The Rand Daily Mail became South Africa’s most influential anti-apartheid newspaper. But its content is not easily accessible for research because it is not available in a digital archive. Digitising the archive would cost millions, says Michelle Leon, chief librarian for Times Media Group (TMG), which holds the copyright to the newspaper. But there is hope, as an online research aggregator has expressed interest in this project.
The beginnings of the Rand Daily Mail were not auspicious. Housed in an insalubrious building on the corner of Rissik and Commissioner streets in central Johannesburg, its first editor Edgar Wallace had to reach his office by climbing a ladder. “Draughts, noises and smells pierced or pervaded the editorial sanctuary with varying degrees of intensity,” says Joel Mervis in his book, ‘The Fourth Estate’. The paper’s very first print run was threatened when the furnace powering the steam-operated press ran out of fuel. The day was saved when wooden crates were found and fed into the fire.
Despite these beginnings, the Rand Daily Mail became known for its courageous and liberal journalism. Leon remembers that when she was a girl growing up in Johannesburg, “it was the staple read of every liberal family in the country”.
The newspaper’s journalists never ceased to report on events of which white readers would otherwise have remained largely ignorant. That is, although its liberal editors were often subject to pressure from conservative management. In 1960, Benjamin Pogrund covered the Sharpeville protest. In 1976, Helen Zille uncovered Steve Biko’s murder at the hands of police while in their custody. In 1978, Mervyn Rees and Chris Day broke the news about the apartheid state trying to influence opinion that sparked the ‘information scandal’.
When financial pressures closed the newspaper in 1985, some of its journalists used their severance pay to start the Weekly Mail (now the Mail&Guardian). Until then, the Rand Daily Mail was owned by SA Associated Newspapers (Saan), which through many iterations became TMG.
Now, in the digital era, researchers are at risk of losing this important part of South Africa’s historical record. Leon says the preservation of records like the Rand Daily Mail in easily retrievable format is being neglected. “[If the Rand Daily Mail is not digitised] we would lose perspective on events in that time that were not a government view. This was an English language paper that gave another perspective,” she says.
TMG has the newspaper on microfilm, an outdated technology that requires the researcher to scroll through every issue looking for what he or she wants, a process almost inconceivable in the age of lightning-fast online searches. Digitising the Rand Daily Mail would not only make searching the archives faster, it would be especially valuable to researchers abroad, as the paper was in English, while many other mainstream titles at the time were in Afrikaans.
Leon says there are hard copy collections of the Rand Daily Mail at the national libraries and at institutions such as the University of Johannesburg. But newspapers deteriorate, the acid present in the woodpulp eating into the paper year by year, rendering the pages brittle and yellow. And of course the problem for the time-strapped researcher remains: they have to laboriously page through each copy.
Five years ago, Leon’s department found the budget to digitise the Sunday Times through a company called Olive Software. Unfortunately, it is a very expensive process. This company charges per sheet and the cost ran into millions. Sunday Times, as a weekly and because it was started four years after the Rand Daily Mail, has fewer pages in its record. The Rand Daily Mail will therefore cost even more.
During the digitisation process, the Sunday Times was scanned from microfilm, with every single character identified and converted into .xml format, with an artificial intelligence process called Optical Character Recognition. Now a researcher wanting to search the Sunday Times archives can enter any term (the name of a reporter, for instance) and all the articles ever published including that term are called up. The researcher can also view an image of the page on which the article was published, as well as other data relating to the subject. Searching decades of content happens in a split second. The digital archives are currently not publically available, but Leon hopes to make them available to online subscribers soon. This is a potential source of revenue for TMG.
Newspaper archives are not just about preserving links to the past, says Leon, but are also a way of making money. “Newspapers are under serious threat. Paywalls are still experimental. The only thing that will provide readers is distinctive content,” she says, adding that a lack of funding is not the only obstacle to providing these digital archives. There’s also a pervasive assumption that news and information should be free, as they have been for much of the internet’s history.
But, right now, Leon says, “Times Media is talking to companies about different options. While costs are prohibitive, they realise the historical value of such a newspaper and hope to conclude a deal in the near future.”