complemented our work to secure a new cadre of journalists, especially black womxn journalists, who have historically been the most marginalized in our profession; we’ve rebuilt our website from the patchwork that it was (in previous years we’d crash because someone forgot to renew a free-trial program); we’ve adopted a subscription/membership hybrid that is easy to use (one avid follower relayed how it took him six hours to subscribe online under the previous system).
Over the past week I’ve also been poring over all the news and opinions related to the fate of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The once proud 178-year-old regional paper has been reduced to four journalists. The editor speaks in a fashion that denies the reality of the ruins that surround him. It all sounds hauntingly familiar. The M&G, staff this week agreed to salary cuts on a sliding scale. In a country with an unemployment rate of 38% and where one person’s salary often supports extended families, what we commonly refer to as “black tax,” the decision has carried additional weight. Staff have been able to negotiate shrewdly with management to gain important concessions on representation in decision-making meetings, reduced work weeks, and greater editorial control of the operation. We know that this will not necessarily be the last of the bloodletting but even in this most dire of circumstances, there is a greater feeling of having a hand in our destiny.
Shortly after we made our impassioned appeal to our readers in March a number of things started happening. With a storied contemporary history such as that of the M&G, the messages of support were overwhelming. Some of our firmest detractors, who’d very recently deemed us an “unworthy rag,” donated money. Local online publication Daily Maverick republished our appeal, themselves exhorting their readers to support us. Other news organizations joined in. Like many trusted news organizations we’ve seen a massive bump in our online readership, which at one point quadrupled. Most encouragingly, even as this “new normal” of lockdown sets in (we’re into week three of at least five), we are still maintaining higher traffic. In the end, our subscription base has grown faster than ever before and now covers about one third of the editorial salary bill. That’s the basic math we use to navigate this crisis; how many journalists’ jobs can we save.
The bosses were caught off-guard by this editorial position and some were either pissed off at the shame we’d wrought on the company by publicly admitting our crisis, or adopted a noticeable silence on it. It was at Lippmann House during my Nieman fellowship that one of the countless, brilliant visitors offered the same advice as he’d offered to The New York Times and many others who’d called on his services: imagine yourself as dead. If you’re dead, there’s nowhere farther to fall. Nothing to try to hold onto. And now, you can and will do anything. When we lay bare our position to readers we imagined ourselves as dead. And in that there is no shame.
We know that the world will never be the same after this pandemic has done its worst. That there is no God-given right for anything to be as it was. In offering our readers an unvarnished look into our operation we also have to remind them of the best of what we offer. And that, that is our people.