Crossing over into another medium can be challenging for journalists but it can also benefit them. Joanna Wright chats to some of those who have succeeded.
Trend analysts have in recent years pointed out the “slashie” phenomenon – young, media-savvy professionals who straddle various media and careers, often simultaneously, as various iterations of blogger-slash-photographer-slash-Twitter personalities. Or writers-slash-communicators-slash-editors.
But versatility is nothing new in journalism. The more platforms there are, the more journalists will become jacks-of-all-trades and masters of at least some of them. Journalists who refuse to remain complacent and embrace many media may in fact be able to stay relevant longer. As media chameleon Les Aupiais puts it, “Never, never stand by and think the status quo will remain as a journalist. In this tough media world you are only as good as your last gig.” Aupiais has done TV presenting, radio, magazine editing and now media training.
Another journalist to straddle the divide between media is Devi Sankaree Govender who has made her name in TV, radio and print. Sankaree Govender decided when she was 15 that she wanted to work for M-Net’s weekly current affairs programme, Carte Blanche. In 1993, while at university, she started her career in radio and went on to work as a freelancer for Eastern Mosaic. She later had a column in Sunday Times Extra, was the features editor for the weekend newspaper and freelanced for SABC radio – all at the same time – before she realised her teenage dream.
Sankaree Govender says that while the basic tenets of journalism are constant, each medium is different. “With radio you paint pictures with words… (with TV) you have to work harder because you have pictures to go with your words.” TV is a visual medium and therefore requires a lot of “physical admin”.
“You need to colour your grey, wear the right lipstick,” she adds. Choosing interviewees is harder for this reason, as they also have to look right on camera.
Denis Beckett, who has worked in TV and print, agrees that there are challenges with TV interviews.
“In an interview situation, I’m not just interested in what you’re saying, I’m also interested in a plane flying overhead, if there’s a tractor in the background, if the light’s right. Also, you can give me a long, accurate answer and I’ll use this much (showing a small space between forefinger and thumb). With print, I can condense your answer, paraphrase you, keep all your points in and get something we’re happy with.”
Beckett was editor of the anti-apartheid publication Frontline, which closed in 1991, and later had his own documentary show on SABC, Beckett’s Trek. Ultimately, he’d love to do a print version of the show, as print is his first love.
However, TV has “an ease, a luxury”, he adds. Beckett was once driving with his camera crew when they stumbled upon a strike led by, among others, Mbhazima Shilowa, future premier of Gauteng. “We stopped and started interviewing the strikers,” says Beckett. “We shot it within an hour and it took half an hour to make it. That was not typical but it shows what TV is capable of. Nothing like that could happen with the written word.”
For Jenny Crwys Williams, who is best known for her eponymous show on 702, which she left at the end of 2014, the greatest challenge was moving from newspapers into magazines and not so much from print into radio.
“I found writing 3 000-word articles very overwhelming after being limited to a maximum of 500 words,” she says. “You suddenly have to notice everything around you, grab material as if you were writing a book.”
Crwys Williams started off in the United Kingdom as a freelance writer. “But I also wanted to work in the electronic media and fell into radio like a homing pigeon,” she says. “TV wasn’t available to me because I refused to work for the SABC during the years of grand apartheid.”
Crwys-Williams continues to be involved in her private book club and literary events and still hosts her weekly book show on 702. The best advice she got about radio interviews, she says, was from South African talk show host Mike Wills. “Don’t try to show them how clever you are. You’re not nearly as clever as you think anyway; ask them the questions the ordinary man or woman in the street would ask.”
Writing is an essential skill for any journalist, but even crossing into different types of writing can be tough. Darrel Bristow-Bovey worked for years as a columnist and travel writer for newspapers and magazines, until he resigned from the higher-profile publications after a plagiarism controversy. He has also written several books, including an award-winning novel for young readers called SuperZero.
“But you can’t spread prizes on your toast in the mornings, as the old Mayan saying goes,” says Bristow-Bovey, who moved into writing television and film scripts.
“When I turned to scriptwriting, I imagined foolishly, and a little arrogantly, that it would be easy enough – I knew how to write and had watched television and movies, so how hard could it be? It turns out that it’s exceptionally hard, that it’s technically and creatively and emotionally demanding in ways that writing prose is not.”
A script is not a product like a column, he adds, but a blueprint for making a product. “You are constrained and challenged and exercised by so many competing demands and parameters: production concerns, budgets, locations, actors, the structural demands of visual storytelling… ”
He doesn’t think journalists need to be well-rounded, however. Rather, he advises (tongue deeply in cheek), that they learn plumbing or undertaking skills, given the downsizing in the media.
Aupiais always intended to be an “expert generalist”, she says, turning every skill she learned into opportunity. She studied speech and drama at university, which gave her the skills for public speaking.
“While some of my colleagues greeted my advertising copywriting assignments with anything from amusement to contempt, that ability to craft words in ‘confined spaces’ turned out to be great training for writing TV scripts,” she says.
Her skills attracted the attention of Jeremy Maggs in the early 1990s and “led to a weekly ‘column’ on 702, where I could talk about the mad experiences of the week”. Later, Aupiais shared air space with the likes of John Robbie and Dan Moyane.
“So by the time (Carte Blanche executive producer) George Mazarakis called me one day in 1997, he knew of me as a writer, a radio personality and an editor. I was editing Sunday Life magazine for the Sunday Independent and the stories I selected often fed story ideas to Carte Blanche directors and producers. I had street cred, if you like, but all based on 15 years of experience.”
Aupiais is an advocate for journalists remaining “omnivorous”. “(At Carte Blanche) I watched, made notes, extended my skills and then brokered them into new opportunities.”
Aupiais now runs media training, presentation skills and writing workshops; edits a magazine and is strategic communications head of Virgin Active South Africa.
Both Sankaree Govender and Beckett believe this kind of versatility is not necessary on a journalist’s CV. But Cryws Williams says, “Every time I have applied for a job internationally, I have been gobsmacked at the amount of different media experience every journalist has had. It’s imperative to spread yourself as widely as possible because your chances of landing something are so much greater – and you are more effective.”
Online skills are probably what any journalist would be wise to acquire. Before Business Day went “digital first” last year, Des Latham, who is now the head of multimedia at communication training company frayintermedia, was brought in to train the newsroom staff. His brief was to shake up the journalists and bring them into the digital age. He previously owned a mobile app business and has also helped Sunday Times and Avusa with mobile strategy. One challenge he encountered when training print journalists is that “they think very slowly… They are taught to sit on something all day”. Latham had to show them that producing stories faster for the online edition was feasible.
Latham has been a journalist since joining Radio 702 in 1983 and says that the basics of journalism have not changed but there are so many ways to tell a better story now.
“(Online) you redefine what you do with your eye. The printed page doesn’t move, but the screen does, so you have to think visually. You can do pop-up images on maps, embed audio and video, and so on. It’s a way to inform readers even more.”
Latham believes that anyone in modern media should have at least a passing knowledge of how digital platforms work. “You don’t need to study anything, just spend some time with the IT department,” he says.
This is especially important for editors, who should know how much time, manpower and money is involved in developing and maintaining digital platforms.
“If you’re going to run an operation and you don’t know that, you’re like the captain of a ship who doesn’t know how the engines work. He can point the ship in the right direction but he’s going to have problems later on.”
But the essence of a successful journalist – the power to tell a good story with accuracy and fairness, for one – remains the same regardless of the medium. Says Latham: “I have been a journalist since 1983. I have been in radio and have run TV stations. I can tell you that journalism doesn’t change.”
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