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Daily Dispatch's digital dividend

jude's picture

You’d have to be insane to invest in interactive storytelling in South Africa. Web staff and new digital journalists need special skills; multimedia storytelling is time consuming and expensive; and – in an environment where online ad revenue and local connectivity is relatively low – returns (financial or users) are hardly guaranteed.

But the Daily Dispatch of East London is crazy. Like a fox – crazy.

The Dispatch, which sells just over 31 000 copies has invested in online to encourage its readers and the Eastern Cape diaspora to engage with the printed product and each other as citizens and netizens. Its approaches include web-first breaking news on blogs, exploiting realtime social media like Facebook and Twitter, public journalism in the form of Community Dialogues, investigative reporting and multimedia journalism.

And there is method in the madness.

While some 54% of South African newspapers have had circulation declines; and some like the Western Cape’s Cape Argus dropped as many as 10 000 copies - the Dispatch was one of the few English titles to hold firm. I venture that The Dispatch’s connection to their community and insistence on innovation in the terrain of regional news led from the top has something to do with it. The main Daily Dispatch site brings in 130 000 unique users a month. This figure excludes users accessing Dispatch content through its dozen or so micro-sites and blogs.

The title first captured my imagination after the ensuing political fallout following the paper’s investigation into avoidable baby deaths at Frere Hospital in 2007. Their award winning probe was followed up by Killer Water - an investigation that showed that the provincial government had sat on a report that showed that at least 80 children had died from preventable diseases caused by dirty water. The newspaper won the inaugural Vodacom Online Journalism prize for that story and recently have scooped the 2009 regional Online Journalism prize for Dying to Live. Dying... was a joint online and newspaper investigation into the murder of Somalis in the Eastern Cape in 2008. The article called “Why I killed” and exploited an cross-platform multimedia approach.

The paper did not have a single specialised multimedia producer working on Dying to Live. Journalist Thanduxolo Jika and photojournalist Theo Jeptha had to learn new skills on the fly. The site was built using the Wordpress blog CMS and plug-ins and widgets to replicate functionality that the paper’s US cousins would have ordinarily produced in Flash.

That project was followed by several others, including the most recent – Broken Homes –an on the ground examination of the housing crisis from sites all over the Eastern Cape.

I had been looking for an opportunity for new media students to flex their muscles on a contextual multimedia journalism feature for some time. US newspapers have routinely run such cross-platform packages for at least a decade. But the skills and technology (generally Adobe Flash) to manage such a project are as rare as an honest politician.

The latest offering in the Dispatch series, The Struggle Continues was produced by the students of Rhodes University’s New Media Lab with the support from Avusa, the blessing of editor Andrew Trench and the patience of online editor, Jan Hennop.

More on the making of The Struggle continues... to follow.