THE aptly named Daily Maverick website has been through the best of times and the worst of times. Last year, it ran an exposé, led by photographer Greg Marinovich, of the events at Marikana, which threw important new light on the tragic events and received a number of awards. It showed it could beat the major news operations on a crucial story and do it in a way that honours its reputation for energetic quirkiness. It has become compulsory reading for South Africa-watchers — reflected in a steady growth of audience and influence. Then it plunged low with the report — and subsequent withdrawal and top-of-homepage apology — about alleged al-Qaeda training in South Africa, a shaky piece of investigation with the whiff of Islamophobia.
Like many struggling publications, Daily Maverick pushes the journalistic boundaries, sometimes with great success and occasionally crossing a line, driven by the need to be noticed in a crowded market. This has made it a site to watch — and 300,000 people visit it in a month — growth of 100% a year since launch, it claims.
The man behind it is the indomitable Branko Brkic, who launched Maverick magazine in 2005, closed it down, and launched the online operation. Brkic has not just taken the magazine online, but thought afresh about how to make it work journalistically and financially in the digital arena. He has achieved the former, but not yet the latter.
Brkic understands that the root of all good publishing is quality journalism and he has surrounded himself by a gang of, well, mavericks. He gives them the space to do stuff you could not easily do in other local publications: Marinovich pursues his Marikana story with the unbridled passion of an ideologue, Ivo Vegter takes on the antifracking lobby with relentless provocation, Ranjeni Munusamy revels in her metamorphosis from Jacob Zuma’s sidekick to his most consistent critic, former minister Jay Naidoo remodels himself as a save-the-world idealist, Osiama Molefe kicks sand in people’s eyes, and then there are the stalwarts, such as Mandy de Waal and Khadija Patel. You might say Brkic provides a shelter for the homeless of journalism, who demand more freedom than they get in the more staid newsrooms.
He has a staff of 18, overwhelmingly editorial and including a number of part-timers on retainers. This allows him to draw on those who have other jobs and don’t cost him much, such as Talk Radio 702 reporters Alex Eliseev and Stephen Grootes, former diplomat J Brooks Spector and academic Pierre de Vos. The editing touch is light, sometimes too light, so pieces can be indulgently long. It makes for a quirky, utterly unpredictable, sometimes delightful, mix. One example: Vegter wrote 1,900 words this week on whether reusable plastic bags kill people and what it tells us about scientific research.
Brkic has an eye for clean design and understands that the internet allows for a fresh mix of news and opinion, so most of the material is news-based commentary and analysis, seeking out secondary angles that others have missed. It goes further than the standard blog in that most of the opinions are based on reporting and a step beyond the straight-up-and-down news churn.
He has the advantage of having one of the few internet-only publishing products, which means he does not carry the burden of print costs, but has to work hard to make a new market.
Alongside Brkic is CEO Styli Charalambous, who was brought in by Maverick’s original funder, Allan Knott-Craig Jnr.
Since then, he says, it has been “friends, fools and family” that have kept the site going and it has been “a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions”.
He has the tough dual tasks of managing Brkic and finding a way to make the operation sustainable in a market way behind the international digital curve. He believes they have designed their pages to make advertising work in a way few sites have achieved, and they can generate revenue from diverse secondary activities. They are staying away from the paywall or subscription model.
Can it survive long enough to find its market? Let’s hope so.
*This first appeared in Business Day, 11 July 2013