If there is only one thing a journalist does, it should be this

When I was growing up, there were clear divisions in the world. In apartheid South Africa there was the big divide between black and white. On the white side of that line, though, there was another division – between English-speakers and Afrikaans-speakers. And one of the consequences of that division was inevitable, at least on my side of the fence: school children hated learning the “other” language. Afrikaans lessons were dreaded and derided, exams and tests were got through as best we could.

And then came Mrs Visser, the high school teacher who made Afrikaans cool. She was thin, edgy and glamorously dressed (and given to smoking in the corridor whenever she could). She was passionate about Afrikaans and an inspired teacher. Suddenly I was reading stormy Afrikaans romances, and ploughing my way through Raka (an epic poem by NP Van Wyk Louw), newly in love with a beautiful language.

And that reading paid off – I managed an A in Afrikaans in my matric exams.

I often think of Mrs Visser when I am training young journalists. She understood one of the fundamental building blocks of learning another language: that you have to read as much as you can in that language. That of course goes hand in hand with hearing that language, and  immersing yourself in the spoken word.

When breakfast becomes deskfast

Plates of food and mug next to a laptop

Breakfast at your desk. Picture: StockSnap, Pixabay

I ate breakfast at my desk today, as I have done on most work days for the last 20 years or more.

This is because of the odd hours dictated by work in online news (and, where they still exist, by afternoon newspapers). And these odd hours are one of the things that most people don’t grasp about journalism… that in order for there to be something to read, someone has to have been up and about making that something to read.

Years ago, an acquaintance was expressing outrage that his morning newspaper was not going to be available on December 26. When I pointed out that for there to be a newspaper on December 26, people would have had to be working on December 25, he was genuinely taken aback. He had never thought about what it takes to make a newspaper.

Five tips for a happy email life

Scrolling idly through Facebook (in a way in which I had sworn I would not do), an article about the best way to end off an email surfaced.

The article is long, and too detailed… so I will tell you the punchline: the recommendation is to end emails with the word “Best”, followed by your name. It is said to be one of “the safest possible choices, inoffensive, and almost universally appropriate.”


My own favourite – “Regards” – is either hateful, or nice but too formal, according to these experts.

Learn how to run an online newsroom

The flyer for the course

The flyer for the course

To non-journalists, the word newsroom is probably only mildly meaningful. A room where news is written about and edited is the thought that probably comes to mind.
To journalists, a newsroom is the centre of life. It is where your desk is, where your computer is, where your friends are – the place you spend many, many hours of your working life.
Traditionally a newsroom comprises the reporters (people who write articles) and their management team, headed by a news editor. Then there is the subs room, where there is another team of people who edit those articles and turn them into a laid-out newspaper.
There are still newsrooms produced in the traditional way – but there are also now online newsrooms, in which many things are done differently.
And those different ways of doing things require some new ways of managing the production of content.
I’ve spent years working in such an online newsroom, and in thinking about ways to do things.
And I’m running a course on the subject, under the auspices of the Institute of the Advancement of Journalism. The course runs from May 22 to 25 in Johannesburg, South Africa. If you are interested, please contact the IAJ (email gugun@iaj.org.za or dimakatsom@iaj.org.za).

Things I have learned in a year of running a business

Red moleskine notebook

Picture: Sean McGrath, flickr

I’m a member the South African Freelancer’s Association, and the current acting chair of the Western Cape committee. In that capacity, I was asked to talk to a group of film-making interns at Reel Partners about freelancing and entrepreneurship.
I duly sat down and made a list of my five top tips for freelancers – you can read them here.
The talk went down well, I hope, and it got me thinking about what I have learned on a more personal level. It turned out there was quite a lot to excavate from the past year. Here then are the “deeper” learnings:


When I first set out as a freelancer at the end of 2016, I came to it from a long career in journalism, with a depth of experience and a modest reputation in the South African industry. I did do some thinking about what the market might want, and where there might be opportunities for me – but I realise now that I did assume that my reputation alone would mean I could secure work.
Instead, it was a personal connection with someone who I used to work with that landed me my first big contract – working on news at allAfrica.com.
I have concluded that marketing is much more important than I thought it was – I have to work to make myself known to potential customers. I am on a steep learning curve there, kick-started by buying Louise Harnby’s book on marketing.


My initial idea was to pitch my services as a trainer of journalists, and as an editor and proofreader. The training side of things was based on my knowledge that I am a good trainer, and my passion for journalism – this is the thing I love, and it made sense to me to pursue it. Editing and proofreading is another strength of mine and I thought that together these two skills would lead to my two main revenue streams.
I deliberately did not put myself into the market as a writer (even though I can write) as I knew there were many, many good writers already in the mix, and fair number of new ones entering the market in the same batch of retrenchees that I was part of.
Those thoughts still make sense to me. But in reality, training work was hard to secure: my assumption that media houses would want to hire me foundered on the fact of shrinking budgets in the industry. And editing and proofreading proved harder to break into than I thought. In both cases it has taken a year to start making some headway.
And in the meanwhile, I have actually been making money out of my news production skills, even though I had not thought of that as a direction to take.
Life is what happens when you are making other plans, said John Lennon (or maybe The Reader’s Digest, says Wikipedia). And so it has proved. I’ve learned that its important to keep my eye on the ball no matter what my plans may have been, to stay flexible and to be aware of trends in the market.


I did not make any formal plans at the beginning of 2017, though I did have some things I knew I needed to do. So I had an informal mental list – maintain a website, beef up my social media profiles, contact people who might have work for me and so on.
I now see that what that meant was that a lot of the time I was not necessarily using my time well – not having a strict focus meant that I opened the door to procrastination and confusion. I went back to the drawing board late in 2017, and am starting 2018 with a yearly goal, which I will break down into monthly targets.
I also have a business plan (forged in a barter deal with a former colleague Quentin Wray: he helped my think through my plan in exchange for a WordPress site).
This means – I hope – that I will make better use of my time this year. And if I don’t, I will have clearer idea of what worked and what didn’t because I will be able to track what I have achieved and what not.


I am universally acknowledged as an organised and disciplined person, one who gets things done and is reliable and work-driven.
So why are there days when I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, or days when I simply can’t spend another moment at my computer, or days when I persuade myself that grocery shopping is a much better use of my time than writing a post for my website?
This one took me a long time to process: it turns out a lot of my discipline when I was in full-time employment was created by the boundaries of my job, the expectations of my colleagues and sheer habit.
Take that all away and things fall apart – even if just a little.
So, I made the above-mentioned plan with goals, and have mapped out a working week with slots where I am expected to be at a desk. I have time management software in which I must log 40 hours a week. In other words, I have changed my mindset: I am running a business to which I am accountable, rather than personally deploying some skills for clients.


When you work full-time, you get up and go the office, no matter what is happening in your personal life. There is a built-in containment in that. But when you are freelancing, there are no such comforting rituals.
There have been some derailing family events in the last year and I have been taken aback about how easy it is for three or four days to go by with nothing happening on the work front, while other fires are being fought. And by how much time it takes to get back on track.
I’ve learned that it is important to have one or two things that must get done every day, no matter what (even if is just checking and answering emails). That way you have your own in-built safety rituals.


This is always with me. What if I can’t find enough clients, make enough money? What if I fall ill and can’t work? What if I can’t pay the school fees? What if all my computers die at once? What if there is a once-in-a-lifetime fulltime job out there and I should take it and I miss it (that fantasy dies hard!)?
Then I remember that my fulltime job disappeared from under me, and that I had no control over that either.
And I take a deep breath, do a 10-minute Headspace meditation and make another list.
It will be alright. I will make this work.
And that is the key thing I have learned: I can and will make this work.

Five tips for starting your own freelancing business

Business plan notebook

Picture: StockSnap, Pixabay

After a festive season break and a period of organising, planning and reflection, Safe Hands is ready to start a new year!

First off is this bullet-point list of my learning over the last year, written originally for a presentation I gave to a group of interns. It’s a “mind dump” of sorts, listing all the accumulated knowledge I have acquired with an eye to trying to help young people who are just starting freelancing in the creative/media world.

  • So do some planning – what do you offer, who do your offer it to, how will you find those people, how will you market yourself? What can only you offer? What is the name of your business? Decide what name you are going to use across all your branding at the very beginning.
  • Have business-like documentation – invoices, letterheads, an email signature, business cards.
  • Get a proper email address.
  • Figure out a way to keep track of the money – even it is just a notebook where you write what you have spent and what you have earned.
  • Set yourself some goals.
  • Work out what you need to get things started – make a list of all expenses you think you might have.