English 101: How to turn yourself into a reader

Magazines on a rack

Read newspapers and magazines. Picture: Robert Couse-Baker, flickr

Last week, I suggested that being a reader is one of the keys to success as a journalist.
More specifically, I was thinking of how reading can help people required to write in languages other than their mother tongue.
Today, I thought it might be useful to make some suggestions about how to approach your reading adventure, and what to read (note: many of these recommendations have resonance in the South African market, but with some thought, similar sources can be found in other regions of the world). Continue reading

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.
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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.

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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).

A tip for writing better captions

Captions are everywhere. And so many of them could do with more thought.

For example, I saw this on Twitter:

camel caption

A screenshot from Twitter, with author deliberately hidden.









The fundamental thing about a caption is that it goes together with a picture! So the caption only needs to contain details that the reader cannot see, or infer. No need then to say that so-and-so laughs as she meets her friends. If she is visibly laughing, the picture is doing its job. In the case of the camel, the offending word is “seen”. It’s just not needed. My suggestion for a better caption (and note – you don’t need to repeat Dubai):

A camel is readied for foot surgery at the Dubai Camel Hospital.

Journalism “legals”: when is something in the public interest?

keys on keyboard

Picture: Pixabay

A Mediaonline article published this week does an excellent job of laying out some of the legal considerations governing the publication of sensitive material in South Africa.
The article carries interviews with the people involved in looking at the legal ramifications of Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keeper, (one of whom is my sister Gill Moodie) and notes that while something may ordinarily be dangerous to publish, the factor of “public interest” can come into play and make publication justifiable:

The next step is to ensure that what the journalist/author intends to publish is of public interest. This is vital because it can be used as a defence in a number of instances. De Klerk explains, “The law protects privacy for example, but privacy can be overridden if there is an overriding public interest present”.

In other words, you could argue that you published something defamatory or illegal because you believed it was in the public interest.

But what is “public interest”? Continue reading