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.
I started to make friends, I started to carve a small niche as a reporter who was not going to break any big exclusives but who could be relied on to get a story and to get it right. I started to relax. I learned to drink, I learned to laugh, I learned to love. These were my kind of people – direct, arrogant, bolshy, passionate about what they did.
What they did was journalism. This was in the mid to late 1980s in apartheid South Africa so there was a big fight to fight, and we all played our parts, large or small. There was a whole infrastructure to support that effort: drivers, messengers, secretaries, librarians. And away in a corner there was the room one did not enter, the room where the sub-editors made the newspaper, fearsome creatures who cut your stories to shreds without, apparently, any thought for your feelings.
Ominously, though we did not see it properly at the time, that cadet school I attended was the second-last one offered by the then SAAN group – there was another intake in mid-1984 and then it was closed. A couple of years later, the Cape Times was moved into a joint operating agreement with the Argus and we were moved from our own building into Newspaper House. That was 1987, I think – and already the industry was starting to feel the sands shift under its feet.
Over time, I moved into that fearsome corner where the subs lived and found my calling: I was really good at it. I moved to online journalism in 1999, propelled partly by those shifting sands. Circulations were falling, advertisers were pulling out. But there was still enough meat on the bones of journalism to keep on doing what we believed in: telling stories, holding powerful people to account, uncovering scandals.
Now it is 2016 and it’s sometimes hard to tell how we are going to keep doing those things. I am writing this on the day after leaving Independent Online, a breaking news website I have loved passionately for the last 11 years. The company is restructuring, and many other people have also left.
Driving to work in a melancholy state of mind in the last days of my time at IOL, I turned to Springsteen as a girl always does in a time of crisis (or any time, actually). I have almost every song he ever made on a memory stick, which I put on shuffle as I drive around. The shuffle almost always delivers something I need to hear – I think of it as the oracle. Driving up beautiful Long Street in the early morning, the oracle delivered My Hometown.
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown
As always, he goes to the heart of the matter. Journalism as many of us understand it, and as we have lived it, is in troubled times and has been for a long time. The doors are boarded up, the jobs are not coming back. I have had that phrase playing in my head for days, and it perfectly sums up the mood as so many of my community leave the profession we love.
But I refuse to believe that our hometown is dead for good. Many an inner city has brought itself back from the brink by reinventing itself. And journalism can do that too: there are new ways to tell the stories, news ways to talk to audiences. The critical need that society has for a bunch of misfits trying to keep everyone honest has not gone away – that need is, if anything, greater now than it has ever been.
My hometown is in need of some work. It can never be gentrified, but it can be regenerated. I am setting myself up as a journalism trainer (someone has to knock the young bolshies into shape). I am going to learn to code. I am going to think long and hard about how we can get money back into this town – perhaps I need a business qualification too.
This town has given my everything I am. I am not going anywhere, not now, not ever.
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