South Africa online news publisher avoids gimmicks, bets on analysis

The key to survival in the news business, says Serbian-born owner of The Daily Maverick online newspaper, Branko Brkic, is to provide what the reader wants: quality analysis they can trust.

Branko Brkic has seen the future of news publishing in South Africa, and it’s online. In fact, it’s his own online publication, the Daily Maverick.

You won’t find fancy video clips or cheap headlines about jailed movie starlets on the Daily Maverick. What you’ll find is news, smart analysis, and a very steady dose of humor. Readers don’t have time for cheap tricks and gimmicks, says Mr. Brkic. The way to build a base of readers, he says, is to build trust, and to give readers a quick, enjoyable analytical look at their world.

With online publishing, “anyone can subscribe to Reuters and become a publisher,” says Brkic, a Serbian-born fiction writer who fled the Milosevic regime in the early 90s to become a citizen of a newly liberated South Africa. “Now the website is like a river and we expect the reader to go through tens of thousands of words to extract meaning."

The key to survival, he says, is to provide what the reader wants: quality analysis they can trust. “We have to go back to the old rules of journalism, and we had to break a few rules too. Now we have to tell what happened, why it happened, and what your point of view is on what should happen. The reader today doesn’t have the time to spend in different places for news and analysis.”

For those used to the more staid mainstream publications available online – many of them mere digital reproductions of their print product – the Daily Maverick may come as a shock, or a revelation. Photos are prominent, headlines are witty, and the advertisements are both unobtrusive and omnipresent.

Some stories are hard-hitting and poignant, such as one Zimbabwean-born writer’s lament about the persistent racism of South Africans toward African migrant workers; they are unafraid of tweaking revered figures in politics or the arts; and they have a knack for making South African politics approachable and, yes, fun. Another South African publication, the investigative juggernaut Mail & Guardian summed it up with this headline: “The Site Your Mom Warned You About.”

Brkic and his staff of four writers and editors do all this, of course, with their eye on the clock. Opened in October 2009, out of the ashes of a one-time glossy magazine of the same name, the Maverick had 66,000 unique visitors to its site. Even in the small market of South Africa, this readership is small, but judging by reader comments, intensely loyal readership. The trick, of course, is convincing advertisers to pick up the tab, and proving that all those eyeballs are valuable, influential, and potential customers.

But Brkic is determined to make it work. “You have to bring back the perception of the value of online news to what print was,” he says. “Unless you do that, you’re simply not going to survive.”

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