That the state of journalism in South Africa is at an all-time low is incontestable. Most media owners and editors, after a couple of whiskies, will admit to that in the same sad and sorry way they tell their bedmates, late at night, that the ANC is stuffing up the country.
There are a lot of problems with journalism these days, not least of all the fact that newspapers have become ‘opinion-papers’ with balanced, two-sides-of-the-story reportage giving way to one-sided personal agendas.
Nowadays, most media insist on new additions to the newsroom having some sort of tertiary journalism education; a university degree or at least a diploma from one of the many former technikons.
Which is a tragedy, in my opinion, because many of the world’s greatest journalists didn’t go to university – heck, some of them didn’t even finish school. But all of them were born with ink in their blood.
I remember an enthusiastic young man called Abbey Makoe wandering around the newsroom offering to go and dig out information from those areas of the townships most of the reporters weren’t too keen on entering.
He had a remarkable nose for news and managed to ferret out information with ease and aplomb.
A few of us asked him why he didn’t just write his own stories instead of giving all his information away to reporters in exchange for a few rands.
He actually didn’t know how to write stories. His first attempt at putting pen to paper was almost indecipherable.
A delegation from the newsroom went to the editor to ask if Abbey could be enrolled in the company’s cadet school. No chance. He didn’t have a university degree.
The long and the short of it was that after a lot of arguing and pestering Makoe was put on the staff and in no time flat he had won a scholarship to the USA and when he arrived back it didn’t take him long to become deputy editor of the very newspaper that had in no uncertain terms told him to piss off because he didn’t have a degree.
The story of Abbey Makoe is just one of hundreds that in most cases prevented gifted journalists from becoming journalists.
This tragic situation was called to mind when I read BDFM publisher, Peter Bruce’s ‘Thick End of the Wedge’ column in Business Day this week. He made some very telling points about the state of journalism in this country.
“What people see as a failure of journalism here, isn’t really that,” he wrote.
“It’s a failure of a part of the process. In my experience it is the editing, not the writing, that lets us down. Editors (and I mean all levels, not just the boss) used to run the newspapers when I left the country in 1977. When I came back 20 years later, the whole notion of editing had been displaced. Writers, like headstrong puppies, ruled. The result has been a general failure of newspapers to ask questions of copy, send poor writing back, make reporters cry, get the facts right and get them right on deadline.
“Part of the reason was that newspaper proprietors started making political correspondents (who normally object the loudest to their precious copy being edited) editors. They couldn’t see the point of sub-editors, the folk who fix their mostly atrocious grammar and extract headlines from incoherent copy.
“That was compounded by, first Rhodes University and then others offering ‘degrees’ in journalism, simply stopping the teaching of editing. No, we had first to learn how the capitalists control the media, then how badly women and black people were treated in newsrooms, then how to tweet.
“Journalism isn’t worth teaching at university. It’s an experience thing. A trade, like plumbing. And here’s the thing. Editors, dozens per newspaper, make the newspaper. Unless we are able to place them at the centre of each publishing enterprise, we will continue to struggle for credibility and relevance. They’re the reader’s only line of defence.”
I am not sure I would go so far as to say that journalism isn’t worth teaching at a university, but I get Bruce’s frustration. Maybe what should happen is that journalism degrees should not be handed out until students are given an aptitude test – an ink in the blood test.
As Peter Bruce so aptly put it: “The result has been a general failure of newspapers to ask questions of copy, send poor writing back, make reporters cry, get the facts right and get them right on deadline.”
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
IMAGE: Sam Waterston in the Aaron Sorkin series, The Newsroom.