Truth-telling is on life support, but you can help resuscitate it

Truth-telling is on life support, but you can help resuscitate it
Daily Maverick's print edition, DM168, at The Gathering in Cape Town, South Africa, on 24 November 2022. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

How can we, the media, with all our fallibility and good intentions, provide a reflection of our society in this endlessly undulating, pixelating, cracked global Hall of Mirrors manipulated by teens in eastern European troll factories, AI bots, populist fearmongers, con artists, criminals and conspiracy theorists who all have direct access to the doom-scrolling you do on your cellphones?

Dear DM168 reader,

I just got off a call with our DM168 publisher, Susie White, who made me realise that, by the end of Friday, I would have been working for 12 days non-stop. Susie asked me how I was feeling since I didn’t have a weekend break. To tell the truth, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.

Let me cut to the chase. I may as well say, “Hi, I’m Heather and I’m a workaholic.”

It’s not laudable or kind to my family or myself. And when the Grim Reaper inevitably comes knocking, I hope I’m not going to have those “why didn’t I rather…?” regrets.

I am not the only one at Daily Maverick, or in our global tribe of journalists, who is driven by an almost missionary zeal to tell stories, explain the chaos, expose the corrupt, be part of the action, the rush, the thrill of it all.

We are born to feel the weight of the world, the unbalanced scales of justice, and are compelled to use the tools of our trade to do something about it: shine a light on it in the hope that our words, videos and stories will make some kind of difference and have a positive impact.

Granted, being human, we journalists are fallible. Among us are byline-chasing narcissists, bullies, intrusive paparazzi and prima donnas addicted to the proximity to power that our press cards, contact books and microphones guarantee.

Sometimes we are less moved by serving the greater good than by chasing the scoop, the awards and the influence over narratives. Sometimes we are self-righteous, seeing ourselves as the good guys on the right side of history when, in fact, who’s good and who’s bad is not black and white but at least 50,000 shades of grey.

How can we, the media, with all our fallibility and good intentions, provide a reflection of our society in this endlessly undulating, pixelating, cracked global Hall of Mirrors manipulated by teens in eastern European troll factories, AI bots, populist fearmongers, con artists, criminals and conspiracy theorists who all have direct access to the doom-scrolling you do on your cellphones?

That, dear readers, is what keeps us up at night. It is our conundrum, our core challenge while all over the world there is talk about our industry, news journalism, being on the brink of extinction. Yes, like the dinosaurs that were wiped out by an asteroid crashing into Earth. It is that bad. The business model for journalism is not stable and has been disrupted massively by the global digital behemoths Google, owned by Alphabet, and Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, owned by Meta.

The responsibility for our industry meltdown is not only the tech geeks who ate our advertising for breakfast. It is also the result of poor, short-sighted leadership that did not invest in training to ensure that the leaders who followed in their wake could navigate the digital age. Instead, greedy media owners took the money made on the back of quality journalism and plenty of advertising, and ran off to tax havens and the nearest Porsche dealerships.

As Daily Maverick’s CEO, Styli Charalambous, pointed out in a recent article, “Poor leadership, failure to innovate and clinging to old practices have certainly been factors in the demise of many news outlets. Not to mention the extremes of the attention economy seeking to monetise our anger and fears.”

Our extinction also comes in the guise of a shift in companies’ marketing mix as many chase clicks and instant hits as opposed to quality brand- and relationship-building. It’s all about spray and pray that online ads booked everywhere all over the place will get you, the customer, to buy their products. The revenue from these Google ads on our news websites is not remotely enough to sustain our journalism, unlike in the past, when quality adverts in quality newspapers read by a discerning readership who paid for the paper used to be enough to keep us going.

You might wonder why we keep on doing this work we do when we are so vulnerable. It’s simple. Journalism is not a job; it’s a calling. Listening to my colleagues discuss innovations and plans at our strategy meeting last weekend, it was abundantly clear to me that every maverick in the room and all the others scattered around South Africa are not going to give up on our vision to defend truth, and help our readers to know more and better. Not without a fight. We have each other and we have you, our loyal readers.

How can you help us survive? By joining up as Maverick Insiders to support our journalism so that Daily Maverick can remain free to keep everyone informed. By subscribing to our newspaper or buying it at your local retail store. By keeping us informed about whether your paper is available at your store and has been delivered – or not. By buying our cool Daily Maverick gear and books at our shop. By being active citizens when you realise you can do something to make a difference once you have read our stories. By attending our events, like the upcoming The Gathering 2024 in Cape Town on elections. And if you are a CEO or marketing manager, take out an advert in our newspaper and on our website, and see what an amazing impact you will make on your triple bottom line by boosting your brand while helping to keep a country informed and a democracy alive with fact-based journalism.

At one of our strategy sessions, my colleague Ferial Haffajee led an open discussion on vulnerability. I realised then how many of my colleagues are inspired by author Brené Brown, whose TED Talk The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed talks of all time. It makes absolute sense that people who care about our country, our environment, our world and each other are mobilised by a philosophy that proclaims “vulnerability is a powerful human emotion that is the birthplace of innovation and creativity”.

If you thought we are all a bunch of hard-nosed kung fu fighters who tackle every challenge with a fist-pump or a loud “keeiai!”, sorry to disappoint. We cry, we laugh, we disagree, we doubt. We’re fragile. We’re human. And we love what we do.

Friends, we are at our most vulnerable right now as an industry, a country, a world. We need you to support not just us at Daily Maverick, but all credible news media so that we can keep on digging deep, making you think, and casting a light on the areas which the corrupt, divisive and crooked would like to keep in the dark.

In this week’s DM168, we bring you our next analysis of a political party manifesto. This time it’s the turn of the EFF, which earned the third-largest number of votes in the 2019 election. It’s a party that many young people love and older people despise. Our political team, Ferial Haffajee and Queenin Masuabi, looks critically at the EFF’s manifesto and assess what it is about the party that has meaning for its core voters.

Our lead story this week, by Chris Makhaye, is based on a fascinating interview with businessman and political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki, former president Thabo Mbeki’s brother. He pulls no punches and eloquently spells out five mortal sins that the ANC committed over the past 30 years since it first came into power in 1994. I’m not going to give the game away, as I need you to go out and buy the paper, but I can tell you that everyone who read and edited this story came to me and said it really made them think long and hard. And that’s what quality journalism is all about.

Please write to me at [email protected]. I need your thoughts and opinions to share on our weekly readers’ page. You can also submit a photograph taken by yourself to be selected by our photographers and designers as our Readers’ Picture of the Week. I promise you if your picture is chosen, it’s quite a thrill to have it featured in print for you to keep. Please email me your letters and pictures by Monday noon.

Yours in defence of truth,


This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • drew barrimore says:

    The media and journalists are not there to provide a “reflection of society”. That falls in the realm of artists, writers and poets. Journalists as ‘the fourth estate’ are there to provide information, to report on matters, to expose and to highlight. This author drives a false wedge between ‘society’ and “this endlessly undulating, pixelating, cracked global Hall of Mirrors manipulated by teens in eastern European troll factories, AI bots, populist fearmongers, con artists, criminals and conspiracy theorists who all have direct access to the doom-scrolling you do on your cellphones”. Her list here IS society, the two poles she clumsily attempts to sketch are not separate. It is the same thing. The premise of this article fails because of that.

  • ST ST says:

    Thank you Heather and the DM teams. I for one am very grateful for your high journalism standards that help reveal the truth, facts, and opinions of both the leaders and society of this wounded nation. Information is power…these days, especially information about misinformation!

    This platform has taught me so much and has been a window to the many ills we still suffer. I feel it opens conversations with so many diverse people with so many diverse opinions and affords us an opportunity to discuss and educate one another in a way I’ve not seen or experienced in SA.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Heather, life as a business “owner” is 7 days a week unfortunately. Only if you work for a mega-corp do you get to have debates about 4 day weeks and work-life balance. Unless you’re 25.

    If you guys can keep a semblance of balance in what you publish and mark clearly when something is a guest piece not DM views (I’ve mistaken those at times), you are doing your job and will gain paying audience. I can notice in my peer group FAR more DM readership than 10y ago. They will join (and pay). What else is there? I don’t mean that in negative way but it seems like our media has forked off to distant parts of the family left/right dogma tree. DM is more ‘socialist’ and pro some causes than I am with my restricting logic hat, but you have by country mile the best journalists. And your connections on the investigative side are owed a debt by the entire country.

    Moderation of comments must be tough. I’m fine with rational arguments but get tired of trying to correct blatant lies or just plain shouting. After a while one recognizes names and you already know this is going to be looney left/right or it is going to be interesting. We don’t envy you threading that needle.

    Chin up and keep up the excellent work!

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    A good place to start with truth telling would be to support israel – the only democratic state in the Middle East – in its war with the murderous terrorists from Hamas. Even better, start calling for the release of the hostages rather than parroting Hamas propaganda

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