Daily Maverick underwent an all-encompassing change process to grow from a startup into a serious, award-winning media house, with its readers’ needs at the heart of its editorial focus and processes.
Digital-only until two and a half years ago, the company launched a weekly print publication in the middle of the pandemic.
“Something like a pandemic happens, the needs of society change so prolifically that you have to amend them in your plan. The idea is not to be rigid. It is to have these frameworks and principles that we can measure situations against and come up with a good response each time,” said Styli Charalambous, Co-founder and CEO, Daily Maverick, South Africa, at WAN-IFRA’s recent World News Media Congress in Taipei.
Connecting daily work to the brand mission
From a five-person start-up, Daily Maverick now has a staff of 120, reaches 9 million unique visitors monthly and has 25,000 voluntary paying members.
“We created these jobs at a time when two-thirds of the permanently employed journalists in our field had lost their jobs in South Africa. So it’s within that context of a very difficult environment that we were born into, and that we started and grew this organisation,” Charalambous said.
The transformation project, called “Securing our Future,” served as a means for the leadership to set up a framework and put principles in place, to empower the employees to tie their daily work to the brand’s vision and mission.
“When I think about leadership in the media industry, and the first eight years of my experience at Daily Maverick, we knew where we were going and why we were going there. But we didn’t take the time to articulate, clarify and codify that to all the people who were following us with great vigour, passion and commitment,” he said.
Strategically aligning the newsroom
The reasons for change within Daily Maverick were multifold – the company had grown rapidly, felt it needed greater strategic alignment, wanted more data-informed decisions – and could be done while both founders were still actively involved, Charalambous said.
“Growth requires the organisation to evolve. As we grew and saw people coming on in a distributed manner, we recognised that not having the co-founders in the same room as the employees… that strategic alignment of why, how and what we were doing was starting to go amiss,” he said.
The company also wanted to become more proficient in data-aided decision making. In addition, they recognised that while the co-founders were both involved in a hands-on way in the business, they wouldn’t be around forever.
“We had a chance to really cement these frameworks and principles into the culture of the organisation and structure our journalism, so they might continue beyond our time there,” Charalambous added.
He acknowledged that before the organisation grew, he needed to evolve himself and thus, went “back to school”. After participating in the inaugural CUNY media innovation and leadership course, he formulated the 65-page transformation strategy document, which focussed on data-driven audience-centricity.
Key areas of the transformation project:
- More strategic: Why, how, what the brand chooses to do.
- Audiences: Understand them better, be more needs-driven
- Do data right: Decide what matters, measure what matters
- Innovation: Build a culture of ambidextrous innovation in exploring new opportunities and exploiting existing ones, while getting better at both. “This meant not relying on just a division of people for breakthroughs, but from people engaging with our audiences, handling customer queries, and people on the front lines,” Charalambous said.
To enable this, the company followed Kotter’s eight-step change model.
“It was massively beneficial to plan tasks according to this model, increasing the likelihood of success. And so this was a huge comfort to me. We were able to work on this as a team – plan specific tasks by due date, work out the people involved, measure success, and to actually see it play out on both big and small projects,” Charalambous said.
Daily Maverick hosted sessions on fundamental principles, like “What is journalism for?” how it links up with its vision and mission, its big editorial and business strategies and what key editorial themes the organisation should focus on.
The key editorial themes were an exercise in bridging the gap between what teams were choosing to focus their resources on, and the vision and mission of the organisation. The entire company was split into 20 mixed groups of five and were given two-weeks’ time to formulate game plans and set goals for the foreseeable future.
“The amazing thing was that there was probably a 70 percent crossover in what came back with. This gave us the confidence that we were on the right track because what we were looking for were themes that would cut across demographics and regional differences,” Charalambous noted.
Daily Maverick’s interpretation of what journalism is for is two-fold:
- Watchdog: Protect democracy
- Guide dog: Help navigate life.
“With this foundational principle, we should be able to measure every piece of journalism that we do and it needs to do at least one of these two things,” he said.
“When we surveyed our team, only half the people in the organisation knew what our vision was. This pushed us to conduct training, have discussions and make sure the vision became the DNA of our organisation,” Charalambous said.
Strengthening the leadership
The co-founders realised for this strategic transformation to work, they needed to deepen the leadership bench of the organisation.
For a long time the Daily Maverick had effectively been run as a partnership, but “as we were growing, as the organisation was evolving, we needed to bring more people into strengthening our leadership level,” he added.
This is when Daily Maverick worked with an outside consulting firm to coach the next crop of leaders – 10 people over the course of 12 months embarked on this leadership development project.
“The coaching helped us build the skills to better guide, inspire, connect and drive the organisation by better understanding our roles as leaders and having a framework to lead with,” he said.
The entire leadership team also took the Enneagram personality test. Charalambous as the “loyal sceptic” complemented his co-founder’s profile of the “enthusiastic visionary, something he believes has contributed to their success.
“It was really interesting to see how these different profiles worked and interacted with each other. We also saw which areas we were strong at and which ones we needed to work on,” he said.
Making better decisions and seeing success
This exercise helped Daily Maverick achieve greater clarity, confidence, and an increased understanding of its audience.
“We were making better decisions, and we were seeing more innovation. The success that we’ve seen as a small team has now outweighed other news organisations that have been around for many more years than we have” Charalambous said.
This change is evident in the data.
Transformation requires flexibility
Three takeaways from the transformation project:
- Change projects need a game plan. They need a model, they need a vision, and then need someone to drive it hard.
- Strategic alignment yields incredible results.
- Measure what matters.
As noted at the beginning, Charalambous is a believer of flexible ideas. “The idea is not to be rigid. It is to have these frameworks and principles that we can measure situations against and come up with a good response each time,” he said.