What I thought journalism is and what it really is are two totally different things.
Journalism seemed pretty simple to me - gather information and write articles in good, acceptable English, right? Not!
I was sooner rather than later to find out that what I had been reading about over the years in career books and brochures and information booklets was a fallacy, a major untruth. They gave me no real sense on what it means to practice Journalism.
Journalism at Wits is literally the survival of the fittest because distribution on Fridays will help you right along with burning those calories and getting into quick shape for every Friday of the same thing.
I must tell you about Friday distribution first – not to put you off the life and routine of a journalism student – but because I feel it is my duty as an outgoing student to look out for my incoming comrades and urge them to ask Prof Anton Harber to provide the class with trolleys.
Distribution is probably the only thing we have consensus on when debating what we hate most about being a Journ student. It means carrying 100 to 200 newspapers to their various destinations across campus. It’s no joke, trust me.
But before Fridays, it’s fun times. The week kicks off with our weekly news conference bright and early on a Monday morning. Each student has to have at least two story ideas to put on the news diary for the weekly edition of Vuvuzela.
Dare not, I repeat, do not dare coming in with nothing, for you will feel the wrath not just of the editor for that week but also the rest of the class and most of all Jo-Anne (lecturer and coordinator for the career-entry course).
After news conference the morning’s lecture begins. Often we have special guests from the industry who come to speak to us on topics ranging from how to write an intro to how to dress when you’re a court reporter.
We have interacted and debated with the likes of Ferial Hafajee, Mondli Makhanya and John Perlman, to name just a few. These talks are priceless. They give us the opportunity not just to be told by the big guns what the industry is really like, but also an opportunity to network.
Or we’ll have one of Jo-Anne Richard's lectures. Probably one of the greatest and most patient writing practioners around, she is an experienced journalists but has now turned her attention to writing fiction and teaching writing to us little ones and others outside the university.
When the course began, we had an intense two weeks crash course – bootcamp – that covered all the necessary basics of news writing. If you walked into the newsroom thinking that you could write, bootcamp made us all think twice, maybe even thrice. But the fact of the matter was that we all could write, but NEWS writing is a completely different story.
We had a good three or four days dedicated to learning how to write captivating intros – “Lead the reader in and make them drool for me,” Jo-Anne would repeat tirelessly. And she hasn’t stopped, not for a second. She has drilled it into our brains so much that whenever I am writing something in a manner that I know I shouldn’t be, I hear her voice echo in my head saying “Show don’t tell!” and “That is not an intro!” But that’s how we learn.
So after we learnt almost all the elements of good news writing skills, we needed to learn other things like designing the newspaper, uploading on the website, taking good pictures and how to do interviews properly.
I learnt the hard way the importance of organising interviews with people well in advance to avoid disappointment. People at Wits are busy (or very good at pretending to be) so they like being given ample time to decide when they can squeeze a wannabe journalist in their oh so hectic schedules. So call people in advance (BE POLITE) and organise well in advance with them when you would like to see them.
Not doing this results in frustration levels reaching crazy levels and stress that your article may not be in before deadline. And this you do not want.
By Wednesday, everything is more or less coming together – or at least is supposed to be. Our coordinators Deborah (Debz) Gordin and David Beresford as well as Jo-Anne start subbing and editing our articles which can be an excruciating experience should the word count need to be cut, if your intro is bad, or if there are parts that don’t make sense. Most of the stories have to be in so that design and layout of the early pages of the newspaper can also be done.
Then comes Thursday – CRUNCH TIME! Thursday is production day; the craziest day of the week. The paper has to be sent to the printers before 1pm and if it isn’t it means the papers will probably arrive late on Friday, and distributing newspapers after lunch is unacceptable because we’ll miss the lunchtime rush, and we don’t want that.
Design of the last pages is done and the front page is usually done right at the end. Sometimes there’s some last-minute subbing to be done too. Then sighs of relief and a celebatory mood fills the newsroom after the last page is sent through to the printers. Sometimes we all go out for drinks afterwards. Only sometimes.
In May, we had a week-long court reporting experience. We went to court for the whole day and in the afternoon we’d write a story – just like in the real newsrooms (not that ours isn’t), especially the dailies. We spent the Monday of that week at the South Gauteng High Court and then the rest of the week at Magistrates court covering some of the most bizarre and explosive stories.
During the World Cup, we ran our very own World Cup news website which was an incredibly enriching experience. Journalism students from China and the UK came out for the month and we all had the opportunity to learn from and about each other.
Since the World Cup, it has been back to chasing normal Vuvuzela stories and it’s almost the end of the road for this batch of unapologetically very unpolitically incorrect Honours Journ students, but we are all ready to take the world of journalism by storm.
It’s been an incredible learning curve and to avoid the wrath of Harber being unleashed upon future Wits Journ Students, here are a few pointers…
The 14 Commandments, as given by Jeremy Gordin, head of the Wits Justice Project and coordinator of the 2010 Newsroom.
1. ATTRIBUTION: It’s fine to do SOME of your research on-line, but go after your own quotes and sources. Don’t cut and paste from the Internet. Don’t just use quotes you found on the internet-call people you are interested in quoting and get your own comments.
2. RESPECT YOUR DEADLINE: When you are given a deadline for a story, do whatever it takes to meet it. If you need more time, ask for a meeting well ahead of the deadline and make a case for your request. Deadlines are sacrosanct in newsrooms and an inability to meet them will be the surest way to get fired.
3. BE CAREFUL WITH FIRST PERSON: Stories are not about you, or how you feel about an issue. That’s called an opinion piece or editorial and there is a separate page in the back of a newspaper for those. A news story is about observations, research, and quotes. Keep the “I” out of it.
4. QUOTES: Make sure you get peoples’ FIRST AND LAST names. Don’t accept the initial rejection of somebody you want to interview, explain to them why it is important that you have their name. It’s up to you sometimes to teach the public about good journalism.
5. BE SCEPTICAL: You are not writing press releases (that’s what hacks or government spin doctors do), you are reporting news stories. Question what is handed to you as a story. Find the information and angles underneath the obvious story. Investigate, get all the information you can find, and then lay it out in objective language for your audience to decide what they think.
6. EDITOR IS BOSS: You may not like it, but your editor has the final word on everything, from approving story ideas, to making and editing assignments. Do not change copy or deviate from your assignment without your editor’s approval or you will be out of a job!
7. LISTEN TO YOUR EDITOR: Even the most seasoned reporter needs a second pair of eyes to make sure his or her story is in good shape. Do your job, then let your editor do his/her job. A good editor will make your story better.
8. TIME SENSITIVE STORIES: If you have a time sensitive story, get it finished while it is still relevant. Don’t sit on it until the information is old or out of date.
9. KNOW THE NEWS: Before you set foot in the newsroom each day, you should have read the newspapers, wires, and caught up on online and broadcast news. Otherwise, you will not be ready to throw ideas at your editor and will have to stop and do your homework before embarking on an assignment.
10. READ A LOT: Reading is one of the best ways to develop a feel for narrative and how to organize information whether you’re a writer, or work in radio or video. Great storytellers are usually voracious readers.
11. BE SERIOUS and PROFESSIONAL: Reporters may be underpaid and overworked but journalism always has been a field with limited jobs. There are ten reporters more ambitious and eager than you who will gladly take your place. If you want to be taken seriously, dress and act like a professional.
12. A COMMITMENT AS WELL AS A PROFESSION: Most journalists are not going to get rich, so you’d better love your work and fully understand the importance and responsibility of what you do. That means going to work even when you’ve been out all night, working weekends and holidays when the job requires it, and always treating the public with respect.
13. ONE SOURCE STORIES ARE LAME: A single quote does not a story make. Using one person as the only source in a story is the antithesis of objective journalism. Even a profile of a single individual should include as many sources as possible: Talk to their mother, lawyer, cleaning-lady, elementary school teacher, and the family dog.
14. CONNECTIONS: Journalism is at heart a meritocracy but maintaining meaningful connections to your peers, mentors, bosses, and sources is essential. This is especially important when you are just embarking on your career: the friends you make now could be in a position to give you a job in ten years or publish an important story.