South Africa

Editorial

Maverick Insider: How one counterintuitive move changed the future of Daily Maverick

Maverick Insider membership is a social contract that has allowed us total autonomy. We owe nothing to anybody other than our readers. We can be as fearless as ever in our pursuit of the truth.

In 2009, we had a Field of Dreams moment: build it and they will come. Build the quality product: trustworthy, respected, impeccable journalism with great and meaningful advertising space, and the readers and advertisers will come. And so Daily Maverick was born. There was, however, one hitch to what we believed was a flawless plan: no one anticipated the disruption of digital advertising that came with Google and Facebook and the duopoly they soon established. The resultant decade was one of hardship for news media, with many publishers being pushed to the edge. 

Two years ago, on 15 August 2018, Daily Maverick CEO Styli Charalambous stood up at The Media Gathering in Cape Town and did something nobody expected him to do: he admitted the fallibility of the digital news model. With the knowledge at the time that he was able to cover, at best, three months of payroll, it was a somewhat audacious move to ask you, our readers, to help. 

Ultimately, although not perfectly, the dream worked because our focus was on building a quality product. It turns out all we needed was You, our readers. You understood so well how crucial the role of the news media is in a society as troubled as South Africa. You saw the importance of Daily Maverick for our democracy. And You stepped up to the plate on that day when Maverick Insider, the Daily Maverick membership programme, was launched. 

Nothing and everything has changed since that day. The original membership model that had been envisioned is still almost precisely what was scribbled on that first proverbial concept napkin. And yet the impact of what Maverick Insider has done for the company has changed everything. 

Maverick Insider has allowed Daily Maverick to pursue its purpose despite the financial constraints under which the entire SA media industry is suffering. The minute the financial outcome becomes the key driver in this game, the quality of the news product diminishes. In order to defeat the corrupt and the criminal, we need to be better, to rise above but also to have the humility to ask for help. 

In the last 12 months, the impact of our work, and the groundbreaking investigations by our investigative arm, Scorpio, also helped in the Gupta brothers and Salim Essa being sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, nine people being arrested in relation to the VBS bank looting and the exposure of PPE fraud at the highest levels. This is the work Maverick Insiders are paying for. 

Everyone – trusted advisers, friends, family and the omnipresent unsolicited advice from strangers – were for years telling us to go the paywall route. It worked for The New York Times, so why not Daily Maverick? They knew many people who would pay to access such quality content, they kept assuring us.

The answer we kept giving became ever more relevant over the years. It speaks to the fundamental truth of what we are here to do: South Africa is a poor country, and without access to quality journalism it will become irretrievably poorer. How could we keep our journalism behind a paywall in the face of such a historic challenge? 

But there’s also another, more visceral reason: It is there, in the very fibre of every story, that needs to be seen and read by as many souls as possible. Locking the stories behind a paywall, in our eyes, goes against their raison d’être. You simply can’t go against the nature of your product, in any industry.

Maverick Insider membership, therefore, is a social contract which has allowed us total autonomy. We owe nothing to anybody other than our readers. We can be as fearless as ever in our pursuit of the truth. 

In this transactional world, it shouldn’t have worked. Cynicism often wins out over naive ideas that rely upon the kindness of strangers. Our critics asked us, “Who is going to pay for a free service?” If we’re honest, we asked ourselves the same thing often. After all, we were asking for the best in humanity while reporting on the worst. 

It turns out, a lot of people value the work that we do; 13,000 of them so far.

The media industry was vulnerable before Covid-19 and now, it’s fair to say, is in danger of becoming a wasteland. AD2020 has been one of the darkest years on record for humanity. The media houses were hit more than the most; many have now closed, others are haemorrhaging jobs. When a journalist’s job is lost, it leaves a vacuum that is filled by the Karens from Facebook and the Kevins from Twitter who spout their (sometimes insane) opinions as facts on subjects that nobody but the experts should really comment on. 

This pandemic has underscored just how dangerous misinformation is. Real journalism has real journalists going to the real experts for the hard facts that reflect reality. It may not fit into one’s preferred bias, and on occasion it may be tough to read, but it’s the truth. Lives are lost when the truth has to battle for position against Karen’s opinion, fake news and disinformation. To make matters worse, in these tough economic times some media houses are erecting paywalls that further prevent the SA public from accessing formal, verifiable news sources at this critical time. 

Maverick Insider now has close to 13,000 members whose support has meant that not only have we survived but we have managed to grow, by 85% year-on-year over two years. Insiders currently cover almost 40% of the Daily Maverick payroll. Knowing that we have recurring revenue has given us the stability and courage to expand. 

In September 2019 we launched Maverick Citizen, our civil society journalism arm. Their expertise and their access to the most respected health experts in the country has resulted in world-class Covid-19 coverage. Maverick Citizen has also been able to shine a light on desperate situations, from hospitals without oxygen tanks to healthcare workers in dire need of PPE. It has been a big component of how our readership figures have jumped from 1.7 million unique browsers per month this time last year to 3.5 million unique browsers today. When the public needs factual information, they know they can trust Daily Maverick to deliver it.  

In the last 12 months, the impact of our work, and the groundbreaking investigations by our investigative arm, Scorpio, also helped in the Gupta brothers and Salim Essa being sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, nine people being arrested in relation to the VBS bank looting and the exposure of PPE fraud at the highest levels. This is the work Maverick Insiders are paying for. 

Despite the assertions of some journalists (howzit, Poplak), they don’t know everything. When we launched Maverick Insider we knew that our supporters were going to contribute far more than financially in support of our purpose. We created an Insider Experts database, understanding that everyone is an expert in something, whether that be a farmer in the Karoo who can give us real-life up-to-the-minute information on the drought or a world-renowned vaccinologist who knows the real deal with hydroxychloroquine. 

Maverick Insider is about innovation, driven by disaster and underpinned by courage: it’s all those things that the cynics don’t want you to believe in: hope, community, courage and resilience. 

This database informs and improves our journalism. We have called on them for fact-checking, for participation in our Live Journalism webinars and to write for us directly. Our members have volunteered for us, offered us free venue hire for our events, donated spot prizes, submitted recipes, participated in surveys, voted on new product ideas and helped us crowdfund our first book publishing effort. Above all, they’ve kept our journalism free for everyone. 

At the start of the year, we set ourselves the goal of 20,000 members by the end of 2020. It will be a hard push, especially in these times of economic fragility. Achieving this goal isn’t just a tick-box exercise for some arbitrary business report, it’s a stake in the ground on the road to sustainability. It means that when the next global disaster, or locally created one, happens, Daily Maverick will be able to survive and continue delivering on our vision of journalism as public service. Knowing that we can cover the costs of our payroll means we have the confidence to employ more journalists and create some audaciously Maverick products, like our soon-to-be-launched weekly newspaper, Daily Maverick 168

Those in power have had a long run of freedom to pillage our country’s coffers. They have no shame even in the midst of a global pandemic and continue to loot our taxes to line their designer pockets. We think it’s time that a broader audience hears all about it. Daily Maverick 168 has the potential to reach a far wider readership (aka the electorate) for free to Pick n Pay smart shopper card-holders

Over the past two years, we’ve learnt that membership and reader engagement work in harmony with our newsroom. Where our journalists interrogate, our members collaborate. When we show the worst of our country and its leaders, our readers show us the best in active citizenship. So the good news story isn’t only that Maverick Insider is growing and helping us become sustainable; it’s that there are nearly 13,000 South Africans out there who will pay for something that’s free so that those who can’t afford to pay for it can still read it. Faith in humanity restored. 

Maverick Insider is about innovation, driven by disaster and underpinned by courage: it’s all those things that the cynics don’t want you to believe in: hope, community, courage and resilience. 

Our members signed up to help us achieve what we set out to do: Defend Truth. So here’s our message to our readers: come join the membership that’s making a real difference to South Africa. DM

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