His newspaper focuses on good news stories. And when there is a negative story, both parties get equal space in his publication. Stephanie Nieuwoudt tells the story of Rivernuus, and its Xhosa edition, Umlambo News,
“I have been on the receiving end of negative publicity and I know how destructive it can be,” says Wendell Lawrence, founder and editor of Riviernuus, a free community newspaper distributed in mainly Pniel, Stellenbosch, Kylemore, Cloetesville and Idas Valley.
When he was in matric he realised there were no newspapers serving the communities in these areas. He wanted to start his own paper and hand delivered a questionnaire with two questions: Wat is jou behoefte? (loosely translated: What do you want to read (in a newspaper?) and Wat moet die naam wees? (What should the name be?).
Lawrence laughs as he recalls the naiveté of the schoolgoing youngster. “No wonder many people did not bother to fill in the questionnaire,” he says.
In the ensuing years life happened and Lawrence’s life took some turns before Riviernuus became a reality four years ago – about 20 years after the questionnaire was distributed.
After he matriculated Lawrence studied civil engineering at Stellenbosch University. His job took him to Johannesburg and Durban but love drew him back to Stellenbosch.
“I was tired of being far away from home and I wanted to be closer to my girlfriend, Shanaé, who is now my wife.”
He bid his job as engineer farewell and on his return formed a partnership with his father, a building contractor.
“We got a lot of contracts, but we grew too fast and the two of us couldn’t handle all the business. We ran into trouble and I lost everything. I remember rushing to the shops on Fridays to buy the local Stellenbosch newspaper to see if there was any information on us and the auctions where my possessions were sold. I believed that if I knew what was said about me, I would be prepared for whatever criticism I would receive.”
In the meantime Shanaé’s graphic design business was doing very well, and Lawrence became her project manager in 2009.
“I became involved with writing for a newsletter she produced. I had no experience of writing, but had enough confidence that I could make a go of it.”
His long ago dream of starting his own newspaper was also rekindled.
“My father was a keen reader of newspapers when I grew up. He would be angry if the paper was not delivered to our house. I think the importance of newspapers was inculcated when I was a child wondering what was so great about this thing that my father would get so upset about. This passion for reading newspapers rubbed off on me and I read up to five papers on a Sunday.”
In August 2011 the first Riviernuus was published and 3 000 copies distributed in Pniel and Kylemore.
“The paper was immediately popular and we soon started distributing in other areas as well. The print run is about 10 000 copies. This number is also dependent on the ads we carry. If we get more ads, we print more copies. We are also dependent on ads to determine the number of pages. Sometimes Riviernuus is eight pages, and sometimes it is 24 pages.”
A Xhosa version of the paper, Umlambo News, was launched at the end of 2014.
“Good news is not limited to certain communities and although the content of both papers is the same we reach readers from different backgrounds and cultures through Umlambo News.”
Since its first publication readers of Riviernuus, which is published as a tabloid, have twice or thrice been surprised to find themselves holding a broadsheet version.
“Sometimes I just have the desire to publish a broadsheet because I can. It reminds me of the papers of my youth. And perhaps the broadsheet is in reaction to those who sometimes refer to Riviernuus as ‘koerantjie’ (little paper),” says Lawrence with a smile adding: “I know that the diminutive is an expression of endearment.”
Desmond Thompson, an experienced journalist who now works in Stellenbosch University’s corporate communications division, says that he is a great fan of Riviernuus.
“I always enjoy reading Riviernuus. Although it is in tabloid format, the content has a certain gravitas. The quality of writing is high and it compares extremely well with some of the more established local papers in the greater Stellenbosch area. It is a welcome addition to the world of newspapers.”
IMAGE: Wendell Lawrence. Proud of being the founder and editor of Riviernuus and its Xhosa version Umlambo News.
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