ON AIR: Kevin Ritchie of the Saturday Star talks to David OSullivan on 702 from the newsroom.
ON AIR: Kevin Ritchie of the Saturday Star talks to David OSullivan on 702 from the newsroom.
Visitors at the offices of The Star Newspaper
PIcture: Moeletsi Mabe 
610 Visitors at the offices of The Star Newspaper PIcture: Moeletsi Mabe 17/02/2012
Neo Mashigo and Cheryl Hunter selecting stories.               PIcture: Moeletsi Mabe
Neo Mashigo and Cheryl Hunter selecting stories. PIcture: Moeletsi Mabe

Brendan Seery

A little bit of history was made in the Saturday Star’s newsroom last Friday.

We allowed in a bunch of “civilians” to witness the Saturday Star being “put to bed” and, for the first time, let them play a hands-on role in putting together the following day’s paper.

And another first was when a radio station did a live broadcast from a working newspaper newsroom in SA, as Talk Radio 702’s presenter David O’Sullivan did his Friday afternoon drive show from a desk in the middle of the newsroom.

The aim of the exercise was to allow the guests – many of whom interact with the print media industry professionally – to gain an insight into how our industry works, and to experience the tight planning, schedules, stress and excitement that are part of the countdown to deadline and printing of the papers.

Inviting O’Sullivan and 702 in to broadcast live was done to give him the opportunity of being part of the process and to enable him to share the excitement with his radio audience.

Given the feedback from the participants, their companies, the radio audience listening in to 702’s broadcast – and the amount of comment during and after the event on Twitter, the internet and the media industry – it was one of the most popular, interesting and talked-about events among both participants and listeners in recent times.

The idea had come from my participating in the planning and management of international television events and international viral marketing events over the past few years, as well as presentations and talks that I have given in SA and the UK on the principles of implementing successful marketing strategies and events.

The event also tied in with the 125th anniversary celebrations of the newspaper and was aimed at showing people that, all the propaganda notwithstanding, newspapers are far from dead and are still a fascinating and sexy medium, as well as an effective advertising vehicle.

As can be imagined, editing a major newspaper on deadline calls for precision activities and professional and tight management. If anything goes wrong, it can spell disaster. Combine this with a live radio broadcast and a group of people who are unfamiliar with both, and the need for precision planning, management and control is obvious.

Fortunately, all involved – from the guests and the 702 team to our own reporters and executives – are consummate professionals, who all worked together perfectly, allowing everything to go off without a hitch.

After numerous briefings to all parties, co-ordination of the 1 001 aspects that are not seen or heard (extra ADSL, food and drink, mementoes) and with the weather and traffic playing its part to help – the green light was pressed.

While O’Sullivan’s broadcast was beginning, the VIP guests were being immersed in the hectic experience of producing a newspaper on deadline. I knew that this might not be for everybody (because a deadline in a newsroom and printing room can be as stressful as it can be exciting) so I wanted people with an affinity for newspapers and the media.

The invited VIPs were The Jupiter Drawing Room’s Graham Warsop, Thebe Ikalefeng from Brand Leadership, ad guru Andy Rice, Neo Mashigo (executive creative director at Draftfcb), Gordon Patterson from Starcom MediaVest Group, Tim Hendon from General Motors, Irvan Damon from Carbon Track, Amanda Hardy from Flight Centre and Cheryl Hunter from Chimera Communications.

The group sat in on the final news diary conference of the day with Saturday Star executive editor Kevin Ritchie and his reporters, and followed the saga of the stories on Auction Alliance (the paper’s lead for the next day) and its unsuccessful legal attempt to stop publication.

They were then taken on a tour of the building and shown the massive printing presses, which are at the core of a newspaper’s operation.

But, as I warned the group when I invited them, they weren’t here to relax; they’d have to get their hands dirty. I gave them a briefing on the basics of the computer system, then divided them into groups of two, each of which was given a specific “copytasting” assignment for the world news section.

Warsop and Hardy trawled the news wires for light stories, Hendon and Damon compiled the briefs, Mashigo and Hunter looked for the lead story and second lead while Patterson and Rice went through the AP and Reuters picture feeds to select images.

They set about their work with my words “you are not the target market” ringing in their ears as a reminder that the Saturday Star has a broad audience… and that material they selected would have to be fresh and interesting to all of its readers the following day.

If they were under any illusion about deadlines, Kevin Ritchie dispelled that by threatening to use other material on the page if they didn’t deliver on time.

All the while, O’Sullivan’s programme was following its normal format, with the addition of interviews with people like me and Ritchie, as well as sports editor Mark Beer… and with Makhudu Sefara, the editor-designate of The Star, who will be taking the reins of the paper on March 1.

In the end, the guinea pigs met their deadline and our world section was entirely their work. They did a good job.

As for O’Sullivan and his live 702 show, judging from the comments received from listeners during and after the broadcast – and the comments on Twitter and elsewhere – his broadcast conveyed the excitement and drama of a newsroom and news day perfectly; illustrating why people are drawn to this interesting, challenging and exciting profession and environment.

Ritchie remarked: “To be honest, in the beginning I thought that inviting an entire team of outsiders into the newsroom on deadline on a Friday night was insanity and utterly stupid.

“Get O’Sullivan to set up a makeshift studio three metres from the managing editor’s office and broadcast his entire drive time show live? Shoot me now. Actually, in the end, it was incredible.

“Putting a paper to bed is very special. It is intimate, fraught with tension, last-minute micro-crises and narrowly avoided mega-disasters.

“On the Saturday Star, almost the entire team stays back almost to the very end, even though as reporters and photographers their work is long done – it is that kind of paper.

“This is why it is difficult to let strangers in and yet, when the group is chosen correctly, when these are people who love newspapers as much as we love producing them – it just sharpens your own excitement.”

And, that excitement – which is why we do it, not for the money, trust me – rubbed off on our guests, who became part of our newspaper family.

At the end, after the paper had been “put to bed” and the printing presses were running, we had a dinner for the VIPs and the 702 team, where we gave each of them a collector’s item T-shirt, which said “I edited the Saturday Star”.

It’s something you cannot buy for love or money…