Maintaining the momentum

2014-05-28 00:00

LAST week, I attended the annual Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards at the Soweto Theatre with colleagues Jonathan Erasmus and Rowan Philp where, along with winning a national award, we were also handed some food for thought.

It was a fun event where I was proud to see my two colleagues take to the stage as joint winners (along with former Witness reporter Mhlabunzima Memela) in the prestigious investigative reporting category, along with the Sunday Times’s ace reporting team. It was a real feather in our cap and I hope there will be plenty more to come in the future.

But one topic of conversation which kept returning to our revelries in the hours after the awards was the comments by Paula Fray, the convenor of the judging panel, who had some sharp remarks about the performance of the South African media in covering what the judges regarded as the story of the last year: the death of Nelson Mandela.

Fray said the judges felt that none of the entries really captured the importance of that story in a compelling manner.

It was an interesting observation, I thought, although I also felt the judges were a little harsh on the press overall, as I recall some strong examples of great storytelling during those 10 days, not least from reporters at The Witness .

But the judges’ remarks are, nevertheless, pause for reflection.

Mandela’s death was an extraordinary event that certainly offered an opportunity for some extraordinary reporting. But it was also an unusual moment in that it had been anticipated for so long, with so many alarms and alerts, that by the time it occurred there was rapidly a sense of fatigue from the media and the public.

It was also an unusually highly managed event, where the script had been written years in advance and which played out each day according to a predetermined schedule.

I remember the conversations we had at The Witness at the time, asking each morning “What is the story about today?”

As I have reflected in previous columns, it was difficult to maintain a momentum of compelling storytelling a few days into this important chapter in our history.

Which, I suppose, serves to highlight another valid criticism of the South African media: we are generally pretty good at covering big-news moments, but not so good at covering the processes that follow.

Think of the coverage of the Marikana killings and think of coverage of the Marikana Commission.

The event dominated national and global headlines, but the drip-drip evidence of what actually happened and which is emerging at the lengthy commission hearings, battles to get into the paper most days. The Witness is as guilty of this as anyone else.

Why this happens is complex. Papers are tight for space; more compelling and more local news breaks, pushing out more distant and process-driven stories; newsrooms are more thinly staffed and news editors are working with an ever-changing tide of priorities and perceptions of reader interests.

It’s definitely not ideal and I’m not sure what the solution is.

So did the South African media drop the ball on covering Mandela’s death? I’d be interested to hear what you think about that observation.

To end off, a couple of items from my editor’s to-do list.

A couple of weeks ago, I hinted at a new supplement we would be launching soon, so I hope you caught Witness eXplore last Friday, our new product distributed with the main paper, which is all about celebrating the fun, outdoors, food and adventure of this amazing province.

I particularly enjoyed the item on “delicious dives” in Durban and Pietermaritzburg; those places that look a little ordinary on the outside, but which blow you away with the food on the plate.

There was plenty more to discover on other pages, so please look out for it and let the enthusiastic team behind it know what you think and what you’d like covered.

Horse-racing fans will know that in the last while our racing pages have not been up to scratch.

Over the past couple of weeks we have made changes to improve this content daily and on weekends, and have brought back popular racing columnist Phil Drake on a Saturday.

I’m glad to say that the regular complaints I received about this material have disappeared, so I’m taking the silence to suggest the refreshed pages are hitting the spot for the punters and racing fraternity, but if not, please let me know.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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