The year past: highs and lows

2014-10-08 00:00

‘I’ve been reminded that a paper cannot build itself on anything other than with the reader at centre.’

THIS month marks a year since I started as Editor at The Witness. It’s been quite a ride so far with plenty of highs and a couple of lows.

Among the lows was a period of editorial staff restructuring as we worked to lay the foundation for a sustainable future for the paper in a challenging economic environment at a time when the print industry is facing huge hurdles.

Among the highs was seeing Witness journalists scooping a number of major journalism awards and seeing the paper punching way above its weight.

A year ago, in my first column, I wrote about our march to Durban, launched shortly before I arrived, as we attempt to take The Witness brand into the province’s largest city.

Iteration One of that plan was a dead loss. So we went back to the drawing board and did a radical pivot in our strategy, which saw us changing the Durban paper into a compact format; redesigning it from the ground up, completely reworking our content plan there and rebooting the paper.

In the process, we have written a small entry into South African media history by producing two different-format papers for two different markets daily, a challenge which, I can assure you, is not for the faint of heart.

The commitment of The Witness’s news, circulation, advertising and management teams on this project has been outstanding.

Our second effort is now showing real promise and we are making inroads into Durban, although plenty of work lies ahead of us.

The now dramatic separation of the Durban and Pietermaritzburg editions also gives us the space to give proper attention to our readers in the capital and in the Midlands. We are sharpening our local focus in the Pietermaritzburg paper, which had drifted. We have some plans on the boil which I hope will soon give loyal readers of the paper in our traditional heartland a better Witness experience. But more on that later.

I’ve learnt a lot over the past year, lessons which I will carry with me into my second year. Some of them have been learnt painfully.

I’ve learnt to appreciate that The Witness’s legacy is not something to be treated lightly and that as we innovate and move forward, we must do so with respect for our paper’s nearly 170-year history. I’ve also been reminded that a paper cannot build itself on anything other than with the reader at its centre. It’s quite simply the difference between success and futile effort. Version one of our Durban project taught us that fundamental lesson well.

I doubt I would have lasted six months in this tumultuous year without the support of my Witness colleagues.

The crew that arrive at work each day to get another edition of The Witness out are a great gang, full of character, humour and pride in what they do. The way they care about The Witness inspires me for the year ahead, even though we have no illusions about the enormity of work before us.

But there’s another group that have helped me through Year One — and that’s all of you reading this now and particularly the scores of you who have taken the time to contact me to share your thoughts.

To be sure, there’s been some tension when you’ve disagreed with something I’ve done. The period, now thankfully in the past, where printing issues led to regular delays in deliveries was a special nightmare where I got to know what being in the hot seat really means.

But all those conversations, whether angry or convivial, have helped me to understand better who I serve and to learn more about what we need to do at The Witness as we move forward.

I have also been fortunate to have met some special people whose support for me has been humbling. They have been generous with their time and insights, and gracious over my errors. But, most importantly, they have also offered a welcome hand of friendship, which, for anyone who has been a stranger in a new town, will know is the kindest gift of all.

So, as this anniversary arrives, I am with my family sitting on the roof of our province for a short break in the Berg, to relax, recharge my battery and to think about the second year that lies ahead.

Thanks for indulging me for the past year. I’ve had a blast.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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