How Community is Funding the Fourth Estate in South Africa
For communities that come with a membership fee, direct revenue might seem like the top benefit for your company. But the Daily Maverick’s membership program gives them direct access to their most engaged readers, which has created benefits beyond revenue. The Daily Maverick has hired employees through its community, grown new company verticals thanks to the support of its community, and has given readers and writers a way to interact directly with one another about the stories they’re most interested in.
Styli Charalambous, the co-founder and publisher of Daily Maverick, also shares the unique perspective of a founder building a membership program from the ground up, who then hires a member of the community to run the show. This episode will leave you with great starting points for discussing the ROI of community programs and a lot of inspiration around how to keep community members engaged.
Styli and Patrick also discuss:
- Why Daily Maverick doesn’t have a paywall on its website
- How Daily Maverick approaches comments and allowing access to its community
- Daily Maverick‘s robust events and publishing strategy
The goals and value of Maverick Insider (4:05): “The primary focus on this effort is to build this community and to engage with the community. It’s not [about] making money. Making money is a byproduct of doing that job well and growing the community and having a healthy level of engagement and support and interaction with those community members. That’s the difference. [The community is not] just a transactional thing that is the gatekeeper access to content, it’s about relationships, and that’s the key differentiator in my mind between a membership program and a subscription program or even a donation program.” –@StyliChara
Giving reporters a space to interact with their readers (13:50): “Some of our journalists still have PTSD from the previous comments platform. Some aren’t that keen on participating in comments. We’re not going to force them. … Some say they prefer to engage with members and readers in event format and so they’ll do it in the physical space. Obviously, the more politicized the contents, the easier it is for it to descend into toxicity. We find certain sections of the site, some journalists are more open to participating and engaging in the comments section than some trickier content areas.” –@StyliChara
About Styli Charalambous
Styli Charalambous is the co-founder and publisher of Daily Maverick, a 10-year-old startup, focusing on news, analysis, and investigative journalism, based in South Africa. He oversees all non-editorial functions of the business and is a reformed accountant. He is the architect of their membership plan, Maverick Insider, and has written for the publication on business, sport, media, and other topics.
- Styli Charalambous on Twitter
- The Daily Maverick
- Maverick Insider
- How the Daily Maverick developed its membership program via Nieman Lab
- Civil Comments
- Andrew Losowsky, head of the Coral Project, on Community Signal
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. On this episode, our guest is Styli Charalambous, CEO and publisher of Daily Maverick, a South African news outlet that has found success generating revenue through a membership program. We will be discussing the inspiration for the program, the benefits it provides, and who they don’t want in their community.
A huge thank you to our supporters on Patreon including Marjorie Anderson, Luke Zimmer, and Carol Benovic-Bradley. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Styli Charalambous is the co-founder and publisher of Daily Maverick. A 10-year-old startup focusing on news analysis and investigative journalism based in South Africa. He oversees all non-editorial functions of the business and is a reformed accountant. Styli is the architect of their membership plan, Maverick Insider and has written for the publication on business, sport, media and other topics. Styli, welcome to the show.
[00:01:35] Styli Charlambous: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:14] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. I learned about Daily Maverick through the piece that you wrote about your membership program for Nieman Lab and in that piece you said, “Toward the end of 2017, we were fast running out of friends, fools, and family to invest in or lend to us. We invested in an innovation tour of prominent U.S. media companies. That was expensive, but we needed help with lightbulb moments that we wouldn’t be able to find on our continent. I was surprised to hear and feel the sense of optimism that emanated from the organizations I visited that had solved the Rubik’s Cube of reader revenue.” On that trip, who did you visit?
[00:01:49] Styli Charlambous: The Washington Post, New York Times, National Geographic course and a couple others. It was a fascinating tour.
[00:01:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. Describe that sense of optimism and how it’s different from what you saw in South Africa?
[00:02:05] Styli Charlambous: Yes, people were a bit more sure about where they were going and they had more confidence in doing things and experimentation and they had the confidence of knowing that A this revenue stream was coming in, but also that in order to get that revenue stream coming in, you got to know your audience a lot better and they’d obviously done a lot of work.
If you get there via subscriptions, or you get there via donations or membership like we have, it takes a big effort in getting to know your audience a lot more and a lot more intimately and listening and understanding and researching and you can just feel it. It was exciting things are happening, people are taking control of their own destiny and there’s a direct line between the quality of the journalism that you produce, and the number of subscribers or members who come on board and you don’t have that intermediary. You don’t have Google, you don’t have media partners, you don’t have clients or advertisers. Just you and the reader. The better your work is, the more people are going to want to support you and you don’t have that stuff in between which is just liberating.
[00:03:13] Patrick O’Keefe: In the Neiman Lab piece, you continue on that paragraph, “I returned with a sense of focus that we immediately needed to invest in two areas.” What were the two areas?
[00:03:21] Styli Charlambous: Well, the first was figuring out how we were going to approach reader revenue, and how we were going to engage with our readers and solve that puzzle and the other one was product as a defined function of the business. We hadn’t assigned dedicated resources, it was something we did as parts of our job descriptions as the co-founders and we needed someone dedicated focusing on that all the time.
[00:03:45] Patrick O’Keefe: When it comes to the Maverick Insider program, you told me before the show that you had to carefully consider how to position the offer of membership. You called it “A value exchange built on a relationship around news rather than access to news.” Expand on that if you can. How do you view a relationship around news?
[00:04:05] Styli Charlambous: Essentially, it’s building a community. The primary focus on this effort is to build this community and to engage with that community. It’s not making money. Making money is a byproduct of doing that job well, and growing the community and having a healthy level of engagement and support and interaction with those community members. That’s the difference.
It’s not just a transactional thing that is the gatekeeper access to content, it’s about relationships and that’s the key differentiator in my mind between a membership program and a subscription program or even a donation program.
[00:04:44] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned New York Times, you mentioned WaPo, both have paywalls and you made a conscious decision that that wasn’t the right call for Daily Maverick. Why is that? What’s the difference in the market in your view?
[00:04:55] Styli Charlambous: I guess one is geographical or national different. South Africa is a poor country. The work that we do is very important as part of the fourth estate, our investigations and if we want our work to have as much impact as we’d like it to, it can’t just be for an exclusive club of people who can afford it. That was the first thing. Secondly, we feel that in the public interest journalism space that we play in, the nature of the work is better once you get access to many people as possible. We took the call to make it a voluntary membership program that wouldn’t restrict the content that we currently produce.
[00:05:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Did you change any of the existing ways that you generated revenue? It doesn’t sound like you had paywall before this, I’m guessing maybe it was an ad model but did anything change when the membership program came on or was the membership program really just an additional revenue stream allowing you to allow the community, allow your readers to participate on a more micro level?
[00:05:55] Styli Charlambous: It was an additional, it was an expansion, it was additional part of our revenue mix. It’s my belief that a news media organization in this day and age needs to have six significant streams of revenue that they can rely on and they’re working on and they’re building. Significant in my mind is anything from 10% to 20%. You need six of them just to make sure you’ve got a diverse enough stream coming on board. We didn’t change anything other than we added this to the mix but from that, from growing that community, now other things started to flourish from the growth of that membership program.
An example of that is today we opened pre-order sales of our book. We’re celebrating a decade of Daily Maverick in October. We saw the growth of the community and we knew how many members we’d had at this stage and we thought, well, that makes selling a book a lot easier. This is a trial of the book division that we’re starting within Daily Maverick of the basis of the membership program growing at the rate that it has.
[00:07:01] Patrick O’Keefe: That is great. On launch day, 200 people signed up for Maverick Insider and you realized then that you needed a community manager or someone to take the reins of this program. Talk about that process coming to the realization that you had that need and then how you found the right person?
[00:07:17] Styli Charlambous: Yes, we’d been planning for a long time, we had done some MVP testing and we’d been proven that we won’t go ahead with this and we did research we plan and we’re building the landing page and the planning and getting everything right. We didn’t even know how many people were going to take us up on the offer to join. 200 people signed up. We were kind of, “Oh, crap. Now what?” It’s successful and if we hit the kind of targets that we’d like to get, we’re going to need someone to manage this very soon. We actually recruited for that position from one of the people who signed up on the day. Which is just kind of another way that you can engage the community is tapping into the skills and the resources and the networks that those people have.
Yes, we came to the realization very quickly, we really wanted to have a personal touch in our engagements with our members. We didn’t want automate all that stuff. We wanted to be a really good personal experience. That is when we hired the person and she’s been amazing and because membership and community management and the engagement with the community is such a big part of what we do and it has infiltrated every part of our business including editorial, her role within the organization has just grown and grown and grown and she’s played that link between our members and the organization.
[00:08:37] Patrick O’Keefe: I talked to Fran before the show because she was like the first point of the context, because I just sent an email to the generic Insider’s program like, “Oh let’s get someone on this show to talk about this.” Did you put a call out or was it just something about how she was enthusiastic about the program. What kind of made that person stand out that they were the right one?
[00:08:54] Styli Charlambous: Cape Town is not a big city and so you kind of know people. I have known Fran for quite a while. She is a published author, she had worked on a lot of community events before, she organized charitable events. So event organization, writing, people’s person, extrovert. All these kinds of things and she seemed like a really good candidate. When she signed up on the day I was like, “Oh my gosh, I think I know who is going to be our community manager” and then it lined up that way.
[00:09:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Very cool. You just talked about the launch of the book or the announcement about the book coming out, and this reminded me of an email in that piece where you mentioned how it had benefited recruitment, you mentioned the community manager. You said, “If our books division gets the green light, so will the publisher-editor running that division be taken from the community.” Did that actually happen? Is that what is happening?
[00:09:41] Styli Charlambous: Not yet because we haven’t greenlighted the division. We’re waiting to see how sales of the book go. Second, we had another really good candidate come forward for that position. It will be between the two of them but they’re both community members which is great.
[00:09:54] Patrick O’Keefe: Maverick Insider offers several different benefits and I want to talk about the two that most closely relate to members interacting with one another. In my view, that’s access to members-only events and the ability to comment on articles. How often do you hold events? Can you break down what that program looks like?
[00:10:11] Styli Charlambous: Yes. We’ve got probably 36 to 40 events planned in the next year. Which is crazy amount of events for us. Before this membership program started, we would have had five or six events in a year. What we’re doing is these are events that we might make available to members only. These are events that we might make available to all our readers but members get special preferential invites or the opportunity to choose the amount that they want to pay if there’s a ticket price attached to the event. There’s a combination of ways that we can involve our members in either working with us on the event or getting preferential invitations or some kind of engagements around the event that they’re allowed.
Yes, events are a big part of that and people really do appreciate the physical interaction and being able to get a couple moments with our journalists and our editorial team. We had a one-year birthday party of Maverick Insider recently in Johannesburg and Cape Town and the events were awesome. We shared a little bit about how the organization has grown in the last year. We shared some headcount information, some hopes and aspirations with the program and the rest of the organization. We just put together a video about what Maverick Insider is. We shared that with them. These events are great. It helps us really stay focused around the kind of communication that we want to share with them and also just being more open and transparent and authentic with our members.
[00:11:40] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s a lot of events. 40, 50 events in a year, that’s more than three a month on average. What’s the content of those events? How do you keep them fresh? Is it fireside chats? Is it Q&As with journalists? Is it all of the above? How are you programming them?
[00:11:52] Styli Charlambous: Yes. We got a pretty decent sized team at the moment in terms of permanent staff on board and there are a lot of authors within our stable. The book launch event for this book that we’re putting out now, it will be one of the events for members and you tie that up with a bigger event that we do every year. There’ll be those kinds of things. We’ve just launched a climate crisis team, a dedicated team doing investigations analysis in time of crisis. There’ll be those. All these new sections, editorial sections that we’ve launched in the last year, all have their own events that have been put out and incorporate and they’ll dovetail with Maverick Insider benefits in that respect. We’ve got quite a broad spectrum of content areas and event opportunities.
[00:12:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Theoretically, with that many events, you can have a big story, like a really big story and then have an event tied to that story where the people who know it best can talk to readers and answer questions and have those conversations.
[00:12:47] Styli Charlambous: Absolutely. We’re finding we can attract quite a high-level calibre of speakers and attendees to these events, either through people who contribute to the site or politicians that we’ve covered quite closely or if there’s a campaign trail going on whatever it is, we have quite good access to high profile speakers. We can put on a multitude of events. We’re just limited by resources and time and all the other things that we want to get done as well.
[00:13:13] Patrick O’Keefe: How much of your membership takes advantage of the online commenting benefit?
[00:13:18] Styli Charlambous: Comments have been slow to take off but they are getting better in terms of volume. We used to have comments and then we took them away and then we brought them back and then we took them away again. Well, we didn’t take them away. The company that we found that provided the software that cleaned up comments for us, they went belly up, unfortunately, but it was a great platform. Then we said, we bring it back for members and we did, because as members only to start with and the membership itself was still in its infancy, the volume of comments wasn’t as high as we would have liked.
Some of our journalists still have PTSD from the previous comments platform. Some aren’t that keen on participating in comments. We’re not going to force them and others are. Some say they prefer to engage with members and readers in event format and so they’ll do it in the physical space. Obviously, the more politicized the contents, the easier it is for it to descend into toxicity. We find certain sections of the site, some journalists are more open to participating and engaging in the comments section than some the trickier content areas.
[00:14:27] Patrick O’Keefe: What was the software that went belly up, if you don’t mind me asking?
[00:14:30] Styli Charlambous: It was a company called Civil Comments. That was really cool. It cleaned up 99% of our comments and it didn’t need moderation or needed very little moderation or it just worked amazingly well. I was so sorry to see it go.
[00:14:44] Patrick O’Keefe: What do you use now?
[00:14:45] Styli Charlambous: We use Coral Talk. I think it’s just been taken over by Vox Media. Yes, we use that and it’s okay but it definitely requires more input and time than the previous one that we used.
[00:14:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Listeners, if you’d like to learn more about Coral, we had Andrew Losowsky on a previous episode. You can find that episode on the website. We’ll link to it in the show notes.
You talked about this a little bit but I want to highlight it because I think it’s a really great point that’s worth a little more examination. You’ve said that the Maverick Insider program has given you value beyond the recurring revenue. Specifically from the Nieman Lab article, you mentioned, as we talked about, it’s helped you identify new team members. It’s secured free events space, discounted office space, volunteers for events, survey feedback, and user testing, a drone pilot [laughs], offers of technical help, and comment moderators. You’ve really tapped into the real giving benefits of a community.
[00:15:38] Styli Charlambous: Absolutely. We’ve got to think about our community. The financial help is just one of many things that they’re willing to offer. We’ll be expanding the entry mechanism to allow people to become members without having to contribute financially for those who can’t, for those willing to contribute in other ways. We’re saying, “Well, hey, if you’re a supporter, we’re going to make a space for you.” We’re ironing all that up and figuring out how we can also bring younger members into the fold. We’ve got some plans for next year that we’re looking to roll out. It’s my view that the success of any membership plan is directly correlated to the amount of engagement that you participate in. The more you participate, the more engage with your members, the more successful it’s going to be. If you’re not going to engage and participate with them, then it’s probably not the right model to take up for your organization.
[00:16:35] Patrick O’Keefe: I know you mentioned that comments are growing on the platform. Tell me about those comment moderators. How do you select them? How do you support them?
[00:16:42] Styli Charlambous: We put out a call. Our newsletter is our primary mode of communication to our members. Every two weeks, a newsletter goes out that’s dedicated just for membership. In that, we share things that are happening in the organization, new people that have joined, there’s a note either from myself or from the editor-in-chief about what’s going on and what’s on my mind. There’s interviews with staff. There are notices about what’s going on. We use that as a way to also canvas feedback, and to ask people to participate or volunteer when we have a need. We’ll start there. From there, we ask people who’d be willing to help us out with comments. We need some assistance with comments. We ask people to moderate, why they thought that they would be qualified to do that, and how much time they have available.
We actually haven’t finalize the final candidates. We’re still going through that process of picking them, selecting them. The case of these people have put in, I think, 10 people put their names forward. We are still going through the final vetting process. It’s almost like an internal recruitment process; looking at what people have submitted and then getting in touch with them, asking them questions, checking out their social media profiles and how they behave online and how they communicate online, and then making a call from there, and then just trying it out.
[00:18:04] Patrick O’Keefe: What is the climate, let’s say, for online discourse in South Africa in the sense of your responsibility, liability, the danger of you hosting comments? I haven’t done any research in the South African law. In the US, we have this great thing called Section 230 that’s constantly under attack from both sides [laughs]. I love it and it’s important to me because like when I was a 13-year old moderating communities which is how I got into this work, section 230 was only two years old and it protected me. It’s the law that says that you can moderate comments without being liable for what remains. If you make a choice, say, “This one is good. This one is bad. I pulled that bad one down,” it rewards you for taking initiative. It doesn’t say because you left one up that you’re somehow now legally liable. How is that difference in South Africa? Is there a danger to hosting commentary like this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
[00:18:55] Styli Charlambous: I stand to be corrected here. I don’t think there’s been any case law that has been put before the courts in South Africa for comments specifically. There have been a couple around social media postings and liability around that. For comments, and as far as I understand, the last time I looked at this law is there actually is a case for liability against the publisher in terms of the stuff that it posted on the site. Now, whether that’s defamation or whatever kind of content is put in there, you are responsible for what is posted on your site. We’re responsible for the articles that we publish. It’s never gone before court in terms of case law. I don’t think anyone’s ever applied to have it heard in court. It was quite a worrying thing at the time to realize if someone comes up and defends someone in the comments section, we would be responsible for that.
[00:19:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, that’s a scary thing. Like you, I’ve read some things you’ve written about how the government’s not your friend. [laughs] Not the Daily Maverick‘s friend and if someone can find a leeway in there to hurt you or attack you, they will. There’s that opportunity that just by hosting conversation among the citizenry, so to speak, someone could abuse that and then use it to hurt your operations, so that’s a scary thing.
[00:20:19] Styli Charlambous: Yes. I hope they’re not listening.
[00:20:20] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Well, I’m sure they’ve already thought of this.
[00:20:23] Styli Charlambous: Yes, they’re more of the blunt instrument type.
[00:20:25] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Got it. You mentioned toxicity a second ago and in your comment policy, you mentioned that if a comment is deemed severely toxic, that, “What could happen is your membership to Maverick Insider will be canceled by us, you will not receive a refund on any donation and you will be banned from ever rejoining. Even Trump will look down on you.” [laughs] I like that a lot. That made me kind of think of the question as, who don’t you want in your community? Right? Who are the people you don’t want in Maverick Insider? You don’t want everyone’s money, I assume?
[00:20:56] Styli Charlambous: No, absolutely not. We don’t want racists, we don’t want bigots and we don’t want people who would just join just so that they can spew toxic commentary on our website. We’re very happy to cancel their subscriptions, give them their the last payment back or whatever it is. We’ve only had one or two people quit in disgust. We’ve had to ban, I think, one person so far. That as a sort of a guiding tone has gone a long way to correcting behavior. By and large, because of the way we ask and the motive for joining and the benefits that we tout for people to join, it attracts a certain kind of reader and it resonates with a certain kind of reader. By and large, we’ve pretty much had willing and like-minded people joining.
[00:21:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. If you’d told me you’d kick no one off, I would be left with the thought that you must not be doing your job. [laughs] You get bad actors in every community and if you’re removing nobody, that means you’re letting someone take advantage of something somewhere, so that makes sense. There is a great quote from Derek Powazek and I think Heather Champ too, it’s kind of a quote they share to really veteran community builders in the space, it’s whatever a community is, it becomes more of. Right? Whatever you are, you become more and more like that, so that makes total sense.
[00:22:14] Styli Charlambous: Yes, absolutely.
[00:22:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Going back to the Neiman Lab piece, we’ll kind of wrap up where we started, you said that, “With membership, we can draw a direct line from the revenue we generate to the newsroom and the quality of editorial. It is the perfect feedback loop that keeps us on our editorial mission.” You’re doing a good job on the newsroom side, members will stay loyal to you. Makes sense. In thinking in terms of revenue and kind of loyalty to this program for members, and maybe you haven’t done any sort of data around this and you could just share anecdotal thoughts, but how much of a driver is the ability to interact with other readers, both online and offline events, comments, whatever? What impact does that have on member acquisition and on retention?
[00:22:54] Styli Charlambous: I think it’s secondary to the primary benefit of interacting with us as the Daily Maverick. We know that from two things. One, we actually did a survey. Before we ran a membership program, we started with it. We ran a donation program and before recurring donations and then we asked those people, what would be the number one benefit of a membership program when we launch it? Most people picked the ability to engage with Daily Maverick journalists and editors.
Then we also see in terms of how they react to the content that we provide them about us and the events. It feels like that is the primary drawcard for membership and the benefits. Its secondary is those events with other members, having the ability to connect with them through those physical events and online in the comments section. We’ll be launching a forum quite soon, where they will be able to up their interaction with each other. Right now, it’s kind of a secondary one but it’s probably going to increase when we release the forum to the members.
[00:24:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. Well, I’ll have to check back in with you and [chuckles] see how that goes because I’m always interested in reader to reader interaction and how that either follow the data where it leads, honestly, either way, good, bad, positive, negative, what it brings to the table. I think you’re doing something really interesting. Thank you so much for spending time with us and it’s been great to chat.
[00:24:19] Styli Charlambous: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
[00:24:21] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Styli Charalambous, publisher and CEO of Daily Maverick. Visit dailymaverick.co.za and for details on their Maverick Insider membership program, go to dailymaverick.co.za/insider.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. I’ll see you next time.
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