Sorting the pups from the hounds

2013-11-27 00:00

LAST week was one of those weeks that gives reporters in a daily newsroom stories to talk about in the pub for years to come.

The news story that dominated our week was the Tongaat mall tragedy, a story that tested our new Durban team to the limit — and, I’m proud to say, they were not found wanting.

The story broke last Tuesday shortly after 4 pm, when our news editor in Pietermaritzburg, Stephanie Saville, received a tip from her myriad contacts: a mall in Tongaat had collapsed and dozens were feared trapped and possibly dead.

A breaking news story of this scale, and as we near deadline, is the kind of thing which sorts the puppies from the news hounds, and we immediately dispatched a reporting team to the scene from Durban: Rowan Philp, Witness chief reporter, and Jonathan Erasmus, an investigative reporter.

Another team comprising Gabisile Ngcobo and photographer Ian Carbutt hit hospitals in nearby Umhlanga.

The mall scene team arrived as search-and-rescue teams were descending on the ruin of the Tongaat mall and immediately began zoning in on eye witnesses, and possible angles in the unfolding drama. A generation ago that would have been all reporters would have to worry about. But these days, it’s a little more complicated as the breaking story was being hammered on multiple media platforms, even as our reporters were working. eNCA, for example, was doing an amazing job of covering every breaking detail on television, while Twitter was going berserk with tweets and images from the scene. News websites across the country, and globe, were updating with details as they came in.

Back at Witness HQ, we were watching all these sources humming with the story our reporters were working on, and which millions of views, readers and Internet users, were following in near-real time, and we were asking ourselves: how do we cover this so that you read something tomorrow that you didn’t know yesterday?

We pulled together a quick telephone conference with our Durban editors, Kuben Chetty and Jo-Ann Floris, and started brainstorming angles and treatments that we could then brief our teams in the field to pursue.

We decided to commit to locating the most powerful story of a survivor we could find, and to work the angle of who was behind the mall as a secondary approach to be followed the next day, as we had only six hours from the story breaking to our final page-one deadline.

Philp and Erasmus rapidly pulled an amazing survivor tale out the hat with the gripping story of one of the site supervisors leaping out of the way of the collapsing floor of concrete almost the size of a rugby field, along with other strong eye-witness material.

But then they stumbled onto something else — the name of the company that owned the mall: Rectangle Property Investments, with a tip that this company could be linked to “Jay” Singh.

We had featured Singh on the front of our Durban edition only days before, as the head of the “R580 m Club” family whose companies had scored hundreds of millions in eThekwini contracts and which was cloaked in controversy over building standards.

As deadline approached, I began running company searches and within minutes, the link to the Singh family was clear as we located family members as founders and as a current director of the entity. Further reporting on the scene provided multiple sources telling of another Singh entity as the company doing construction.

With deadline looming, Durban deputy editor Chetty and I made a quick call to rework the angle around the men who would have to answer the tough questions behind the tragedy.

As I got going on the rewrite of the lead, Chetty started working the phones trying to get the Singhs for comment.

Young layout sub-editor Yashen Moodley pulled together a front-page design in a matter of minutes and — boom! — away went the front page with a piece of reporting which, I would argue, stamped our ownership on a story that was playing around the world.

As all this unfolded, Witness website editor Kyle Venktess was feeding our Twitter timeline and Facebook page with updates from our reporting teams in the field.

Soon requests were rolling in for our reporters to go on air with the BBC, Canadian radio as well as local stations such as eNCA and Capetalk.

Over the coming days, our reporters did scores of these interviews because, I believe, we stamped our mark on the story from the beginning.

Venktess and I continued to feed Twitter well after our paper had gone to press, with other details that were too late for print publication.

Over the coming days, Philp and Erasmus would continue to hammer out scoop after scoop on this story with an astounding run of quality reporting.

By Friday, Venktess had built a fantastic Internet special, pulling together our coverage, video, images, graphics and other material (http://witnessmalltrage

dy.weebly.com/).

That’s how the news works these days — and that’s how we at The Witness roll.

E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

Twitter: @andrewtrench

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