I don’t know what it was about working for the Mail & Guardian. It was a strange feeling, but there always was a sense of historical context at the company, an awareness that somehow you were part of a bigger historical equation - that history was being made at the place.
The M&G was a company steeped in the stuff. As an independent, feisty and innovative media operation, it had been at the forefront of so many momentous South African moments. Today, its passages remain decorated with grainy posters of past newspaper front pages bravely taking on the apartheid state and all its evil machinery. It has always been a paper on the right side of history.
When I joined as a fresh-faced 27-year-old in 2001, the company was in turmoil. Its well-known founders Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim had left, and the anti-apartheid newspaper was searching for a new role in a democratic South Africa. Its major shareholder and sugar daddy, Guardian Newspapers Limited, publisher of The Guardian, was looking to reduce its shareholding. Donor-funding, which the paper relied on, was drying up and being redirected to other hotspots in the world.
In the company’s Milpark offices, a former bread factory, the dimly-lit, dusty reception area consisted of no receptionist and a lonely, dishevelled chair propped up against the wall for a brave guest to sit on. That chair was an unwitting symbol of a floundering media company searching for a future. I remember sitting on that chair for my job interview in 2001, with then editor, Howard Barrell, truly wondering what on earth I was doing there.
Those were tough times. The newspaper’s future was far from assured and there was a lack of direction and motivation in the company. During those times I considered leaving on many occasions, but decided to hold out: a new owner was about to take over the paper – an independent Zimbabwean newspaperman by the name of Trevor Ncube.
With Ncube at the helm, the winds of change began quickly sweeping through the paper’s corridors. Ncube’s arrival saw an injection of investment, focus and energy. The lonely chair in the reception area became two comfortable couches, with a nice carpet and a receptionist. The paper began redefining itself as a quality investigative and comment title with the newly appointed editor, the popular and likeable Mondli Makhanya.
Ncube’s arrival also brought a new commercial focus for the operation. It marked the first time in the paper’s history where rational economics began to apply. Logically, the company entered an era of only spending the money it made. Ncube, an ambitious and passionate man, wanted to turn the company once again into a world-class publishing operation that played its part in shaping the country for the better.
I remember Ncube’s first speech to staff in 2002, emphasising that the greatest threat to press freedom was not meddling governments or advertisers, but a simple lack of revenue. It marked a change in culture: a company that had essentially been run as an NGO and that relied on donor funding for much of its existence, was now being run as a business.
Ncube worked hard to win staff over. He had private, individual meetings with every single staff member in the company over a week period, scribbling frantically on an A4 pad while he listened to every grievance and request, no matter how small or how outlandish.
Initially the NGO, struggle culture in the paper did not sit well with this new, capitalist owner and the new shiny black E-Class Mercedes Benz seemed out of place in the newspaper’s scruffy car park below its offices. There were also uncomfortable public clashes in tense staff meetings with reporters openly challenging Ncube and his management team on the new direction the paper was heading in. There was open talk of CCMA, there were labour disputes. It was uncomfortable and messy, but it was the Mail & Guardian: it embodied a democratic, outspoken culture, one which I haven’t seen in many other companies. It took time, but an initially defensive Ncube began to win staff over as he spoke passionately about his vision for the company and as things began to change for the better.
There was pain: the newspaper got thinner to cut costs to mirror the bare-bones advertising it was receiving. The online department was slashed from 14 staffers to just three. A strong partnership was formed between Ncube and Hoosain Karjieker, the newspaper’s FM (now the MD), which saw a rapid strengthening in both revenues and readership.
The newspaper soon relocated from its bread factory, warehouse-like headquarters in Milpark, to gleaming shiny glass modern offices in Rosebank on Jan Smut Ave. It was progress, although there were rumblings from some Mail & Guardian staff who felt the company was losing its activist soul by moving to these plush offices, away from the centre of town.
A new advertising strategy saw the newspaper begin fattening up by the week. The online division shot up from three to 25 in two years and started producing significant revenues for the first time in its history, at times showing profit. The website, one of the first news sites in the world founded by Manoim in the nineties, began to claw its way back up the rankings. It was an era where both print edition and online edition were growing in readership in tandem, unheard of in a period where newspapers were haemorrhaging readers to the internet.
Ncube did not only bring a strong commercial strategy to the company, but also strong principles of editorial independence. My respect for the man was sealed not only as an entrepreneur, but as a media man when, barely three months into his tenure, I published column from then Rhodes University journalism Professor Guy Berger, which was critical of Ncube.
I wasn’t sure how he would react. I was a young, inexperienced editor at the time, and I didn’t know the new owner very well. Moreover, he hailed from a country where press freedom was not held in particularly high regard. Fearing I would be fired, I sent the article to Ncube offering a “right of reply”. He declined, and then encouraged me to publish without fear or favour. My respect for Ncube grew.
“Buckland, you’ve got balls,” said the then-circulations manager Amanda Chetty. I opportunistically took the compliment, but knew in my heart it had little to do with bravery. It was a combination of a company culture that supported independent journalism, a principled media boss in Ncube and a good journalism degree.
I remember then newspaper editor Makhanya sauntering up to Ncube’s office just before the newspaper deadline late on a Thursday with one of those irrepressible smiles, saying “Boss, please don’t fire me tomorrow”. He was referring to an article Ncube would not like. It was a light joke shared between editor and publisher, because Makhanya knew Ncube saw his editorial independence as sacrosanct. It was a foundation of editorial independence and excellence reinforced by subsequent newspaper editors, the brilliant Ferial Haffajee, Nic Dawes, and continued by the paper’s editors of today.
With allegations of editorial interference at Iqbal Surve’s Independent Newspaper Group, other media bosses would do well to follow the Mail & Guardian’s example. The recent allegations made in the Star Newspaper report about the Mail & Guardian, citing a few disgruntled former staffers, do not tally with my knowledge of working at the company.
From my experience as an exco member, the company’s finances were always tight, but cashflow well-managed. There was never a sense that salaries would not or could not be paid in the seven years I was there and the company always seemed to be expanding and growing. Long may it last. DM
Matthew Buckland is the former MD of the Mail & Guardian Online. He now runs his own digital agency Creative Spark and digital publishing operation Burn Media. Tweet him @matthewbuckland