A mark that moves society

2014-05-14 00:00

THE ballots have been counted, the fall-out, finger-pointing, speculation and jostling for position are upon us and I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that Election 2014 is over.

Any election is a challenging event for a newspaper to cover and the scale of the election in KwaZulu-Natal is enormous with over five million voters and thousands of polling stations.

Election day itself is particularly daunting. By the time the paper goes to bed there are no results available, little indication of voter turnout beyond observation and anecdote, and without a proper plan Editors could be left scratching their head come deadline and wondering what story they will tell their readers in that edition.

Here at The Witness my colleagues and I had a discussion leading up to the election which considered this scenario. Eventually our discussions got us thinking not about how we would cover the election on the day but what story we would choose to tell.

There were a couple of big themes leading up to the big day which helped frame our thinking, with the most important being that this election would commemorate 20 years of democracy and that it was also the first in the post-Mandela era.

We decided to try to build our coverage around individual voters whose own experiences, stories and perspectives would capture these themes. I imagined a collection of vignettes that, put together, would immerse the reader in a special election-day tale.

We briefed the bulk of our reporters each to find a particular kind of subject to build their story around. We had a reporter focusing on a born free voting for the first time, another locating a South African émigré who had returned to vote for the first time, and so on through about half a dozen different subjects. The team got to it and headed out to the polling stations with their voters and I was pleased with the results of the plan.

There were a couple of pieces that stood out in particular. One was Witness veteran Nalini Naidoo’s piece centred on Thando Maphumulo, the son of the renowned “Peace Chief”, Mhlabunzima Maphumulo of Table Mountain, who was assassinated at the height of the KwaZulu-Natal war.

It was a poignant piece that captured Maphumulo’s sense of legacy captured in the peace of the election in a place which had once been a bloody battlefield.

Another Witness veteran, Stephen Coan, also made it to the front page with his story on Sam Reddy, a South African recently returned from Australia, and his sense of “awe” at voting in South Africa for the first time.

I loved this quote from Reddy, which captured the essence of voting day for me: “You realise at a deep level your vote is important. The little mark which I made on a piece of paper can, and will, move a society.”

In the evening of the election, we debated how to project this on the front page. Deputy chief sub Robin Crouch, who is also the paper’s design guru, attended the editorial conference where we planned the paper.

We threw around a bunch of ideas ranging from a gallery-style page one with images of the day as the centrepiece along with some of our voter profiles. We played with a version where the pictures would frame the border of the page with the stories running within.

But as we went through the news diary, we all ended up having a good laugh at a light story on our diary about the “thumbie”, the images people were taking of the ink-stained thumbs and which they were posting on social media.

As we were wrapping up, Robin made a joke. “Maybe we should just have a big thumb on the front!” he said.

We all laughed our heads off. But then we realised that he had captured the spirit of the day with that off-the-cuff remark.

And thus was born our front page with a large headline, yelling “THUMBS UP!” with a rainbow collection of three thumbs dominating “above the fold”.

Stephen and Nalini’s stories ran beneath the fold along with a question-and-answer style wrap of an exceedingly peaceful and upbeat election day in the province. Inside we continued with our “democracy in a day” theme of individual stories, packaged in a fine team effort by chief sub Kate Hoole and her production team.

And that’s how our election day unfolded. I hope you enjoyed the edition as much as we did putting it all together.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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