The buck stops here

2014-01-08 00:00

YESTERDAY I learnt that no matter how much you plan, you can never imagine every scenario.

If someone had asked me as an editor to imagine the worst thing that could happen, the events that unfolded at The Witness on Monday night would not have featured in my most fevered nightmares. What happened was simply unimaginable.

Let me take you back a step.

The annual matric results publishing day is the biggie for all newspapers around South Africa and The Witness is no exception. On this day, newspapers have the unique opportunity to provide an edition that attracts tens of thousands of additional readers: matrics and their families who want to know their results.

Even though questioned by some lately, the practice of publishing the matric results in newspapers is a long tradition that has survived because, I think, there is something special about holding a newspaper in your hands and seeing your name there. It makes the occasion of the matric results more special and real in a way. It is not an edition we treat trivially.

Back in October, when I arrived here to start as editor, plans for this year’s matric edition were already advanced. A project team was put together representing advertising, circulation, editorial and IT, and it met to consider the logistics for this special edition.

The months running up to this edition see contracts being signed with the Department of Basic Education, dummy runs on sample results data, the tweaking of page layouts, and edition plans being changed endlessly around advertising bookings and estimations of the space required to carry all the results.

This year would be even more challenging for The Witness as it was the first time that the paper would publish results for the entire KwaZulu-Natal, reflecting our larger footprint as we enter the Durban market in addition to our Pietermaritzburg and Midlands home base.

Producing the edition entails processing more than 100 000 individual results and laying them out over 37 pages, in this case in a relatively small window of time to allow for the production and printing of a paper in a print run nearly double that of an average day.

For the circulation team it’s a day of special challenges too, as they work out the publishing of the edition (a delicate mix of science and instinct) and organise the distribution of this weighty print run through our publication’s circulation footprint in time for the paper to be purchased at 6 am, when the embargo from the Education Department is lifted.

In addition, the editorial team chases down dozens of top matrics, recording their stories, writing them up, editing them and producing a front to the paper to reflect this important day for the more than 100 000 people who are likely to see their names in paper.

Monday began according to plan. It was an early start for many as our IT team processed the enormous set of results and arranged their presentation on the pages. Reporters got going early with more than a dozen stories relating to matric achievers and other aspects of the day. Things continued according to plan, barring a few expected hiccups like having to reconfigure the paper on the fly when we realised we would have to accommodate 20 000 more results than originally planned (a by-product of the increase in the KwaZulu-Natal pass rate).

By 10 pm Monday night, The Witness was ready for printing by Paarl Coldset, here at our Willowton, Pietermaritzburg headquarters. In the press line-up we follow Ilanga, which has a much bigger print run than The Witness. By late on Tuesday night I was getting worrying news from our editorial production head Kate Hoole — there had been “web breaks”, when the paper breaks running through the press, and it looked like we were going to be delayed significantly.

Each break is a problem and cumulatively through the course of the evening cost us and Ilanga six hours in production time. Those hours echo through the entire Witness ecosystem, never to be regained. The result is that The Witness edition that we slaved over, and into which we poured hundreds of man-hours in planning, preparation and reporting, arrived on the streets of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, at outlets and at subscribers, many hours later than planned.

For a product that targets a “golden hour” for the majority of its sales, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Unsurprisingly and justifiably, our offices were swamped with calls from furious readers and subscribers, demanding answers. Many were especially livid because we have experienced similar, though less extreme, situations on this press before on a Wednesday night, when Thursday editions have arrived late and I have had to apologise to readers before.

Yesterday I called back dozens of readers, store owners and subscribers myself, and corresponded with dozens more, providing an explanation of what had occurred. But there’s no sugar-coating what happened. Our readers expect a reliable service and should be provided with it.

As the editor of The Witness and its public face, the buck stops with me. I can only offer my sincerest apologies and ask for your understanding over this calamitous event.

• E-mail:

. Twitter: @andrewtrench

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.