By the end of conference, WhatsUpANC.blogspot.com, had received more than 12,000 hits. This number does not include the hits on our partner, AllAfrica.com, the largest website on African news. Not bad for an entity that only came into existence two days before conference started for the purposes of training students for the five days. So successful has it been that we are discussing ways to keep it going.
Minimal resources and much planning went into the establishment of WhatsUpANC. Our total budget was R18,000, put up jointly by allAfrica.com and the University of the Free State. The staff comprised the two of us, both experienced journalists; four students from the UFS Communication Science Department: Linda Fekisi, Moeketsi Mogotsi , Libokanyo Mokhadinyana and Seithati Semenokane and one UFS law student, Sibusiso Tshabalala.
We knew that if anyone was going to read our blog, it had to start with a bang. On Friday, December 14, we launched it with a curtain-raiser that predicted what would happen and turned out to be dead accurate: that Cyril Ramaphosa would stand, Zuma would be returned and that Kgalema Motlanthe would be the loser.
At 5.28am on Saturday, December 15, we loaded onto the blog what would turn out to be biggest scoop of the conference, later to be picked up by other, much better resourced news organisations: the decision by Trevor Manuel that he would not make himself available for election to the NEC. The story appeared on a host of websites and immediately drew attention to WhatsUpANC.
To further publicise the blog, we exploited the guerrilla marketing tactics that make the internet such a boon to the newcomer: our technology-savvy students put every story out on a myriad of media. We recycled our lead stories for the Voices section of News24, which doesn’t pay but has a huge readership, and Times Media’s bookslive.co.za. We made sure each story was stamped with WhatsUpANC branding. New Age also carried a number of our stories and will pay us for their use.
It turned out to be a hectic, exhilarating week: reporting, writing, editing and producing on the hoof from early each morning till late at night. Our ambition was to make the blog as attractive and youth friendly as possible: the format was designed to be easily read on cell-phones, the most common access point for young people, who comprise almost two thirds of the population and are tomorrow’s prime consumers. The content combined fashion, humour and gossip with the deadly serious.
We were delighted with the ease with which the students manipulated the technology, making and loading video clips; cropping pics; all with boundless energy and enthusiasm. We, on the other hand, tried to teach them everything we knew: from basics like checking the spelling of names and other facts over and over again, to the importance of networking and how to keep that subtle balance between mutual trust and independence with one’s sources.
At media conferences we encouraged them to ask questions, which produced one of the week’s lighter moments. On the last evening, Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, and ANC spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, hastily called the media together to announce that a severe storm was imminently expected and the conference was suspended until it passed. Moeketsi Mogotsi put up his hand and asked demurely: “Excuse me, is that a metaphorical storm or a literal one?” which had the whole room in stitches.
As the week came to an end, 20-year-old Linda Fekisi wrote this about her experience:
“What I found challenging, coming into this conference, was relating to it from a political sense. I was not ignorant. I was well aware of what was happening in my country, the history and the democratic process. I just did not have any interest. Until I came to university, I was colour blind. Then I found that race always seems to be at the core of political associations. This I could not relate to.
“During the conference, the media centre was the best place to be. Seeing established fellow journalists at work was so exciting. I was star struck half the time.
“These past few days have been a steep learning curve. I did not only get practical field experience but I feel that I went through a character building process as well. I’m filled with joy and contentment as I put my pen and notebook away into my memory box. Not only because I took part in capturing one of the most significant political stories in our country, but also because I can imagine myself with grey hair, sitting on a rocking chair with my grandchildren around me and being able to say: “Manguang 2012: I was there”.