Why I still believe in journalism

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Picture: freeimages.com

When I was a teenager I was intense and clever, a misfit loner. I went off to university pretty much unchanged and emerged four years later a little more sophisticated but still essentially a right pain to be around.
I was about to get lucky – I was offered a job at the Cape Times. I was sent off to cadet school in Port Elizabeth, spent six months working on the EP Herald, and then returned to Cape Town as the most junior of junior reporters in a big and busy newsroom.
I didn’t know it then but I had found my home.
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It’s the reader, stupid

I have been a journalist for a long time, enough to have some thoughts about the meaning of what I do. And there are some things I find I feel quite strongly about, after all this time.

I entered journalism with an English degree, rather than any academic training in the profession itself. So a lot of what I am about to say is based on pragmatic engagement, rather than lecture-room learning. Nevertheless, I have covered a lot of ground. So here is how my learning curve went.

At first, as a reporter on the Cape Times in the Jungleland that was apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, I thought journalism was about changing the world. I thought if you went out there and reported all the evil doings of the bad guys (and they were bad, then), the world would change. In the end, the world did change, perhaps a little bit because of the work of better reporters than I in that time. But to me, it felt like I wasn’t making a difference. I took a few years to study and work in community organisations, and eventually began to think that the only way to change the world was through small, personal action and individual responsibility.

I came back to journalism, reinvented as a sub-editor. At that point, I thought newspapers were about informing people and about carrying the important stories of the day and about story-telling to satisfy the narrative-loving apes that humans are (thank you Terry Pratchett for pointing out how we all love stories).  Mostly though, journalism for me was about making the newspaper. That’s it: the publication of the paper, on time, accurate, and nicely laid out, was an end in itself.

I got tired of that too, in the end. The endless fixing of things that were wrong began to weigh heavily. And there was this interesting new thing called the Internet. So I reinvented myself as an online sub-editor, and after that general production person. I still had, in the back of my mind, the idea of the important story, the idea that ultimately journalists decided what was important and presented that news to some vaguely apprehended reader out there in the world where journalists did not live.

But in all the myriad changes that the Internet brought to all of us, it brought this to me: the rapid and at first shocking realisation that readers were not people “out there”. They were here, in my face, resolutely choosing not to click on the dull but important story about educational initiatives in rural areas. No sir – they wanted sex and cannibals and bloody crime. I threw out my ideals and gave them what they wanted, but always in a mix with the important stuff which I tried, when there was time, to rewrite so that it spoke in ordinary tongue.

And it was fun – which journalism had not been for some time (journalists, thought, are always fun).

Over time I came to understand that The Reader can’t be reduced to a caricature of a sleazy, uneducated sensation-seeking pleb, as so many of my colleagues in print seemed to think (I had been brought low, they seemed to imply). In addition to the cannibals, readers showed a deep interest in love and relationships, food, parenting, television, sport, and yes, politics. They were complex people with complex needs and so my journalism became a dialogue, a constant experiment to find the right mix of serious and frivolous. Endlessly fascinating, that is.

My current model of journalism is that I am a servant, using my skills to curate information for readers who are intelligent people with complicated and sometimes hard lives, who want to make their own choices in finding information and fun which will their lives clearer and easier.

There are still very important things that journalists do: they hold the powerful to account, they dig up the dirt, they inform us about the world around us, they make newspapers and websites, they satisfy our deep need for stories.  All the things I learnt about journalism over the years still hold true. But now there is one over-riding question for me: does any of this serve the reader? If  the things we produce only serve the ego of the journalist, what use are they? Can the story/gallery/video be presented in such a way that the busy yet engaged person here with me as I work will read it? And I’m sorry, fellow hacks, if you look at much of what we do in the light of this over-riding duty to readers, it does not pass muster. If you know in your heart of hearts that your next-door neighbour who works in the supermarket and does a 12 hour day (when you add the commute) would not be interested in what you are producing, then you are wasting her time. 

And that is the worst thing a journalist can ever do.