Working in student media may seem small fry to budding journalists, but does it give a good grounding?
Collectively they have hundreds of staff members, several newspapers, some magazines and a smattering of radio stations. Their deadlines are tight, their advertisers few but steady, and they have a regular but very high turnover of staff. Their staff is trained annually and, as regular as clockwork, they resign at the end of the year. For a professional news media company, this sounds like an atrocious state of affairs that deserves to be shut down immediately. But we are talking about student publications in South Africa’s journalism schools. This is where the seeds of the new crop of journalists – and possible Pulitzer prizewinners – are sown, trained and sent out into the real world.
Do the journalists of tomorrow get worthwhile newsroom training at student-run publications? Does working on this type of media transform them into the real thing when they step into their first real job? Does being trained on a student publication work?
“Absolutely,” says Ray Hartley, former editor of the Sunday Times who worked on Rhodeo, the Rhodes University student newspaper, while he was studying journalism in the 1980s.
“Absolutely, because it was real even though it was not on the same scale (as professional media), the deadlines were very real. It gave me an understanding of the production process: that copy has to be subbed, you have to source photographs and you have to plan stories and have a diary session. You do all the things that you would in a professional newsroom except without the high pressure – it’s a very good learning ground.”
Hartley was founding editor of The Times newspaper – launched in June 2007 – before being appointed editor of the Sunday Times at the beginning of 2010. He has spent most of his career to date at the Sunday Times, as a political journalist, political editor, Cape Town bureau chief, national news editor, deputy and online editor. “The difference that I found when I started in a professional environment is that you are working in a professional framework of rules and you learn what the publication will or won’t publish.”
The big difference arose when he had to step into a professional newsroom and, he says, “learn the courage of my convictions. I mean, we were producing a paper in the 1980s and you had to put yourself out there and sometimes deal with the consequences from the security forces”.
Newly appointed editor of Beeld, Adriaan Basson, laughs at recollections of his longhaired hippie days at Stellenbosch’s Die Matie student publication.
“We published every week. It was fantastic – it was the best training in journalism that I ever received. The paper was very anti-establishment and we were always taking on the VC [vice-chancellor], the language and the admission policies of the residences,” he says. Basson, 32, until recently deputy editor of City Press, is a multi award-winning investigative journalist. He has exposed some of the country’s most earth-shattering scandals both at City Press, Mail & Guardian and Beeld.
“We had to write our own copy, do the subbing, layout, and go to the printers. I remember once we got advertising from a liquor store and we got paid in booze! For me, it was a great place to get to know journalism, to experience it in a small place that had its own issues and politics – and our biggest aim was to out-scoop Die Burger,” he recalls.
His most challenging experience then was being faced with censorship. “We wrote about the initiation practices in the men’s hostels and I was heavily opposed to the physical and mental abuse that was practised. We were taken to a media tribunal of sorts and there were hundreds of men from the hostels staring at us longhaired hippies – we were grilled. It was scary, but it also showed me the power of media and journalism, and it was good to learn that at an early age.
“I think it was a good incubator for real journalism,” he adds.
Associate editor of the Mail & Guardian Verashni Pillay, 29, remembers her days at Rhodes’s Activate with fondness. “It was in many ways really great. I got involved in my first year and we could write as much as we liked, and got a sense of what people wanted from a columnist. It was a wonderful experience going to (the) student dining room and seeing people reading my piece and laughing, commenting and engaging with it.”
Within a month of Pillay being employed as an online journalist at the Mail & Guardian in 2009, she was promoted to online managing editor. One year later she became the online deputy editor and she was recently promoted to her present position.
She believes that while there are many ways to arrive at professional journalism, “student media gives you a place where you are able to try out new things and figure it all out and experiment. I really enjoyed the debates and challenges at Activate.”
She recalls her most exceptional learning experience and achievement on Activate. “In my third year, Zackie Achmat came to our campus and everyone at the newspaper said I should do the interview. It was a real sense of achievement, it was front page, and I got really good feedback.”
City Press news editor Natasha Joseph says that as a student it was a complete “fluke” that she ended up as the editor of Activate at Rhodes from 2001 to 2002. “Like all eager first years, I joined the paper in first year, lasted about two weeks and then got distracted and left. But later the then editor approached me and said they thought I could do a good job. A vote was taken and I got the post,” says Joseph, who was appointed Cape Argus news editor at 28.
“I did far more at the paper than I did in class – it took over my life and we worked hard to professionalise it and behave like we were professional journalists.
“We spent a lot of time re-establishing relationships with the printers and trying to get people involved and keep them involved, and also trying to move the paper away from only sex, drugs and rock and roll, with occasional stabs of seriousness.”
She recalls having what she felt was an understanding of real journalism when Zanu-PF spies stalked the paper and its staff on campus. “Bear in mind I was only 21 and had no idea what I was doing. It was the most mundane piece of journalism and we were not planning to write anything controversial – just asking people if they were happy or sad about the Zimbabwe elections.”
She explains: “We had a staff member actually stalked, and one person was pulled over at a road block in Harare and their parents intimidated. We eventually had to get the VC involved. The whole thing was one hell of a trial by fire. I got followed home one night and I remember sitting in my digs crying, wondering what I was doing.
“It was hardcore and it was a time of serious political interference. We actually had to pretend to publicly fire the Zimbabwean staff… It was a real lesson in balancing people’s concerns as a news editor, which is what I do now on a daily basis.”
She believes that she may well have learnt more from working on the newspaper than from a lot of her classes. “It was far more practical – it was the demands of getting readers, keeping them happy, getting sales up, managing advertising… I mean, we were clueless. We were a bunch of 21-year-olds surviving late nights till 4am on Bar Ones.
“It was the last place you were doing everything; writing copy, sub-editing. I even took photographs, though I was bad at it. It was all round experience and it really helped me understand newsrooms and how they run.”
Professor Anton Harber, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University, and former editor of the Mail & Guardian, has had several years’ worth of graduates rolling in and out of the doors of his journalism school. He echoes the sentiments of Basson, Pillay, Joseph and Hartley.
“Some of the vital things they learn at student media level are the fundamentals of journalism: accuracy, story-telling, dealing with sources. For learning purposes, student media has to be under some sort of mentorship – just producing student newspapers is only the half of it,” he says. Harber maintains that it is one thing to deal with sources in a classroom, but a whole different ballgame dealing with a difficult source in a newsroom situation.
“I don’t think you can teach students if they have never been in a newsroom: you need a mix of classroom and newsroom experience.”
IMAGE: Highway Africa, Rhodes University