With less hubris, a maverick publisher is back for another go

Branko Brkic

When we meet for coffee at Hyde Park, north of Johannesburg, former Maverick editor and publisher Branko Brkic can’t wait to open up his IBM ThinkPad to give me a demo of his new website, the Daily Maverick.

In some respects, Brkic, a long-time print publisher who came to SA from Yugoslavia in 1991, wants to recreate Maverick, the now-defunct monthly business magazine, on the Web. But his plans go further: he’s on a mission to shake up the way people think about online media in SA.

He’s clearly excited about the Daily Maverick, which he hopes to launch within the next four to six weeks — a test site will go live in about a fortnight. Influenced by the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, two popular American news websites, Brkic wants the Daily Maverick to be people’s one-stop online read. And he wants them to love reading it.

He thinks it’s the right time to venture online. “The print media in SA has been protected by [former communications minister] Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri,” he says.
The implication is that the print media here will eventually face the same difficulties as newspapers in the US and elsewhere: readers deserting them for the Web.

Brkic admits that the closure of Maverick last year affected him badly. When I broach the subject of what happened to the magazine, he turns his eyes back to his laptop, fidgeting with the keys, not wanting to answer.

“It’s not one of those things you recover from easily, you know,” he eventually offers. “We got hit by a combination of perfect storms. It was terrible. Our custom publishing division started underperforming. We needed more time to become profitable. If you’re a small publishing business trying to retain quality, you get hit. It’s a very expensive game, and we lost.”

Brkic has lost a lot of the hubris he had when he launched Maverick — he spoke at the time, only half jokingly, I suspect, of putting established players like Finweek and the Financial Mail out of business.

But he’s picked up the pieces and is set for another go.

And he thinks he’s got a model that’s going to work. Existing SA news sites, he says, are boring. “They’re just lists of stories. How are you supposed to enjoy that?” he asks. “When we launched Maverick, we had a cheeky teaser line: ‘Because there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your business read’. Well, now I’m asking, what’s wrong with enjoying your Web read?”

Brkic wants people to visit the Daily Maverick because they enjoy doing so, not because they feel it’s a chore. And he has a new idea for advertising that doesn’t involve those annoying rotating and flashing banner ads. These, he says, do nothing but distract readers from quality content.

Brkic has asked me not to reveal his advertising model in any detail, and I won’t do so, suffice it to say that if it works it could catch on quickly among Web publishers.
Editorially, the Daily Maverick will feature original content and links to content on other websites, both local and international. The idea is that his editorial team will identify the most important stories each day, and, if necessary, condense this information into a digestible format.

Like Maverick, the magazine, the Daily Maverick will also pay close attention to photography. Pictures will form an integral part of the website, Brkic says.

“The whole website design is very simple. There won’t be anything flashing at you, no bells, no whistles. It’s all about the relationship between the editorial team and the reader.”

Brkic says most of the people who worked with him at Maverick will form part of the new team, either full time or as part-time contributors. He’ll have nine writers in all.

That sounds like an expensive proposition. But Brkic says starting a website is a lot cheaper than starting a magazine. “We have some start-up capital and some shareholders,” he says. “We’ve got cheap offices and lots of coffee. What else do you need?”  — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral

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  • TL

    I have had the pleasure of knowing Branko for a number of years now and watching his journey into online has been inspiring.

    Only five years ago the media world was filled with “media” people and now we see media types redefining themselves into “content” people. Just by changing that mindset a world of opportunity opens up for mavericks and adventurers.

    Well done Branko. It’s not easy sticking to a vision when the walls cave in. It’s even more challenging when confronting the uncharted (for most of us) territory of online.

    May The Daily Maverick impress the web and mobile news consumers like me and may it be as compelling as your previous work.

  • Darren Smith

    Thanks for bringing Branko’s story to light, Duncan. I’ve been meaning to meet with Branko for months now, and have been as eager as any to see what he will bring to the media landscape.

    Good luck with the Daily Maverick Branko … I for one will be there, as I have no doubt that you will serve me EXACTLY what I am looking for. Great content and great photography.

    And get your advertising bods to contact me … I’m pretty sure I may want to be there too!

  • http://www.sandboxsavant.com justinspratt

    w00t branko… cant wait!!

  • http://www.twitter.com/iwanp Iwan Pienaar

    You go Branko! Give ‘em hell and turn the heads of the critics once more…

  • http://www.oneafrikan.com/ oneafrikan

    Can’t wait Branko ;-)

  • Will Mac

    What about all the writers from Maverick print version who never got paid for their articles. BB left a trail of unpaid creditors and shrugged his shoulders. He seriously lacks business ethics. Advice to Daily Maverick writers – get the money upfront!!!

  • http://www.travelwires.com Muzi Mohale

    Used to enjoy reading Maverick and looking forward to the online version.

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za/hartley Ray H

    … very exciting ….

  • biobot

    I was about to subscribe to Maverick when it went out of print, and I will definitely subscribe to the Daily Maverick if it offers any paid-for content. Hubris was one of the things that made Maverick an edgy read. I hope Branko retains some of that hubris on an editorial level.

  • Theresa

    As a huge Maverick fan, can’t wait …. the bonus is free, instant, online articles and not having to wait a whole month!

  • http://thedailymaverick.co.za Phillip de Wet

    In response to Will Mac:

    I had a front-row seat to the proceedings and I have to tell you: that bit about the ethics really stings. Given how hard Branko worked to ensure that no creditor lost a cent, and how badly he took it when he was thwarted in that, it is more than a little unfair.

    As it turned out, the directors and shareholders took the biggest hit from the liquidation – as is only fit and proper. Next to them, less fittingly, the full-time employees were hardest done by. Contributors were cushioned as much as was legally and financially possible.

    The old team, including Branko, remains on excellent terms with all but two or three former contributors. That is downright amazing if you consider the sometimes quite harsh treatment from editors with high expectations, tight deadlines and an almost total disregard for civility. We can be pretty mean at times.

    If you are one of the few aggrieved writers yourself, please get in touch with me and let’s see what can be done. If you are not, consider talking to some of those contributors and creditors to get the real story.

  • Janet

    I’m looking forward to reading the fruits of Branko and his team’s labours onlline soon. Heaven knows there are few enough sources of vigorous, insightful, independent content to be found elsewhere on the (local) web.

    PS Good response to Will Mac, Phillip.

  • Kevin Bloom

    Mac Attack

    As someone with a front-row seat beside Phillip, am also wondering what Will Mac is on about. If he was a contributor, he must’ve been writing for the publication for some time – there were very few (if any) new bylines in the last issues.

    Which means, he probably got paid regularly and on time for a year or more (same as me plus numerous others).

    What is it Mac, you got another agenda that needs airing?

  • Michael Williams

    Will Mac has a point, and you know it. But whatever, spilt milk. I’d be happy to give it another go if you’re still looking for contributors.

  • Commentator

    Philip/Kevin,

    You surely can’t deny that Maverick 1.0 went bust. And going bust is always a failure. I’m sure plenty of shareholders and other funders were out of pocket, if not the staff/creditors. The only ethical question is whether Branko was reckless in the way he managed the business – if he should have foreseen it was going to fail, but still took people’s money and made promises to pay people he couldn’t meet. The question is not whether he *did* foresee it, but whether he *should* have foreseen it. As Duncan’s headline suggests, Branko didn’t seem to be his own reality check, and I wonder how many yes men he had around him. A sober assessment of the Maverick business model may well have concluded it was a no-hoper.

    And that’s not a comment on the quality of writing – it was excellent. But good writing and a good business model are very clearly not the same thing. (Looking at Caxton’s results today, they may well be diametrically opposed!)

  • Raymond Joseph

    Can’t wait for Maverick Mark ll.

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    Being a former writer for the print editions of both Maverick and Empire, I’d like to point out I was paid in full, albeit a little late. I know how hard it was for them to do so, and find it difficult to believe there was any malice in their inability to pay some creditors. As for the business model, I have my theories about what went wrong, but again, I find it hard to believe it was sheer recklessness or incompetence. Hindsight might have been useful, but nobody gets that in advance. I’ll be writing again for The Daily Maverick, with no fear that I’ll be treated badly.

  • http://moneyweb.co.za David Bullard

    Lucky old you Ivo….I didn’t get paid for the final articles but who cares?
    It was a privilege to write for Empire and even better to be the cover boy for the final edition. And such fun to annoy AVUSA. Look forward to the online Maverick. At least poor Branco won’t have to sit in the same coffee bar as the appalling Mangcu every day.

  • Andy Dicker

    Glad that the Maverick brand will be alive again. As for Branco?? I have met him on more than one occasion and on both occasions I must admit that he was rather rude, obnoxious and unpleasant. I did appreciate Maverick as a publication (being in media myself), but I can’t really say anything uplifting or positive about Brkic…

  • http://www.mobileactive.co.za The Ethical Induna

    hmm – another digital publisher – hope your writers are being paid upfront. Risk/reward only really works when you’re selling real products, not information.
    My inbox has been attacked recently by a slew of new brands calling themselves magazine this and magazine that. Well we had the new revolution and it popped in 1999. Some pertinent points. Is this main article PR for the investor, or an attempt by the writer, newly fresh from his long-term post at the FM, to drum up support? I’ll be reading – but here’s a R20 note. Betting that the new improved digital version will fall over within 24 months.

  • Tim Cohen

    As someone fleetingly involved in Maverick and part of the creation of the web version, I’m obviously biased, but the allegations of impropriety on Branko’s part are just absurd. I think Maverick failed for a complex set of reasons, including some outside the control of producers like how expensive and tightly controlled production and distribution are in South Africa. There may have been some over-confidence, but mostly, there was lots of enthusiasm and a whole bunch of great articles.

    The web version bypasses the issues of printing and distribution, but of course it faces a whole new set of challenges. I suspect, one of the problems of the magazine was that it was a “nice to have” rather than a “must have”. The website, which is more live and immediate, may have better chance of being more vital and useful. At the very least, it has better longer term prospects and a whole range of successful international models to help guide the way forward.

    That may not be enough. It may be that the chances of success are low, given the low internet usage in SA and low ad rates in general on the internet. But to all the cynics and nay-sayers out there, all you can say is enjoy your privileged view from sidelines. To play the game, you have to get on the field and swing for the terraces. It may fail, it may not; but we’ll never know unless we try.

  • Anna

    Hallelujah!

  • The K Factor

    Getting paid peanuts for platinum is ancient as Gutenberg and applies across the board today – like R1.40/word at The Weekender to name just one, less at Citizen and News24. Pro bono is, at least, honest labour. If you double up copy you can keep your conscience clear and make some chump change from recycled goodwill, que?

  • Janet

    Andy Dicker, must admit I’ve heard the same from a LOT of people. Pity, if it’s true. Manners maketh the man and all that.

  • http://maxkaizen.com Max Kaizen

    As someone who has the privilege of knowing Branko rather well, please let me allay any assumptions about his character.

    He may seriously aggravate many with his forthright opinions, may confound others with his occassionally growly Slavic demeanor and may be misinterpreted due to that sometime impenetrable accent.
    He may even be a hard taskmaster on his writers; but those who rise to the challenge, enrich the quality of their craft.

    BUT let there be NO doubt as to the generosity of his spirit (and pocket), and his impeccable Yugoslavian manners.
    Branko really is a blessing to those of us who know him.

  • Melissa Rowlston

    I also have the pleasure and privilege of knowing Branko and and can assure you that he is one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known and his manners could never be under dispute.
    Not only do I believe in his vision for this website but his ability to see an alternative media in this country. Which clearly frightens a few.
    I have always found his work inspiring, and I know it comes from the best place possible.

  • http://www.ofrelevance.com Eve Dmochowska

    Why are we discussing payments on this post? It really is quite simple:

    1) If you are a writer, and you feel Maverick won’t pay you, then don’t write for it.
    2) If you are a writer and you feel Maverick will pay you, then start praying your writing is good enough to be featured
    3) If you are a writer who lunches on sour grapes, go and sulk somewhere else.

    The point of this story is quite different all together: we have here a publisher who is passionate about his field. He failed for various reasons to make it in print, and has now chosen to tackle the digital format. It is particularly interesting because the digital world levels the playing field somewhat: competitors can no longer simply compete just by throwing more money at their own products. They are going to be forced to innovate, and pull up socks.

    This is excellent news for us readers. We are no longer going to be at the mercy of the Big Boys who control most of the magazine shelf space in your favourite bookstore. There is going to be a loud, independent and professional voice shouting above the rest.

    I can’t wait to start listening.

  • http://www.creativespark.co.za Tim Gane

    Worked with Branko when we ran his weekly column during my iafrica.com days.
    Great guy – full of character, and coffee of course.
    Look forward with interest to the new offering.

  • Ashley Marchment

    Will someone please explain the difference between an entrepreneur with enthusiastic determination, who puts everything at risk to build a new, controversial magazine, and a reckless businessman? Show me a successful businessman who hasn’t taken risks and failed. If answers to the question include morals, integrity, or trust, then Branko has all of them in spades. I am also well aware of the immense financial difficulties he has faced personally, due to the closure of Maverick 1, so if you are out of pocket from an article, build a bridge and get over it. Branko has my full support on Maverick 2. Looking forward to digital Maverick.

  • Mark Leven-Marcon

    I purchased a business from Branko in the nineties and he was a delight to deal with, WYSIWYG. When Maverick went down Branko had the decency to pay creditors out of his own pocket up until the point that he ran dry. Branko, get your ad people to call me prior to launch.

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