New addition to the team

2013-10-16 00:00

THERE was a remarkable response to last week’s inaugural editor’s column and I was swamped with letters, e-mails and calls.

I have tried to reply to every letter personally, but I may have missed a couple in the mad rush of the week, so please accept my apologies if yours was one of those I was unable to reply to.

I even had offers from readers in India and South America wanting to sign up to The Witness Army!

I was overwhelmed by the support you offered and how warmly you have welcomed me.

There were several correspondents who were on the sharp end of friendly and a couple of readers who thought that I should simply pack up and go home.

Well, that’s what happens when you ask others what they think — sometimes it’s not pretty.

But I take all comments and criticisms seriously, and think about what you say. This feedback is worth its weight in gold as it gives me a sense of your mood and expectations in a way that formal research often cannot do.

Most valued were the insights you offered into the paper and what you thought could be done to improve it. For example, a recurring point of irritation from many readers was the size at which pictures are often used, and which you said could appear gratuitous and unjustified.

I agree and we have taken steps to rectify this among many tweaks we are implementing on a daily basis.

As I said in last week’s column, you are the soul of the paper and I don’t say that lightly.

Late last week, I had the pleasure of informing the team here about a new addition to our ranks and I’d like to share this with you too.

We have been fortunate to recruit Rowan Philp, a former Sunday Times chief reporter who has also written for the likes of the Washington Post , to our reporting team starting in November.

Rowan is an outstanding journalist who has reported from 27 countries around the world. Among his many assignments, he covered the Callie and Monique Strydom hostage crisis in the southern Philippines, the Judge Siraj Desai rape trial in India, exposed Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s election rigging and state-sponsored terror there, and was on the scene of the Haiti earthquake.

But he is an ace local hard-news man as well — and with KwaZulu-Natal roots to boot.

He has won 15 major journalism awards and, among many achievements, was awarded a fellowship to study at Harvard and MIT in the United States, where he operates currently as a primary correspondent for the Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian newspapers.

He’s on his way back home and we were able to recruit him to be part of our mission at The Witness, where he will be chief reporter and work in mentoring and training other members of staff so that we can all benefit from his experience and skills.

He has strong KwaZulu-Natal roots, growing up near Hillcrest, all of which helped to get him here, but I also like to think we were able to woo him with our zest for life and our sunny disposition.

“Having spent the past two years in the United States — and witnessed the dismantling of some great regional and city papers — I guess I’m a bit dazzled by the audacity of The Witness to buck a global trend: actually expanding, and deepening its commitment both to readers and quality journalism,” said Rowan in an e-mail to me.

Look out for his byline in the months to come.

On Saturday night, I attended the CNN African Journalist of the Year awards in Cape Town where my former Media24 Investigations team and City Press colleagues were honoured for our work in telling the back stories of the victims of the Marikana shootings.

The work won the digital-platforms category in these prestigious awards.

Besides the great honour of having this work recognised across the continent, it also reminded me of the raw power of telling a human-interest story well.

The work Niyanta Singh at The Witness did last week in speaking to the families of the four young men who died in a tragic car accident was true to that tradition, I thought. It was a heart-wrenching piece of journalism, compassionately reported and told. These stories are hard to tell, but I hope we were able to offer some comfort to the bereaved families by allowing them to share their pain with a community that rallied to support them. I can only offer my condolences to you all for a most terrible loss.

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