The dynamic conversation

2014-04-02 00:00

THE unfolding Oscar Pistorius trial is South Africa’s first true televised celebrity trial, but it is also, without doubt, our first social media trial.

In fact, social media is so central to the trial that it was one of the key factors driving our decision to keep Pistorius off the front page, unless we had something unique to say about the proceedings that our readers would not have already been alerted to on other platforms.

The trial is being covered in an endless stream of tweets on Twitter, being actively debated online with court evidence shared on Facebook, and is being summarised in daily uploads to YouTube.

The information flow is so vast that newspapers have been left to think hard about what role they will play in telling this story. When we asked you what you thought, it was what I expected. You look to The Witness to tell you what you don’t know or to provide you with a succinct, engaging summary of the day’s proceedings as a “catch-up” moment.

While the Pistorius coverage on social media is at unprecedented levels and is hardly the norm for daily news coverage in South Africa, it still highlights how fundamentally the media landscape is changing.

Social media is now at the centre of the information world and will continue to become more so. For us, primarily focused on more traditional publishing, this is both a threat and an enormous opportunity.

Since I am a tech and Internet geek, a newspaper editor and eternally optimistic, I choose to celebrate its potential rather than bemoan the threat.

Here are some facts you may find illuminating: a recent estimate by Portland Communications and Tweetminster estimates the number of active Twitter users in South Africa at more than five million. Three years ago, that number was around one million. Facebook users in South Africa are estimated at between 6,2 million and 9,4 million users, depending on whose numbers you believe, although the upper figure comes from the credible World Wide Worx and Fuseware annual research report.

Out of curiosity, I used Facebook’s advertising placement tool to get an estimate of the platform’s reach in Pietermaritzburg and Durban. In the capital, Facebook claims to be able to reach some 123 000 people and over a million in Durban.

Even factoring in some margin of error, these numbers tell their own story clearly: if you are in media and are not on these platforms, you are not in the game.

So where does all of this put us at The Witness?

Our online editor, Kyle Venktess, has been sweating to build up our social-media audiences successfully over the past couple of months. On Twitter (, we now have over 27 100 followers; not bad considering we have not had a local “Oscar moment” to drive growth, and our Facebook page ( is sitting at 6 400 likes, a space we intend growing significantly in the future.

While these numbers are nice to look at, I also look at them and ask: so what? What do we do with these people interested enough in The Witness to follow us on these social media channels?

Mostly what we do is share content that we create with them, but I don’t think this is enough. For example, these social media audiences provide us with a real-time barometer on thinking and sentiment. When we were mulling our strategy around covering the Pistorius trial, this was one of the channels we turned to, to find out what you thought about it. The instant feedback from dozens of people supported hard data which we obtained through more traditional means.

But that is also the tip of the iceberg of opportunity.

Witness readers are among the most engaged I have experienced in my career, actively sharing ideas and content with the paper. A stunning example was when we asked for readers to share pictures of their children as they prepared for the new school year and within a couple of days we had received several hundred images from readers.

The social media space is an opportunity for us to amplify this phenomenon to create a richer, more dynamic conversation with our audience than the print space can provide. It is an opportunity to provide an easier, more intuitive way for readers to share with us and others, and for The Witness to become a platform not only for our own content, but also for yours.

We’re doing hard thinking around this, so please watch this space. This column will be up on our Facebook page this morning, so if you have any thoughts about it, I’ll see you there.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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