What I learned at the MMX17 Conference

Iman Rappetti

Iman Rappetti was MC at the conference

In mid-August I spent two days at the Menell Media Exchange Conference in Johannesburg. The meeting, organised by Duke University, aims “to create and support a sustainable and robust media community in South Africa and beyond, through programs, fellowships and conferences”.

This year’s event was around the theme of Truth & Trust and is well-documented in stories, videos and podcasts by student journalists covering the event (Friday and Saturday), and I am not going to attempt to duplicate their excellent coverage. Rather – and somewhat belatedly – here is a set of my impressions, thoughts and observations.

The big worries
The conference’s many speakers kept coming back to particular themes:
* Fake news
* Manipulation of the media by outside forces (paid Twitter, for example)
* Actual personal threats to journalists (Peter Bruce springs to mind)
* The changes and monetary threats brought by digital platforms
* The question of how the media can stay relevant to the people it serves

The big inspirations
* The enthusiasm and passion of all the young journalists there

* The willingness of more experienced journalists to share skills, ideas and experience
* The way all present demonstrated an understanding that the audience is more important than the journalist (and the need for empathy with the lives of readers)
* The gritty determination to keep on doing what we all love

The puzzle
There were talks by branding specialists and design thinking specialists which were fun and interesting and lovely to attend. But I still came away with a sinking feeling that we really don’t have any practical idea how to bring money back to journalism.

Personal reflections
1. There was a lot of pain at that conference – from MP Makhosi Khoza’s moving account of the threats to her family to experienced journalists telling of the trauma of covering horrific events.
2. There was some conflict – a panel discussion got heated when journalists were told they had never really been in townships and could not reflect that reality. The journalists rightly got hot under the collar, but there was a wave of agreement among the young black journalists in the audience, which I found interesting. It seemed to me there is a lot of work to be done in bringing diversity to newsrooms.
3. There were failing devices – you can’t tweet for a whole day if your laptop and phone batteries both die on you.
4 There was the pleasure of seeing old friends and making new ones.
5. There was the realisation how much I have to learn about networking – I really don’t like selling myself to strangers.
6. Travelling on my own, under my own steam and paying my own way are very different from a company-organised business trip. I was out of my comfort zone, but I did it and would do it again.
Thank you to the organisers for a great experience!

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