by Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSAThe Mail & Guardian did an interesting, off-agenda thing recently — it launched an African news website totally distinct from its own online offering — but then the M&G specialises in doing things differently.

It was the first South African news publication to go on to Kindle and one of the first to have a paid-for iPad edition.

Last year it took the unusual step of appointing its online editor, Chris Roper, editor-in-chief while bringing in The Witness’s Angela Quintal in as print editor.

mgIt recently put the paper’s cover price up to R35, which is high in South Africa – even for a weekly. The Sunday Times, for instance, is R19 and City Press is R14.50.

Launched in May, the Mail & Guardian Africa website is a separate business unit run out of Nairobi. M&G Africa’s editor is Charles Onyango-Obbo, co-founder of Uganda’s leading independent title, the Monitor, and Anastacia Martin is the division’s MD.

Once teething problems are out of the way, Roper told Grubstreet  the aim is to have more collaboration between Mail & Guardian SA, M&G Africa and M&G owner Trevor Ncube’s Alpha Media Holdings in Zimbabwe that owns NewsDay.

Although there will be some cross-purposing of copy, M&G Africa will have different content to M&G SA and the plan is to start small and use mostly contributors.

Following trends in the US and Scandinavia, the aim of the business model is not to rely on advertising and sponsorship as the main source of revenue while continent-wide conferencing and events will be a key part of the revenue mix.

In fact, events and conferencing is already an important part of M&G SA’s revenue. They do three to four events a month, Roper told Grubstreet.

“The important part (of M&G Africa) is the content. The eventing is to make use of the brand cachet in Africa,” he says. “The real point of this is to get Mail & Guardian content — investigative and analytical — from and for the continent in a very objective way. We’re not saying “Africa is rising” and we’re not saying “Africa is terrible”. We’ll be covering things in the same way we cover South Africa, which is to focus on what things mean to the people to whom the things are happening.

“But today you have to make sure that you’re using your brand to bring in as much revenue as possible. It’s not just about content and covering news. It’s also about your effect on society, your authority and how much people trust you.”

While Quintal oversees the paper, it is the job of Roper — who was very successful as the head of M&G online, growing traffic with a major revamp — to make the M&G a digital-first operation and strategise for the future because, the company recognises, there is no strategy without digital.

The previous M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes — who is now at the Hindustan Times in India — had an online background too and between him and Roper (as online chief), the M&G had become a converged newsroom although a small one.

“We’re redesigning the website and that is basically to make the architecture of the website and the newspaper fit the digital-first strategy,” he says. “If you repurpose people in the newsroom and you reassign people, you need to get the end product to match what the output’s going to be. And that’s proving to be quite tricky.”

Building a new subscription system — and developing M&G Africa at the same time — has been an ambitious task for the M&G because it is a small operation with a handful of developers so projects have had to be staggered.

So how is the more concerted digital-first drive under Roper going?

“We have no way of bundling our products, for instance, all the information about who our iPad subscribers, our iPhone app subscribers and so on,” Roper says. “We need a new subscriptions systems so we can go to people and say: ‘If you buy the iPad product, you get the newspaper for free or vice versa’. We haven’t quite nailed down what that model’s going to be but we’re putting in the capability to make that decision.

“Because of that, the redesign of the website is going to happen at the end of year — and it will be a dramatic redesign — and then we’ll redesign the newspaper early next year.”

While the website traffic is still on the upwards trajectory (although M&G online doesn’t sell advertising on the basis of volume of traffic but on knowledge of its audience), its circulation was down in the most recent set of ABC figures — for the first quarter of this year — at 44 266 sales compared with 45 279 in the corresponding period in 2013.

It is possible that the drop was in reaction to the cover-price increase. In the previous quarter — the fourth quarter of 2013 — the paper was up at 51 551 sales from 48 999 year-on-year, suggesting that readers approve of Quintal and Roper’s editorial choices.

Under the two, the front pages are certainly less heavy on the forensic investigative work that is the M&G’s hallmark.

“We’re doing things like getting in Mark Gevisser on how to write profiles to mixing up the content slightly — all kinds of things to make the paper’s voice and the digital voice mix a little,” Roper says. “The problem is that people always try to fit in the most that they can into a newspaper whereas we’re trying to make print-orientated people understand that things can go online.

“The readers still think it’s more important if it goes in the newspaper, I think. It’s a slow process but I think people are getting to understand that it doesn’t matter where a story starts its life as long as it’s out there.”

“We’ve also done all this (reader) research and discovered that Mail & Guardian readers are optimists — which I would never have thought — so we’re trying to move into a much more solutions-based journalism space,” he says. “It’s quite a different newspaper but in a subtle way. Hopefully in a few months’ time it will be quite dramatically different.”

GrubstreetSouth Africa’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) offers intelligence on media, old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet. This piece was published first on, the website of Wits University’s journalism school.

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