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DM168: how a membership model helped a digital news org go analog

As the news media struggles in its shift from print to digital, Daily Maverick’s bold move from digital to print followed the success of its membership program, writes Pontsho Pilane

In a tumultuous time for the media industry globally, one of South Africa’s most popular digital-first-and-only news publications, Daily Maverick, has drawn international attention with its launch of a print weekly.

Daily Maverick 168 (the 168, according to the team, makes reference to the number of hours in a week) is set to launch in late September, via the country’s second-largest supermarket chain, Pick n Pay. Shoppers who use Pick n Pay’s loyalty card can get their copy at no charge, while other shoppers will pay just over one US dollar (R20).

While the digital brand’s bold plan to go “back into the future” with a print edition has made waves – a pilot edition was released earlier this month, to glowing reviews – the seemingly counter-intuitive move follows the longer-term success of Daily Maverick’s membership programme, Maverick Insider.

Launched in 2018, drawing on support from the Membership Puzzle Project, Maverick Insider now boasts over 13,000 members and covers nearly 40% of Daily Maverick’s growing payroll. This growth is the cornerstone of the new products Daily Maverick has introduced over the past two years. (Membership Puzzle Project’s case study on Maverick Insider reports that the program makes up 25% of DM’s revenue.)

“We’re completely invested in membership as a particularly attractive and potentially successful solution to the sustainability problem that media news around the world have,” says CEO Styli Charalambous.

Charalambous says the newsroom has almost doubled in size over the last two years — another uncommon trend in the media industry, with most of the country’s newsrooms shrinking and even the most popular print titles feeling the pinch. In 2018, the circulation of South Africa’s top-selling daily newspaper, the Daily Sun, dropped by 20% and earlier this year announced it will be scaling back its national distribution and discontinuing its sister paper, Sunday Sun.

The decision to go analog when everyone is going digital is not one Daily Maverick’s team made lightly. “Over the last five years, we have been thinking really hard about what is the best way that we can get our long-form journalism into the hands of people who enjoy it, and print has always been one of the avenues that we felt would be a good outlet for that,” Charalambous explains.

Knowing the outlet has at least 13,000 supporters made the decision to start publishing a newspaper a no-brainer, he adds. Unlike a completely new player in the media industry, Daily Maverick has an established brand, and an existing audience made up of loyal readers and members.

“Our members were the first people we told about Maverick 168. We made it clear that we’re going to need their support in order for it to be successful and sustainable, except that this time it’s not going to cost a cent because of the partnership with Pick n Pay,” says Charalambous.

Partnering with Pick n Pay was a decision of convenience and exploiting an already great business partnership with the brand, he adds. Copies of Maverick 168 are predicted to move from the shelves because the publication’s research has shown that most of its members and readers shop at Pick n Pay.

Charalambous says the partnership with Pick n Pay is also an attempt to reach a new audience — one that may otherwise not buy a weekly newspaper because of their cost.

Maverick 168’s editor Heather Robertson says she had not foreseen having to launch the newspaper during a pandemic, but she’s convinced that Daily Maverick is more than up to the task. “We’re not re-inventing the wheel. We’re going to use our existing resources and exact same staff to provide the content for the newspaper. What is going to be different, obviously, is that newspapers are designed on different programs and need to be laid out, but we’re leveraging on the existing systems,” she explains.

The weekly newspaper has two 16 page sections — one for news, opinion, business and sport, and a tabloid section for lifestyle content. The newspaper will use some of the content that will be on the website through repurposing and repackaging, she explains. But the aim is to have unique front-page investigations that are exclusive to the print product.

For media studies scholar Dr Prinola Govenden, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, a new addition to South Africa’s print titles is a positive development.

“A new newspaper could mean more voices, more perspectives. It could also mean more jobs. However, I do caution that just because there’s another newspaper it doesn’t automatically mean it brings diversity,” says Govenden.

Daily Maverick says it’s going to provide powerhouse experts and quality analysis which is good, but that doesn’t mean providing media coverage and content for the ordinary citizen, or for people with a certain literacy level?” says Govenden.

While debates about the future of print media continue among industry and academic circles, one thing is clear: with its launch into print, Daily Maverick is willing to take a chance that few are willing to – or can afford to. It seems unlikely that this move could have been possible without years of work on building up a community of members willing to invest in the organization and its journalism. Whether Maverick 168 is a success or a failure, it offers the industry new insights that could in the future unlock a viable revenue stream for media producers.

Pontsho Pilane is a freelance writer, and former news editor at Health-e News and the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect. @pontsho_pilane

August winds bring growth and opportunity for SAMIP

August is Women’s Month in South Africa and the country takes the time to commit to uplifting women in our society. At the South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP) we strive to do our part through our mission in transforming the local media industry by empowering more female entrepreneurs and media leaders.

GSport4Girls honors the women’s sporting community

On Saturday 31 August, the women’s sporting community gathered at the Deck @ Wanderers for the annual GSport Awards and Hall of Fame that have now been renamed to the Momentum gsport Awards. The renaming came after GSport, a SAMIP participant since March, secured a naming rights deal with the financial institution.

The awards featured more than 50 finalists, with the youngest being eight-year-old chess whiz Minentle Miya, and for the first time in the awards’ six-year history the organizers were able to present cash prizes (ranging from R5,000 to R20,000) to the winners of the categories.

Gsport co-founder and board member Kass Naidoo says that with SAMIP’s assistance they were able to appoint more resources to run the digital platforms. This freed up the founders to work on commercializing the events side of the business.

“This led to gsport securing leading insurer, Momentum as the Naming Rights partner. Alongside this, the initiative secured encouraging support from the Sports Ministry, Brand SA, Gauteng Sport, Vision View, Estee Lauder, Big Five Duty Free, Worldwide Sports, Circa, and Red Bull.”

The SAMIP family continues to grow

August also saw SAMIP adding two more new participants to our growing cohort:

Health-e News

Health-e News has a 20-year history as a news agency in South Africa that reports on public health issues to empower South Africans. Their current focus is on HIV/Aids, communicable diseases and reproductive health. They have 14 full-time staff of which 60% of them are young black women.

The organization is headed up by its CEO Sibongile Nkosi who is leading them as they work on finding innovative revenue streams, exploring memberships and growing their audience through their user generated content platform OurHealth.

Mail & Guardian

The weekly publication started out as The Weekly Mail in mid-1985. Over the years it has published major investigations such as “Oilgate” and articles on the corrupt relationship between the former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi and gangster Glenn Agliotti.

The publication has as its editor-in-chief Khadija Patel who also co-founded The Daily Vox. Patel is also the vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, an honorary member of the Golden Key Society and one of the first recipients of the Ford Foundation’s #NoFilter Fellowship.

Mail & Guardian will be working with SAMIP in re-developing its online platforms as it transitions into a digital-first publication.

Becoming more “memberful”

August was also Membership Month for SAMIP and throughout the period we hosted Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) fund director Ariel Zirulnick who worked with our cohort in exploring membership plans as well audience engagement strategies.

Ariel’s visit to South Africa was capped off with a workshop hosted by MPP and, SAMIP participant, Daily Maverick in Cape Town. As a grantee of Membership Puzzle Project, Daily Maverick presented its findings acquired during its first year of running its Maverick Insider membership program.

Daily Maverick also celebrated the first year of Maverick Insider with a party that was held at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Africa Art. At the event were Maverick Insider members who came on-board the program to promote and support the good journalism done by the organization.

New Advisory Committee member Vincent Maher

And lastly the SAMIP advisory committee has added Vincent Maher as its newest member. Vincent took up the seat  after the untimely passing of committee member and MDIF entrepreneur-in-residence Matthew Buckland.

Vincent is currently the head of digital enablement at Multichoice and brings with him more than a decade’s worth of experience as a digital strategist and technology entrepreneur.

With August behind us and an enlarged cohort of participants, we look forward to what the rest of 2019 brings. There are more events coming up and opportunities to join us as we continue along our path of accelerating innovation and transformation in the South African media space.