eNews Africa journalist Beauregard Tromp has been awarded the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. But he has had to resign his position with the broadcaster in order take up the opportunity as management refused to support him financially for the year that he will be studying abroad.
Traditionally, said Tim du Plessis, chair of the Nieman Trust in South Africa, employers cover half the person’s salary, and hold their position open until the return. Du Plessis – a former Nieman fellow himself – described eNews’ stance as “a curious case”.
“It’s the most prestigious journalism fellowship in the world. Most media companies understand the enormous value of this Fellowship. It’s a huge feather in the cap of employers whose journalists are selected,” Du Plessis said.
But e.News said in a statement that while they’re “very proud” of Tromp, “eNews requires staff to have worked for the company for a minimum of three years before being eligible for special leave. Regrettably, this policy was instituted after past employees have abused this privilege and have failed to return to our employment, despite contractual obligations, or have resigned with immediate effect upon returning to the country”.
Tromp told TheMediaOnline that his decision to resign rather than forgo the opportunity was taken with the support of his family and that it was accepted on an “amicable” basis by the channel.
“Look, to be honest with you, I have to respect the reasons given by eNews and respect their decision. I had to make a decision on what to do in the circumstances and I decided it was be stupid to miss out on the opportunity even if it means living on bread and water while I’m in Boston,” he said. “I simply couldn’t think of turning it down.”
Tromp said he was passionate about Africa and that was the main reason he decided to resign. He will remain in his position at eNews until July when he and his wife and three children leave for the US.
Du Plessis said Harvard gave South African journalists the space in the the programme, but that the Trust here had to fund the candidate’s expenses, to the tune of “between R500 000 and R600 000 a year”. There wasn’t much left over to then cover expenses such as insurance and bonds back home, which is why the media organisations usually kept the Fellow on half salary.
“I find eNews’ decision peculiar because Beauregard works on their Africa desk and there’s no place better in the world to study Africa than Harvard,” he said. “He’ll return a more rounded, more knowledgeable journalist. Someone will snap him up.”
Press ombud Joe Thloloe also entered the fray and writing on behalf of the Nieman Society of Southern Africa, that comprises former Fellows, said, “Every year since 1961, South Africa has sent a fellow and his or her family to Harvard. The Nieman Society raises money locally to send the fellow and his or her family to Cambridge and the costs over the fifty-plus years have gone up to half a million rand.
“We believe it is a worthwhile investment as the fellows have come back to this country and helped shape journalism here. The fellows have come from the English, Afrikaans and black Press and from television. The list of fellows on its own tells the history of journalism in South Africa in the last 52 years – Aubrey Sussens, Allister Sparks, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Nat Nakasa, Aggrey Klaaste, Ton Vosloo, Harald Pakendorf, Percy Qoboza, Barbara Folscher, Kim Cloete, Carmel Rickard, Fred Khumalo, Lewis Nkosi, to randomly name just a few.”
In the letter, sent prior to Tromp’s decision to resign, Thloloe said “Should etv refuse to allow Beauregard to go, it will be the first time in the history of the fellowship that a candidate couldn’t go after he was selected. It would be unprecedented. The only time it happened was with Nat Nakasa, but it was because the SA government refused him a passport. He left on an exit permit, and died in exile.”
Nakasa had to give up his SA citizenship. He ended up committing suicide in New York after his Nieman fellowship ended.
But eNews stuck to it guns and said it was “gravely disappointed in the slanderous and disingenuous statements made by members of the Nieman SA selection committee and former Nieman fellows. We find these mean spirited statements to be unbecoming of this prestigious fellowship and will engage with the Nieman Foundation in the US directly to raise our concerns in this regard”.
Senior management said that as Tromp only joined the company late last year, he was not eligible as per company policy. “This year the Nieman selection committee in South Africa failed to secure a suitable candidate, and so took the rather unusual step of granting the 2013 position to a past and unsuccessful candidate. We find it regrettable that they failed to engage with us before doing so.
“Beauregard understands and respects our company position, and is mindful that many other members of our team are ahead of him in the queue when it comes to special leave. We remain on good terms with him. Furthermore an open invitation was extended to Beauregard to return to eNews should he wish to do so after the programme. He is a remarkably talented journalist with a very bright future. His future is in no way compromised by the decision to resign in order to take up the Nieman offer,” eNews management said.
But a source at the Nieman Society said eNews had been burnt by other instances of reporters taking up scholarships, and then dropping the channel on their return. The source said news chief Patrick Conroy had lost three reporters to Columbia University in less than 10 months. In a letter to the Nieman Society, Conroy said he was “extremely anxious about losing highly skilled staff. There is a very small pool of able replacements. We spent well over a million rand in training within the last 12 months”.
But members of the Nieman Society were having none of it. In one letter, a member of the panel wrote: “Well done to Beauregard. Well deserved. I think we should mention that this is the first time in the history of the fellowship that an employer has utterly refused to support an employee taking up the fellowship. Beauregard has had to resign from etv in order to Harvard. It’s a f****ing disgrace.”
Main photo: Joe Tholoe