December 3, 2015. We all knew it was going to be a busy day in the newsroom. The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, South Africa, was to rule on whether Oscar Pistorius was guilty of murder or not.
I remember the day Reeva Steenkamp was shot on February 14, 2013. At 8:03 a.m. this tweet from @Beeld_Nuus appeared on my BlackBerry: “Oscar Pistorius skiet sy vriendin in sy huis dood omdat hy glo dink sy is ‘n inbreker” (“Oscar Pistorius shoots his girlfriend dead in his house after apparently thinking she’s a burglar”).
A huge shift in our newsrooms started with a viral tweet
The news made international headlines, but it also created a huge shift in the culture of our newsrooms. This is what “digital first” was about. Beeld, one of Media24’s three daily Afrikaans newspapers, decided to tweet the news about Steenkamp’s death. It reached Beeld’s 29,000 Twitter followers, was translated into English by another journalist, and went viral.
More than two years later I was standing in a corridor at Media24 in Johannesburg, listening to a news editor talk about the golden question: What do we publish online and what new angles can we look at for tomorrow’s newspapers? We were prepared for Pistorius’ case in the Court of Appeal, but not for the tragic death of a mother and her two children. They were killed early that morning and the story developed at a fast pace. By lunchtime, the husband and father of the deceased admitted he had killed his family.
We had a lot of balls in the air, covering the Court of Appeal and staying with the family murder. It struck me how things had changed since that morning Steenkamp died. Beeld now has over 140,000 followers on Twitter. We merged the websites of our three dailies (Beeld, Die Burger, and Volksblad) into one platform (Netwerk24.com) with a metered paywall. Netwerk24 has nearly 120,000 followers on Twitter and the dailies combined have a Twitter audience of more than 240,000. And I eventually swapped my BlackBerry for a Samsung.
As part of a plan to strengthen our digital offerings, we shifted reporters and editors from our newsrooms to Netwerk24 in August 2015. We now work digital first in a way we could have never imagined on Valentine’s Day in 2013. On the print side we moved our three papers onto a single server in order to enable us to share national pages and other content in a more streamlined process, served by a single production team.
These are early but exciting days. I’m humbled by the team’s ability to adapt and innovate. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of constant communication as part of change management. I have no idea what our business will look like in five years. People keep asking me whether we will have newspapers. I think the answer is yes. What I don’t know is what they will look like. And maybe by that time I will have swapped my Samsung for a still-to-be designed wearable.
What I do know is that quality journalism and unique content will still form the backbone of what we do.