A moment in history

2013-12-11 00:00

WHERE were you and when did you hear?

Thanks to my phone logs, I can tell you exactly when I got the call — at 11.46 pm on Thursday night.

I had nodded off on the couch in my cottage in Pietermaritzburg after obsessively following developments outside Nelson Mandela’s house on Twitter, rainy weather having left me without my satellite news service.

On the line was Kate Hoole, The Witness’s editorial production head. “What do you want us to do?” she asked.

Still half-asleep, I mumbled back: “Go with what we have. We have to wait for the official announcement.”

“What do you mean? Zuma’s just announced it at a press conference. It’s on Sky. Mandela’s dead!”

I jolted up as if I had been plugged into a wall socket. “I’ll see you in the office now. Get everyone in. We’re going to do the special.” Hopping around while throwing on work clothes, I began phoning other members of the team: Zoubair Ayoob, deputy editor in Maritzburg, Kuben Chetty, deputy editor in Durban, Stephanie Saville, our news editor, and Riaan Jansen van Rensburg, the general manager of PaarlColdset, which runs the printing presses. They in turn called other team members and we headed at dangerous speed into our offices in Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

Hours earlier, we had contemplated the scenarios of what could happen. We had started to pick up buzz on the media grapevine that something was afoot and that this time it seemed it was for real. I called editor colleagues around the country and asked them if they had heard the same. They had.

We doubted it would happen that evening and thought, if the worst was to happen, that the news would come the next day. But we planned for what we thought was the unlikeliest scenario anyway and Clive Reddy, our distribution head, and Riaan had been on alert. Our normal edition’s page one had a holding lead on the vigil outside the Mandela Houghton home — an edition which, in the end, would never hit the streets.

Minutes after midnight, most of the editorial production team — which had left only two hours earlier — was back in the office and we began working furiously to get the paper and the special commemorative supplement out onto the streets.

Matthew le Cordeur, head of production of our community papers, arrived to volunteer his help and would later, in our 30-hour marathon, conceive a brilliant wraparound concept for our Saturday edition.

Time was against us. The longer we waited, the fewer papers we would be able to get out as readers in Durban and the capital headed out to work that morning.

This was a moment that I had dreaded as an editor. Over three years ago while I was the editor of the Dispatch, the circulation area of which takes in the Transkei and Mandela’s Qunu home, I had had sleepless nights that this moment would come on my watch. I never really imagined what I would feel when it finally happened and when it did, I felt a mixture of a journalist’s excitement, the terror of the responsibility of dealing with the historic moment which confronted us, and the sadness of any South African who had heard the news. As others mourned, so did we in that Witness newsroom in the early hours of that morning.

Newsrooms often disguise such emotional moments with bravado and banter, and we were no different, but there were many of us, including myself, who discreetly blinked away our tears as we worked to put the special edition out.

Robin Crouch, head of our design desk, started on the front page with a concept he had sweated over earlier in the year: a collage of Mandela pictures taking the shape of a silhouette of his profile, a design that the next day would be recognised as one of the best in the world by American design guru Charles Apple.

Kate and her team started working through copy for other pages as we reworked our earlier edition with four upfront pages of Mandela-related news. As they worked, I sat down to write a new editorial for our leader page.

News editors began planning for the next day, calling reporters and briefing them. Online editor Kyle Venktess organised our site to switch over to a special Mandela-focused theme that had been planned earlier. Young sports reporter Lunga Biyela came in to help feed our Twitter and Facebook communities. A quiet calm enveloped our newsroom. By 2.25 am we were done, the paper away to the presses, including a quality supplement that had been pre-printed under the guidance of my predecessor Angela Quintal, and for which I can take no credit.

The Witness has existed for nearly 170 years, over which time it has reported and recorded the most momentous events of our age. In the early hours of last Friday, I’d like to believe we honoured that legacy as history unfolded before us. In the future, I hope our successors will look back and be inspired by what my team did that night.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

Twitter: @andrewtrench

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