There’s gravitas to a number like 175. It’s weighty and meaningful.
It implies proper history.
Our story starts in 1846 with a Scotsman with ink in his veins starting a newspaper which will outlive many, many others. His daily offering weathers many storms. It grows and swells, with the lifeblood of a city coursing through its pages, the history of generations tattooed on its soul. It speaks its truth in headlines and articles, narrating the events that play out, educating its readers and giving its views on history.
It calls out the corrupt, the bigoted and the criminal. It tells people who did what, when and how. It reports on the events in the courts and parliaments. It exposes the weakness in different dispensations and spheres of government. It also shines a bright light on what’s good.
It boasts of shops’ wares and bargains, its adverts drawing in foot traffic. Proceeds of sales swell the tills of shops, and the city’s economy grows in turn.
It makes its readers think, away from purely parochial views to a broader understanding of current affairs. It challenges the status quo and plays devil’s advocate to established conservative political ideology. The paper’s billboards keep drivers informed, shouting out the headlines of the day. Can you imagine our city without them?
Of course, its mode of production changes as technology advances at a heady pace.
One hundred and seventy five glorious years later it still has one of the original presses in the foyer of its building in Pietermaritzburg to remind its staff today of its rich history in the industry. Print was king. But then, TV arrives, kicking newspapers in the shins, but the presses soldier on. Enter the age of the home computer, the Internet and digital news.
Recessions bite the businesses that the paper built. Advertising revenue is harder to coax out of them.
Editors and staff come and go, sometimes at a bewildering speed. They make their mark, or a lack of it, and move on, leaving staff either devastated at losing a much-respected leader, or cheering in the corridors.
Oh yes, and corporate takeovers happen and the paper is absorbed into a mother ship company which offers it a lifeline and a way to keep the news turning the presses.
Why did they bother? They recognised the newspaper as a quality product which was worth investing in. And our worth was measured in a common thread weaved in over 175 years of having a strong local and provincial flavour, an unwavering line in terms of playing a watchdog role in the society we serve and a focus on relevant news which provides readers with perspective in a changing world and the knowledge they need to make important life decisions.
I like to think that over the years we’ve been courageous as we have spoken truth to power. Our reporters have certainly been heroic in the many situations where they’ve had to deal with threats over what they write. They’ve faced unrest, riots, wild animals, legal challenges, pure horror at crime and crash scenes and now, a deadly pandemic, to bring you the news.
They deserve recognition, plaudits and our respect. Can we also take a moment to hail the others behind the scenes? The sub-editors, photographers, the advertising, subscription and sales staff. It’s a wonderful place to work and I’m grateful every day for the privilege of being here. There’s a sense of real camaraderie here and a sense of excitement at what each new day will bring. The beat of the pulse of The Witness, still strong after 175 years, is palpable as you walk through the doors.
And what makes this all possible, is you, our readers.
We’ve got a thrill out of every letter you’ve sent, every phone call you’ve made to our news desk to tip us off on those stories happening in your streets, and every comment you have make on our stories online. We feel like we have a real relationship with you.
The immediacy of digital news has enhanced our understanding of who you are and what you like to read. Breaking news, important local stories, politics and sports are what you’re consuming most online. You read us from all over the world. Most of you are South African — around 95%. The rest come from the U.S., the UK, Australia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Botswana, Canada, New Zealand and more.
In SA, a huge proportion of our readers are from Gauteng and the Western Cape. We’re getting noticed at a national level. And here’s where our South African readers are mostly sitting: Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Joburg, Pretoria, Cape Town.
Readers who have subscribed to the digital editions are commenting on our stories more and more online. Our Maritzburg social-media readers still have a lot to say on our Facebook page, but the conversations at a macro level around the country on the site are fascinating to watch. What we love about this, is that it means many of our stories, even some that seem pretty parochial, have relevance at a national level.
As we grow our online audience, we hope you’ll become part of these conversations and while we are still fully committed to our print edition, because we love the feel of a newspaper in our hands and the tradition that being the oldest continually published paper invests in our brand, we recognise the need to adapt to what our younger, and many of our older, readers want now.
And we want to be relevant to the technology you’ve invested in, so that’s why we’re also on your phone, tablet or PC. We’ve recently launched our morning newsletter and you can rest assured that we’ll tell you all you need to know to hold your own in conversations about current affairs in our city and province. We’ll tell you what people are talking about and share our opinions on the news of the day with you.
So where to now for the grand old dame of South African print? She’s by no means done with her purpose. We want to solidify her position as both a print and digital media product of excellence in KwaZulu-Natal. We unashamedly say we’re the best on our beat and we want to see our publication not only survive to reach a double century, but flourish. We’re not afraid of hard work, and the fact that we have huge confidence in the teams we’ve cherry-picked to carry us forward, means you should watch this space.
Please join us on the next leg of our journey as we continue documenting the history of KwaZulu-Natal. It’s going to be fascinating to navigate the province’s politics, witness the fight against the pandemic and continue to reflect the experiences of you, our precious readers.
Lastly, I want to pay tribute to our outgoing editor-in-chief Yves Vanderhaeghen. I keep getting a bit emotional about saying goodbye to him. I keep putting off thinking about it. But as he heads out of the building, at the end of 175 years of this newspaper proudly doing its duty, he can leave immensely satisfied at the legacy he’s built on, safe in the knowledge that we’ve learned loads from him and will take up the baton to carry on his good work. I cannot thank him enough for his guidance and support.
So, raise a glass (or your cup of tea) as we say cheers to celebrate our much-loved Witness on her 175th! Here’s to very, very many more.
And cheers to Yves. We’ll see you around. Often.
• Stephanie Saville is the editor of The Witness.