Thoughts about the Leaders: The columnists 2.0 model

We’ve launched our third Leader site in Sports Leader this week. It’s been toil and trouble for Nic Haralambous and our devs who have put together a fine site. This follows Tech Leader and Thought Leader which we launched a while back. On Sports Leader we’ve already seen traffic which could eventually make it bigger than Thought Leader.

It’s a fairly unique publishing model, which has broken all the traditional media conventions of publishing.

Insights we’ve had

1. The Thought Leader model is a hybrid of the blog and media model, bringing the best of both models to create a powerful publishing blend.

2. The aim was to take the addictive features of blogging and transmute it into a new platform — with rankings, stats, trackbacks, comments, and instant feedback.

3. Early on we decided that it would be edited and that our editor would only select strong content for the homepage — this would be where the media model combines with the blog model. Nothing appears on the site without going through our editors. All content is moderated and subject to traditional editor gatekeeping. (We’ve now relaxed this on Sports Leader and Tech Leader comments as an experiment).

4. Making influential people part of your site attracts networks and builds audience, quickly.

5. User-generated content from a closed, selected network of users works best. It also ensures a high-quality product. This is how media can harness user intelligence, intelligently. I don’t believe media should be complete hands-off blog hosters like for just any content. Media is about quality content, and that is its key differentiator. Media are control freaks about their content. They should be proud of this fact.

6. Having a budget of near zero should not deter you. There are a good many writers out there where writing is a secondary activity and represents more passion than profession. Academics and many commentators have this approach. Not everyone writes for the bucks. But compensation does come in the form of quid pro quo: The writers get an area for their profiles, where they may promote themselves. Some see value in this, some don’t.

7. The model we created allows for niche bloggers to come on board the site. We can accept an unlimited amount of columnists and contributors on a variety of subjects. It’s a vertical model too: Users can bookmark niche columnists, that may not make it to the Thought Leader homepage.

8. Some of our paid columnists write for us for free on Thought Leader. We are still trying to work out why. I guess the Thought Leader model is “Columnists 2.0”.

9. WordPress is one of the most efficient CMS’s I have ever used. I can’t speak more highly of the platform.

10. We drew inspiration from the Guardian’s Comment is Free, one of my favourite sites, but we followed a different model.

An early design mockup of Thought Leader, then just known as “Blogs”, which went through many toing and froing sessions between Vincent Maher and myself. It’s changed quite a bit now.

Some firsts

1. It was mentioned in Sunday Times’s Hogarth column (Ferial Haffajee vs Ronald Suresh Roberts). It was also featured internationally on Editor & Publisher by online media guru Steve Outing.

2. Thought Leader scooped both SA Blog of the year and best political blog, and was named a “Webby Honoree“, in the same company of brands like NY; New Yorker and CNN, to name a few.

3. We’ve had both Minister of Education Naledi Pandor and Official opposition DA Leader Helen Zille reply in their personal capacities in the comments on specific blogs. Will Carling, the famous former England Rugby Captain, commented on John Allen’s Sports Leader post.

4. In an “experiment gone horribly wrong” Ndumiso Ncgobo covered the ANC conference as a blogger on Thought Leader. It’s the first such time in the country’s history that a blogger has been accredited to attend a political conference alongside journalists.

5. A Thought Leader blogger was ostensibly fired for blogging information about his company on the platform. By his own choice, he no longer writes on Thought Leader.

6. The site has generated online advertising revenue almost from day one, and it is revenue we hope to plow back into the product. One day we hope to come up with a model to pay contributors a portion of it when it becomes significant. We have created a sponsorship model we are piloting which splits revenue 50/50 with some bloggers.

7. The first real blog statistics about the country were broken by Arthur Goldstuck on the Thought Leader.

8. Our most prolific writer Michael Trapido aka Traps is now a regular BBC commentator based on his Thought Leader posts. It has generated him so much business as a lawyer he now “picks and chooses” what he works on and who he works with.

9. Ndumiso Ncgobo has received so many offers to write since being exposed on Thought Leader, he does not know where to turn, or been able to find the time to pick up the chair he left at my house.

10. Readers weren’t just commentors, but we invited them to submit their own contributions for the successful reader blog

11. The Mandela Rhodes Scholars joined us for a group blog, soon to be joined by another group blog by the Oxford Rhodes Scholars.

The stats

1. The site has generated 4,104,523 Words in Comments and 1,614,256 Words in Posts

2. The site has in total received: 2,679,075 reads (figure not de-deduplicated)

3. Out of 1,871 posts from about 170 bloggers, we’ve only rejected 5 or 6. We aim to sign up 500 more Thought Leaders by this time next year.

4. Out of 30,293 comments, we’ve rejected plenty.

5. The site, not yet a year old, receives more than 80 000 monthly unique browsers/readers and just over 300 000 page impressions. This is now around 1/5 of the total M&G Online readership. (Nielsen//Netratings readership figure).


1. We reversed much of the content into the Mail & Guardian newspaper, sometimes the full blog. I believe it’s probably the first time that blog content has featured so prominently on any major SA newspaper. It’s also been a hunting ground for new writing talent.

2. Some of our journalists blog on it. Most of the online staff, the Mail & Guardian CEO and Mail & Guardian newspaper Editor in Chief also got blogging. We need more print journalists to blog…

3. Some of our journalists were helped by the ideas and comments from readers, and managed to adjust their writing around this.

4. Its the second time a major print editor has blogged, the first was Ray hartley

Other points

1. Tony Lankester created the spoof Mbeki Facebook and inbox which went viral.

2. We tried to republish the erstwhile Mbeki ANC Letter on the site under Mbeki’s name, but we were not granted permission.

The people who make it happen
Lastly it’s the people involved who have made it happen, notably Vincent Maher (Strategist), Riaan Wolmarans (Online Editor) and now Nic Haralambous (Business manager) and Kerry Haggard (sub), and our new devs Tumelo Mphafe (dev) and Joseph Msika (dev) who put the new Sports Leader together.

Comments (6)

  1. Ismail wrote::

    I think its a great initiative have any of the Online Columns found their way into the print edition, i believe that would be the next step.

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 1:45 pm #
  2. Colin Daniels wrote::

    Well done to the M&G team for a brilliant strategy, which has notched up a lot of firsts in a very short period of time!

    I must say I was a bit suprised to hear that you were breaking Thought Leader up into a number of theme oriented offshoots, but I’m sure this strategy will pay off over time 😉

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 2:09 pm #
  3. matt wrote::

    @ismail many of the columns do find their way into print — but of course the problem is limited space in a printed publication.

    @Colin… thanks for the words. we realised that TL was becoming a political blog and had a mainstream focus… the niche content was being lost a bit… hence the idea to create niche leaders…

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 2:45 pm #
  4. Brilliant stuff. I’ve seen even the Reader blog where readers of thought leader are allowed to post their own articles has received a lot of traffic as well.

    It’s a great initiative for Truth all round.

    Good going.

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 2:47 pm #
  5. matt wrote::

    thanks Muhammad for the reminder…duly added!

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 2:57 pm #
  6. Mandy de Waal wrote::

    Smart strategy. Awesome results. Great team. Well done!

    Monday, June 9, 2008 at 5:56 pm #

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