What your lecturers haven’t told you

The journalistic world has introduced me to some of the most interesting and captivating people this country has to offer. This week, our Writing and Editing class found ourselves in the presence of T.O Molefe, a valuable contributor to a variety of prestigious newspapers, including Cape Argus and the New York Times. His reassuring presence and impressive resume had questions burning on the lips of my peers and me before he had even begun.

A recurring theme throughout the discussion seemed to be one of fear. It is no secret that the financial state of the journalism industry is no laughing matter, yet jokingly seems to be the only way that we address the issue. My brothers’ favourite welcome home line is “What is the difference between a journalist and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four!” My smile is has wavered to a borderline grimace. I found T. O’s blunt honesty about his personal struggle with the dwindling, or complete lack of financial compensation for his writing extremely refreshing. It was as though by shining such a harsh spotlight on the issue, it became less threatening. We acknowledged it, understood it, and opened our minds to what lies ahead.

I have been studying the craft of journalism for three years now, and a passionate writer for far longer. I have submitted dozens of articles and assignments, and had these returned edited beyond recognition or flat out rejected. I have sat in lecture theatres with a racing heart as it becomes clear what a huge responsibility good journalism is, and how severe the repercussions of poor fact checking, or sloppy sentence construction can be. I silently scream to myself on a weekly basis that I am not good enough, my voice is not valid or authentic enough, to be speaking up about such important issues. It is therefore so ironic that listening to the wise words of a self-proclaimed quitter, assuring us that even the most seasoned writers experience the same overwhelming emotions, is the most comforting two hours of my entire week. There was no trace of sarcasm when he spoke of the fact that if one day he didn’t feel like writing, he just didn’t. He didn’t make empty promises that with enough practise eventually we would have a fresh and original story idea on a daily basis. He was as real as the come, and the sense of relief was enormous. When he spoke about the familiar feeling of sitting at your desk with a blank page, a blank mind, and a looming deadline, the heads in the room nodded so vigour sly it was dizzying to be around. A sense of comradery had enveloped the room. The moment I learned that T.O was a qualified accountant, who could have a stable salary and a nine to five job, yet had actively chosen the life of a journalist, I knew without a doubt that I was on the right path.

There are three lessons that I learnt that day, and plan to carry with me throughout my career.

Lesson One

There is no shame in admitting that sometimes, you do not have the capacity to write about certain issues at the high standards that you set yourself. Sometimes, you need to lay down you pen and stop forcing words that are not there. It will enable you to avoid writing sterile and uninspired journalism, and set your heart at ease. The most invaluable tool in our journalistic toolboxes is a keen curiosity about the world around us, everything else can be taught in time.

Lesson Two

The economic state of the industry is never an excuse to allow your work to be taken for granted. Exposure may be a currency in its own right, but it will not help you to pay the rent. Demand your worth for the integrity of yourself and the profession. Commercial operations that refuse to compensate their writers undermine the validity of writing as a craft that should be appreciated and professionally executed. Though it is tempting to “write for exposure, to get your foot out the door and your name on the by-line, you deserve to be paid your hard work”.

Listening to T.O reminisce about an encounter with a young man who was so excited to be writing for MTV that he never inquired about financial compensation. A similar situation occurred in the Marie Claire publishing house, whereby interns were paid a meagre salary of thirty rand per day. According to T.O, because money is such an uncouth topic, people have grown accustomed to avoiding it. Writers are expected to be so grateful for the exposure that they do not bother enquiring. This is detrimental to the reputation of good journalism

Lesson Three

I am not the first, nor am I the last journalist to feel the weight of their work sitting heavily in their minds. There is an erroneous amount of pressure placed on writers, not only because so much of ourselves is reflected in our work, but also because the world is filled with opinionated ideas that may openly contradict our own. Corporations such as News24 have columns on display that indicate how many views each article got. Often, the more dramatic, fiery and radical the writing is, the more views you are likely to get. It can be extremely detrimental to a writers confidence if one week they have 10 000 views, and the next they have 200. Writing is a healing, self-reflective process, and the fact that fewer people can relate or take an interest is no reason to lower your voice. South Africa seems to a large appetite for sporting and political biographies. The size of the market should not always dictate the work you produce. It is surely more satisfying to create a new market altogether. As T.O so eloquently states, “as much as it may be an economic struggle, this is what I enjoy.”

All avid tweeters seem to have a similar goal in mind: to be “the wokest of the woke”. With aching thumbs and wrist cramps, we painstakingly try to cram complex opinions into 140 characters. Angry manifestations of poorly expressed views litter the cyber sphere, when we should be unpacking them with the respect and caution that they deserve. RKA_TO has come to accept this fact, and is a tweeter worth following.

The most riveting part of this session for me was the moment that T.O announced that he and a group of friends are creating a digital journal of essays, commentaries and analysis’s, aptly named the Crux. It will address the poor quality of writing and thinking perpetuated by commercialised organisations. This was not someone who walked in, complained about the system and the industry and then left again. He brought to focus some of the most prevalent issues journalists need to accept, and sat before us at proof that passion trumps pay check any day.

T.O ideally encompasses the role of a realistic, unapologetic, curious journalist. His honesty about his tendency to quit lends to his reassuring essence, and his realistic approach to handling the dire economic situation is a tribute to his respect for the profession. This was an eye opening experience that I will reminisce over throughout the tumultuous times in my journalistic career.

Photo caption: A Rhodes graduate, T.O Molefe engages with an a class of aspiring journalists on his former campus 

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