Walking the tightrope

2013-11-13 00:00

MONDAY’S Witness was a bit of an experiment.

If you happened to pick it up, you would have seen a very different type of story leading the paper — a good-news story.

The piece that we led with was about Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, and how the town is breaking all the rules on how a council can be run by doing things such as banning free lunches for its councillors and municipal staff (in fact, it charges councillors R100 for a plate of food), saving millions by going paperless, among a basket of other innovations.

It’s an ANC-led council to boot, and even the opposition parties are lauding the mayor for his vision and leadership.

I absolutely loved the story and it was the kind of reporting that’s rare in South African media. It challenges stereotypes and provides a ray of hope in an often bleak landscape.

Now, before you think that your new editor has gone soft in the head, let me explain why I decided to lead with it.

Witness reader research (and, indeed, reader research at any newspaper I have ever been associated with) tells us — surprise, surprise — that readers generally don’t want to feel depressed after reading the paper. But experience, and historical newspaper sales figures, also tells us that, generally, bad news sells.

So editors walk a trembling tightrope each day, as we try to strike a balance between what we know sells our product and the desire of our readers not to feel suicidal each morning.

Sometimes we try to lift the tone of the paper with simple tricks like using bright and happy photographs, or salting the paper with what we call “lights and brights”; little stories to give the reader a chuckle between the important but often down-beat stories that are the bread and butter of daily news.

In the blood, guts and mayhem that passes for an average day in South African life, this balance is often the hardest thing to achieve.

But every now and then a story like that of Newcastle comes along.

I first spotted a reference to the Newcastle revolution in a Sunday paper two weeks ago. It was buried at the bottom of a story about what councils were spending on catering in the wake of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s crackdown on official perks in his medium-term budget.

It jumped out like a low-lying apple on a tree.

So we plucked it and made it our own. Our new hire, chief reporter Rowan Philp, and photographer Jonathan Burton were assigned to develop the Newcastle story into a full piece for The Witness, and they did a sterling job.

What was special about this report for me is that while it was a good-news story, it certainly was not “sunshine journalism”, built on a manufactured idea of what good news should be and the kind of thing government apparatchiks and politicians often try to shove down the throats of journalists.

This was a genuine story of success, and our team tackled it with the same gusto and level of reportage that would often accompany a shocking exposé. No spin doctor or political agenda came near this story.

That’s what makes it authentic.

Not so long ago, all of us in the media had a good chuckle when President Jacob Zuma had a go at the media in South Africa, saying we often left him so depressed he felt like he wanted to leave the country.

Now some of you might think it would not be a bad idea if the president left the country, but if you look beyond some of the sweeping generalisations he made, there is more than a grain of truth to his critique.

In fact, throughout my career, the president’s sentiments are echoed whenever I interact with ordinary readers.

So why are South African newspapers not dripping with good-news stories every day?

Well, partly it’s because of conventional wisdom that they don’t sell very well (I’ll give you an idea of how we did on the Newcastle story when the sales numbers come in), but mainly because they are darn hard to find.

Unlike “normal” news, there are very few “good-news” sources. Normal news comes from institutions such as the police, rescue workers, the courts and so on; the kind of places where the very worst things about society percolate.

So where do we go to find out about the very best of us?

It’s hard because the very best of us is often all around us. It’s often hardest to see what’s sitting under our noses.

Good news is often what most people call “life”. I bet your days don’t consist of horror and gore. They more likely consist of small acts of humanity, random acts of kindness, courtesies and smiles.

These are the things that make society work. These are also the building blocks of good news, but they don’t have natural headlines or story frames that are a comfortable fit in newspapers. And that’s the tragedy and the challenge of it for us journalists.

• On twitter: @andrewtrench

• andrew.trench@witness.co.za

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