South Africa’s Daily Maverick exemplifies the travails facing Global Muckrakers

Daily Maverick founder Branko Brkic. Courtesy photo.

Following the 2016 US presidential election, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others benefited from a “Trump Bump,” attracting hundreds of thousands of new digital subscribers and higher revenue in support of their reporting on the administration. But while investigative reporters around the world—who also cover right wing demagogues and corruption—get clicks and attention, they find it doesn’t necessarily translate into profit. My new report, “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South” finds that making a living is hard even for journalists doing important work and having impact.

The South African online site, Daily Maverick, is a case in point. Founded in 2009, and one of the few premier investigative reporting sites in South Africa, Daily Maverick has a history of powerful labor reporting—exposing the Marikana mine massacre of 2012 in which police shot striking workers, some of them in the back—and was instrumental in 2017 in exposing the Gupta Leaks, a trove of emails revealing deep  corruption and state capture by the Gupta family. Members of the South African government and state-owned enterprises were implicated. Its reporting won awards and helped pave the way for the downfall of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, who resigned in February 2018.

The Gupta Leaks presented a dramatic story of corruption and state capture centered around a tycoon family that burrowed into major state-owned companies such as the electricity provider Eskom and property giant Transnet, and offered bribes and kickbacks to Zuma and his family and colleagues. The leaked emails shed light on this long, tangled relationship, and engrossed South Africans for more than a year. The Daily Maverick got hold of the first trove of incriminating emails and was, together with its close collaborator amaBhungane and with News24, at the center of reporting on the story. This scandal drove audience interest and foundation funding to new highs, and the site’s reporting staff has grown to 50 full-time staff. Brkic has also added new sections, which further added to costs. “The last three years were good to us. Our audience grew by three times. We finally became a mainstream publication. I get sometimes recognized by people on the street. People say, ‘You are from Daily Maverick! We love Daily Maverick!’” founder Branko Brkic says.

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Numerous accolades followed, including the prestigious Vodacom, Taco Kuiper, and Sikuvile reporting awards for Daily Maverick and its partners. This past June, Brkic won the Nat Nakasa Award, given annually by the South African National Editors’ Forum. One letter supporting the nominations praised “the work of a brave and courageous bunch of journalists” who persevered despite “a virulent social media campaign of ‘fake news’ and denigration, which also spilled over into acts of intimidation.”

However, all the newfound love has not translated into enough subscriptions. Daily Maverick continues to lose money and financial worries are front of the mind for Brkic. Brkic views investigative reporting as the one great hope for South African democracy and is terrified of a world in which it doesn’t survive.

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“It’s all coming to a head in a country which may face a reckoning of the worst kind. The news media is on shaky ground anyway and I worry that conditions may become even worse,” Brkic said.

Daily Maverick’s annual revenue is in the area of $1 million to $1.5 million, while annual costs are now around $2 million. Brkic and his business partner Styli Charalambous are always looking for ideas to generate income. They are expanding into documentaries and have recently launched a membership club, Maverick Insider. Brkic hopes to get between 10,000 and 15,000 people to join. Although membership contributions are voluntary—the suggested monthly amount is between $4 and $25—Brkic hopes for up to $100,000 per month.

He also wants to find a way to launch high-quality business and lifestyle reporting to attract paying readers. “I am not talking Kim Kardashian here,” he says. “Proper quality stuff.”

Some 60 to 70 percent of Daily Maverick’s revenue comes from foundations: the Millennium Trust, Claude Leon Foundation, and Open Society Foundations, among others. Advertising accounts for another 25 percent of revenue, and a smaller amount comes from events.

Although ad revenue is rising, it will never cover costs, Brkic says. He believes that adding a paywall wouldn’t work in a low-income country like South Africa, but notes that donations from readers to their site have expanded in the past few years. Distribution is done through Twitter, Facebook, and a morning email newsletter with more than 100,000 subscribers.

Daily Maverick also benefits from some 200 unpaid contributors who produce “really good stuff—columns and op-eds,” Brkic says. “Over the last few years we became the preferred platform for South African civil society.” Daily Maverick also collaborates with the community website GroundUp, the Institute for Security Studies, Health-e News, EE Publishers, and some 30 other organizations. These outlets are experts in their respective sectors, and they have become good partners, regularly submitting high-quality content for publication.

Brkic works nonstop and doesn’t have time to do anything else, he says. In nine years, he has not had a single “credible” offer for a merger or acquisition, though there are people who would love to buy Daily Maverick in order to shut it down. He remains in the job because he believes in the words right at the top of the website: “Defend Truth.” “It’s sad we have to post it as a mission because defending truth should be a given,” he says. “Our intent is to bring quality information to South Africa, not losing your mind on a Twitter storm or social media chaos but to explain to our audience what it’s really about.”

“We are incredibly old fashioned,” he continues. “We want people to come to us because it’s us. We want people who come to us because they want to see today’s edition not because they picked up a story because it was marketed on social media.”

This piece is adapted from Anya Schiffrin’s new report “Fighting For Survival: Media Startups in the Global South.”

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Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and technology specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.