South Africa

HOW WE MADE IT

We Have A Game Changer

‘What do I say to him?!’ ‘Write as if you were talking to him. It’s always much better to make it personal.’

That was the answer that my mother gave me as I sat as a six-year-old at our kitchen table, pencil in hand ready to write my letter to Santa Claus.

It’s still the best writing advice I’ve ever been given.

Personal. As Maverick Insider community manager, that’s the word rattling around in my head more than any other. Membership is personal. It’s different from the buyer-seller model of a paywall. Members sign up because they’re personally invested and they want to be part of something meaningful. As our Insider base has grown, I’m still fighting to keep it personal.

The impact that our Maverick Insiders have had on Daily Maverick is usually communicated through a series of numbers. However many thousand now contributing “x” amount which covers “y%” of our running costs and “z%” of our payroll. And although the financial aspect is crucially important and literally keeps Daily Maverick in coffee, one of the greatest examples of Insider Impact has been the publishing of We Have A Game Changer.

It all started with the 2018 Yearbook — Daily Mavericks version of an Annual Report. After sending it out to our members, we asked for feedback. Almost to a person, their favourite section of the yearbook was the answers from the DM journalists on why they choose to work at Daily Maverick.

That feedback was the kernel of the idea that morphed at terrifying speed into deciding to write something bigger: a whopping 100,000-word tome detailing the behind-the-scenes story of a decade of Daily Maverick. Not a collection of Daily Maverick’s best stories, but the personal story behind it all.

I called Styli Charalambous, the CEO and publisher of Daily Maverick, and told him my idea. “Branko’s going to hate it.”

There’s a mantra in the news business to never make yourself the story. Editor-in-Chief Branko Brkic lives by it and, well, let’s just say he isn’t fond of the limelight.

Over the course of a two-hour meeting, we convinced him. I can guarantee you that it wasn’t the prospect of entering the financial-drop-to-your-death world of book publishing. Branko had been there and done that. What clinched his agreement was the decision that it was finally time to reveal Daily Mavericks side of the #GuptaLeaks story. And that we could, and would, put Marikana back in the spotlight. That we’d tell the story of how this plucky startup, through a combination of blind luck, grit and a sprinkling of innovation managed to do what many doubted would happen: survive.

With the Maverick team already running at 150% capacity, we brought on two external writers, Tudor Caradoc-Davies and Tiara Walters, to help me tackle this beast we’ve just decided to create. Both incredible writers, both with a depth of thought and understanding of why the story needed to be written, both huge fans of Daily Maverick, but with individual styles that couldn’t have been further from each other.

I’d love to say that we committed to an extensive planning session; that it was precision and professional and well-thought-out. The truth is, in our first meeting, the three of us sat in a tiny cupboard of an office and with rabbit-in-headlight eyes and energy akin to a shaken bottle of soda about to be opened by a toddler, and attempted to answer one question:

What were the biggest stories of the past decade?”

Madiba, Marikana, Zuma, the rise of the EFF, the climate crisis, #GuptaLeaks… the list was extensive and, despite this, it wasn’t until weeks later that we realised just how much we’d still managed to omit. The sections were divided up and we agreed to a schedule of what was due, when. The entire time allotted? Two months. In book terms, that equates to about, um, 15 minutes.

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Here you can listen to An Wentzel’s interview with all three journalists:

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The obvious place to start was the Daily Maverick archives. But how do you distill more than 40,000 stories into a book so it can actually be held while not causing repetitive strain injury to the reader? How do you give context to the big political and social stories that have plagued South Africa for 10 years? How do you make it personal?

We set about interviewing Styli, Branko and the Daily Maverick journalists. They were infinitely generous with their time although they all quite clearly hated having the turning of the tables, becoming the interviewees. Some were downright cagey and highly suspicious of our motives. Others warmed to the process. And some thought that their already-prepared anecdotes would get them through without having to spill too much.

It nearly worked.

So here we are, in the trenches of writing and we still don’t know if we’re going to self-publish or go with one of the big publishing houses. Enter from stage left, Electric Bookworks, speaking all the right words to a digital publisher.

A dedicated online existence of the book to complement the print and e-pub formats.”

We could publish under our own imprint and use their extensive experience to hold our hand through the entire process. We could, when we wanted to, put the entire book online free! As I pressed “set live” on the e-pub version two hours ago (for all you Kindle lovers), I thought again of how green we were six months ago and how without Electric Bookworks we would probably still be arguing over the best name for the book division. (It is Maverick 451; the 451 refers to the temperature that paper burns at; yes, it is a reference to Fahrenheit 451, and yes, it was another of Branko’s late-night ideas).

As a digital publisher, we tried to come up with innovative ways to add digital elements to the printed book. Styli suggested scattering QR codes throughout the book which, once scanned with a smartphone, would link the reader to a video. A regular question asked by Branko was:

Who’s going to find this interesting? Who wants to read about us?” In the same vein, Styli, in our QR discussion said:

Oh, we have a video of the first #GuptaLeaks meeting with amaBhungane, Scorpio and News24, do you think that would be worth putting in?”

I stared blankly at him because I couldn’t quite believe what I’d heard.

You recorded the first meeting?”

Well, yeah, we thought we may need it at some stage. It’s a bit boring.”

Half Blair Witch Project, half The Newsroom, the amaScorpio24 video made the cut.

We needed more. So with two of the multimedia team, Bernard Kotzee and Tevya Shapiro we headed out to conduct additional interviews — this time on film. With more than eight hours of footage, suddenly we had what we were looking for: extensive, personal interviews — some of which were translated into text and others appear in the form of those rather ugly but, for us, now infinitely beautiful QR codes.

For Tudor, Tiara and I, there were emotional moments — mostly a result of sleep deprivation. For Tiara, a writer who pours not only blood, sweat and tears, but also her soul into her writing, tackling the Marikana story was emotionally draining. Tudor wrote about the #GuptaLeaks and as part of it, interviewed Stan, the whistleblower. When he walked out of the interview, having signed an NDA, the only person he could talk to was me. I’m sure he won’t mind me outing him, but it was an emotion-filled phone call with considerable dead airtime as he tried to relay how it felt to meet the man, who with John, the other #GuptaLeaks whistleblower, gave up their livelihoods and careers to save South Africa. For me… just as we embarked on this project, the best writing coach I ever had passed away suddenly when she came to visit. Her loss propelled me into this book to create something that I hope she would be proud of.

But this isn’t our story. This is the story of an incredible collective of individuals who have, and continue to, not only write the first account of South African history, but who have changed its course in doing so.

Daily Maverick journalists are brave. They undertake, every day, an impossible task of investigating and reporting on some of the most corrupt and dangerous individuals in South Africa to ensure that the truth is heard. In the process of this book, I saw a different type of bravery, though: one that allowed their own vulnerability, their fallibility to be exposed. They re-lived some dark times in the telling of their stories. Within the pages, you’ll read about death threats, about losing friends because a satirical story was misunderstood, about errors made and the toll that turning up every day to defend truth has taken.

To the Insiders, who sparked the idea, thank you. I hope that you will enjoy the journey down memory lane because, as written in the Daily Maverick covenant on the first page of We Have A Game Changer:

You, dear reader, are the very centre of the Daily Maverick universe.” DM

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We Have A Game Changer: A Decade of Daily Maverick is released today. You can buy it directly from us here. Or at (most) good bookstores. Even at some crap ones.

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If you would like to be responsible for sparking the next crazy Daily Maverick endeavour, you can sign up to Maverick Insider here. DM

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