South Africa's Mail and Guardian in the Eye of the Digital Disruption Storm but Looking to Improving Financial Results

South Africa's Mail and Guardian is one of those African newspapers that sits squarely in the eye of the storm of digital disruption. Tomorrow's online future seems to suit best those with mass audiences. Russell Southwood spoke to the Mail and Guardian's Editor Khadija Patel to get an early progress report on how it's going.

The Mail and Guardian started life under Apartheid in 1985 as the Weekly Mail and was one of the first South African newspapers to use Apple Mac desktop publishing for production. In 2002 the paper was sold to Zimbabwean Trevor Ncube and is now part of his Alpha Media Holdings. It owns four newspaper titles in Zimbabwe: NewsDay, Southern Eye, The Zimbabwe Independent, and The Standard. The other shareholder is the US-based Media Diversity Fund.

Khadija Patel was appointed Editor in October last year and she was the founder of the Daily Vox that merged with the Mail and Guardian. Previously she was a Senior Reporter at the Daily Maverick, another online South African newspaper.

Patel has taken on a considerable challenge as overall newspaper print circulations are going down in South Africa: "We have had a dip (in print circulation) in the last quarter but have bucked the trend over the last 18 months where we saw increases in our circulation". According to South Africa's ABC Q1, 2017 circulation report, the Mail & Guardian has fallen to 30,148 from 34,442 and the City Press (also a weekly) declined to 71,710 from 91,339. Almost all South African daily newspapers have seen a decline in their print sales.

On the online side, unique user numbers are more optimistic. The Mail and Guardian has 1.4 million unique users worldwide, of whom 800,000-1 million are in South Africa itself. 60.46% of those users access the paper on their mobile phone. The bulk of the remainder use a laptop or desktop PC with less than 10% using tablets. 63% have a Facebook account and 38% have a Twitter account.

Significant numbers of users have gone from reading a print newspaper to accessing the newspaper's content on their phone. Also the high level of Facebook and Twitter use among readers mean that there is considerable competition for their attention. Even allowing for a generous 10 readers per print copy, the majority of its readers are now digital.

As Patel told me:"It's a bloodbath. Fewer and fewer South Africans are buying newspapers. It's really testing to see print revenues translated into digital revenues. Technology has disrupted our industry."

It faces the classic digital squeeze that newspapers everywhere are trying to survive. The bulk of its revenues are still driven by print: 60% including both print sales and advertising. The balance comes from events (20%) and digital advertising (10%). In other words as yet there is no way that digital advertising will support a newspaper business model with this scale of readers.

And this is despite the Mail and Guardian having a classic professional set of high-end readers: "They are well informed professionals, senior people in business circles, CEOs of banks and Government leaders: The Presidency is a reader of the Mail and Guardian. We get responses from the President's office.

"We're trying to reach a younger readership. The current audience is a little older. It's predominantly a Black audience and we're reaching a younger Black audience. We have a mix of content that speaks to a young Black audience in urban areas. We have a popular arts section and we've sought to confront traditional ways of doing an arts platform. We assert a Black voice in the arts.

"The traditional White middle class audience is shrinking and the Black middle class is growing. The South African English print media is struggling to talk to this audience. Journalism has become embedded with the elites in society." She says she has "a good cohort of young Black journalists."

So what level of profitability has the Mail and Guardian got now after several years of making losses?: "We're encouraged by a healthy profit at the end of last year and a good performance over the last quarter. We're on track to claw back past losses."

One thing that has helped staunch the financial bleeding has been running events. The most popular of the event series it hosts is the Critical Thinking Forum which is organized around particular topics like South Africa's sugar tax, roads safety, children's welfare and Brexit and the BRICs. These are sponsored by big brands like Coca Cola: "We bring these people - the news makers - to our readers."

On a more prosaic level it organizes B2B events. For example, the Japanese Embassy is putting forward its trade offering and the invites to the event go out through the M & G database: "We discover who the best people are."

But how does the Mail and Guardian fit into the world of listicles?: "There's a place for things like listicles but I think it may be the death of the long-form. No-one is reading us as a wire service. Our readers want our take on the world and give a unique take on what's happening - the why and how things are happening."

So how does Patel see the current state of press freedom in South Africa?: "We have it better in South Africa than say in Zimbabwe. In theory we enjoy a good level of press freedom, protected by a progressive constitution and the judiciary remains strong an d independent. So press freedom exists both in theory and in practice." But she touches on a more disquieting trend: "There is surveillance of journalists by the security services. Knowledge of surveillance is widespread but none of us can prove it.

"A number of crucial things have emerged over the last few years. Media ownership and the plurality of ownership has changed. We need not to feel threatened by newcomers like the New Age. There's a change of ownership at The Independent and at Times Media Group. But the issue is the extent to which media owners dictate the policy of their newspapers. That dictates the extent to which we can call our media free.

"The public broadcaster (SABC) has been severely diminished in its power to do good journalism. It's been directed in such a way as to make it a Government mouthpiece. It's got a long way to go before it recovers."

But she ends on a more optimistic note: "Eight journalists who protested against this process (of making the SABC a Government mouthpiece) were sacked but after protests from civil society and the trade unions they were reinstated. Senior staff asked their staff for forgiveness for what they did. This is a level of accountability being displayed. There are good people still at the SABC and the public broadcaster remains a public broadcaster."

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