THE Mail & Guardian’s 25-year anniversary book launch in Cape Town is emblematic of where the ‘alternative” media has gone wrong. The throng of pensioners, aged and walking wounded which greeted Shawn De Waal, spoke of the abject failure of the newspaper to reach out to the next generation. It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with the quality of journalism at the former struggle newspaper. Rather, it is the total lack of an editorial imagination willing to embrace the aspirations of South Africa’s millennials, those who have grown up during the fin de siecle, who as easily get their news from Facebook, Twitter and Youtube as they do from establishment titles and who demand a lot more entertainment value than simply hard news.
The Mail and Guardian has always been a vibrant pastiche of leftist and progressive debate. Over the years it slipped into nothing more than an expensive, hard news commodity catering to the tastes and fortunes of the upwardly mobile. Put aside the investigative journalism for which the title is renowned. Influence peddling and politics are not the only duties of the press. Informative debate on issues which effect South Africa’s future, should be de rigueur for any progressive publication worth its salt. Yet the kind of blue-sky visionary appeal which give readers an edge over the pack and which is the lifeblood of Newsweek for instance, is absent — the result of an over-reliance on corporate newswires. Unfortunately, the M&G relies on its sister publication, the Guardian, for technology and “world news” stories. Can we safely assume that every technological breakthrough is going to come from England? Can we always be sure that our take on foreign policy is going to dovetail with that of Britain?
There is much that is missing from the once vibrant community which surrounded the Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian. I used to flog the paper when it was still a shade left of a student rag. Reading the Weekly Mail was a weekend ritual. The paper grew to the point where one could forego every other title, safe in the knowledge, that if an issue wasn’t in the Mail, then it wasn’t important. Regular supplements on Arts, Literature, Technology and Environment expanded and boosted readership. The Mail grew up. For a brief while it carried a foreign supplement, culled from Le Monde, Washington Post and the Guardian. Then the Guardian took over and everybody at the Mail fell under the illusion that all that needed to be done to remain in business was to imitate the Washington Post.
Admittedly Doonsbury was one of the reasons we lefties bought the paper. Replaced by Madam & Eve shortly after the democratic elections, the cartoon strip quickly outlasted its leftist appeal. I do not feel the need to buy a paper merely in order to get the same bourgois in-joke week after week. Even Zapiro, the Mail’s enigmatic cartoonist, is no longer considered risque, or exclusive. You can get Zapiro pretty much anywhere these days and when the man gets sued, it is like the Hillbrow tower getting a repaint. Steadily the schizophrenia of the online world has began to encroach on the perception of identity and affiliation amongst print media. I have no doubt that if the M&G had launched a coffee table edition of the M&G Online, there would be throngs of teenagers gawking at an opportunity to groove with the manufacturers of Z News, while demanding that a downloadable version is available to “send to their friends” along with the next Thought Leader annual.
So what has happened here? Where is the M&G brand essence? Whatever happened to the Mail in the Mail & Guardian? Are we integrating our online and offline presence sufficiently, and in a way that allows community and readership to congeal in a technologically sophisticated way, or are we simply burying our heads in the sand, hoping beyond hope that this digital chimera will simply go away? For the record, I stopped buying the print edition because of the Amagama saga, which resulted in this blog getting hijacked by the forces that be, merely because of a complaint by some people who cannot be named about an issue which cannot be mentioned for fear of heavy breathing telephone calls in the middle of the night. Although a lot of news tips break online via social media without being carried in print, bloggers are still not accepted as being press by the press, even though the press now relies on blogging to fluff up its online presence.
I’m afraid, that like the proverbial Griffin, the digital world is going to get a lot stranger yet. Unless we provide sophisticated and technologically appropriate methods of spreading the perfume of brands like the M&G, the title will simply fade into luxury scented oblivion. Only its critics will buy the paper, and then only so they can sue in an endless list of repeats.
M&G may have been the first paper to black out copy censored by the Botha government. The Weekly Mail defined a generation which grew up during the state of emergency. It now achieves exactly the same effect of censorship by appealing to an elite group of insiders within a narrow concept of bourgois journalism, which ignores blogging and which at the exorbitant cover price, is really out of reach of the average South African.