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Mother of two, living life in small-town South Africa

Mbeki gone: an act of newspaper heroism

Peter Bruce, the editor of Business Day (and a former sub-editor, which means he understands the trenches only too well), wrote a great column in Monday’s newspaper about how a “reporter with a great news story” managed to get The Weekender a world exclusive, breaking news of the ANC’s decision to recall President Thabo Mbeki.

Although they had already put the paper to bed on Saturday night with an inconclusive, ho hum Mbeki story, political editor Karima Brown responded to an SMS sent at 1am carrying news of the NEC’s decision. This was the biggest South African news story since the fall of apartheid. Hell, how could she let her paper miss it?

Describing it as an act of “newspaper heroism”, Bruce explains how Brown and other key Business Day/Weekender staffers remade the paper in the early hours of the morning. By 3.55am, Executive Editor Rehana Rossouw was able to send Bruce an update: Mbeki gone. New headline. Paper changed. We got it right.”

Just brilliant, writes Bruce. And I have to agree: this is the kind of thing that could only happen at a newspaper. Just brilliant.

By the way, if anyone out there cares to do a search to find out when this news hit the web, let me know who got it first. This may just turn out to be a case of “print got it first” and that would delight an old codger like me who is nostalgic for the adrenaline of a newsroom. A very cursory browse of online archives shows that IOL’s first confirmation story ANC officially asks Mbeki to go was posted at 9am on Saturday. News24 had a tentative Mbeki asked to resign? at 11am, while the M&G had ANC dumps Mbeki, moves to ‘heal rift’ at 1.30pm.

Update, 11.20pm – 22 September: Rehana Roussouw, executive editor of the Weekender, explains in Business Day about what happened in their newsroom (and at the NEC) on Friday. Headlined, “The little paper that can”, she writes:

The Times website had been reporting from about 5pm that the NEC had already decided Mbeki must be axed. They were quoting Sunday Times staff. It looked to us like an inspired guess. Despite our best efforts, we hadn’t been able to confirm that fact ourselves.

I’ve been digging around the Times website (impossible to navigate or is it just me?), trying to find these references, but the closest I can get to a “confirmed story” is the Breaking News blog’s Mbeki recalled from office, which was published at 6.46pm on Saturday 20 November. (Incidentally, Ray Hartley carried the news on his blog at 12.13pm.)

Once again, I’m reminded that the Weekender’s scoop was only possible because there were experienced hands at the helm who had the right contacts, who could trust the information being sent through and who had enough experience to change an “inspired guess” into an on-the-record, confirmed story.

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Filed under: Blogging, General, Newspapers, , , , , , , ,

Journ students start blogging

When someone asked me recently how one could possibly teach sub-editing, I got all sweaty and nervous. But then I reminded myself it is a skill. There’s a lot you can learn about grammar, headline writing, the editing process. But in many ways it is much more abstract than the simple nuts and bolts. What subbing is, really, is engaging with the world in an entirely different way. It’s about developing a critical mind – and eye – and caring about the little things. As Jeff Baron wrote on washingtonpost.com recently:

Copy editors might be the only people who can discuss, cheerfully and seriously and on their own time, when to hyphenate a compound adjective. Normal people, I have found, deeply do not care.

Sub-editors are not normal people.

So reading, writing (and thinking about writing) is a crucial component of the sub-editing course I am teaching to fourth-year Journalism and Media Studies students at Rhodes University. And, really, I’m discovering that the best way to encourage this is by blogging.

Last week, the students set up their blogs, which they will run for the duration of the course. I’ve aggregated them all under one banner (I heart WordPress!), including each of the student’s contributions as RSS feeds. Have a look at the classblog and let me know what you think.

Filed under: Blogging, Newspapers, ,

The 3 deadly sins of journalistic life

I have started teaching a six-week course on sub-editing to fourth year Journalism and Media Studies students at Rhodes. It’s a small group of women who have chosen to do the course for very different reasons. It’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. I know I have as much to learn from them as they do from me.

Sub-editors have always been my favourite people in a newsroom. Generally, they’re quirky, clever, curious and totally unhinged. In preparing for the first session, I spent some time thinking about the role of sub-editors and how that is changing as media consumption patterns and news change. There’s a lot happening out there that challenges my thinking that subs are essential parts of the editorial process. But that’s material for another posting. After working on and off as a sub-editor for 16 years, I like to think that there are some lessons I have learnt along the way.

Clive Lawrance (yes, that is how you spell his surname) co-taught this course with me a few years back. A crusty newsroom curmudgeon who commanded respect and excellence, he liked to warn of three things that stand between a writer and good writing: vanity, fear, laziness. Most of the lessons below fall into one of these categories.

  • There is always someone who knows more than you
    You may be able to fix or improve someone else’s writing, but that doesn’t mean you know more than them. Subs’ rooms and newsrooms are filled with interesting people who know a lot about a lot of things. Learn to listen. And look up whatever you don’t know. There will always be a reader who knows the subject better than you.
  • We all make mistakes
    Sub-editors may be the “unsung heroes of journalism”, but adversarial relationships between writers and sub-editors serve no purpose. While our job is to get it right and make writers look good, it’s worth remembering that subs can also mess up a story. A little humility goes a long way.
  • Read, read and read some more
    Clive used to quote Uys Krige as saying, “To be a great writer, you need to read the great masters. If you’re not reading, then you should be writing. And if you are not writing, you should be thinking about writing.” Make reading a habit. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read whatever you can lay your hands on. Be curious. Be interested. Be interesting.
  • ‘In order to’ is two words too long
    Teach yourself the rules. You can teach yourself to spell. (And, yes, I still believe spelling is important despite Ken Smith’s call for a spelling amnesty.)
  • Punctuation can fix a lot of wrongs
    Simply punctuating correctly can restore sense to a sentence. It’s not rocket science. Teach yourself how to do it well.
  • Respect a writer’s voice
    Avoid changing anything without a good reason. Fix mistakes, but don’t beat a story into submission. There are many reporters whose first language is not English. Help craft the story, don’t destroy it. Not every story you touch needs to be reworked into your style.
  • If you don’t know, look it up
    “Thou shalt not sub what thou don’t understand,” one of my favourite chief-subs once admonished me. We should always be asking questions because we don’t have all the answers. Use the internet. Don’t leave home without your dictionary. Find out how things work and how to do stuff that will make you a better journalist, like working with pictures and audio, basic HTML. Curiosity is a n essential characteristic for the job.
  • Presentation is (almost) everything
    Know what it’s called. Know the keyboard shortcuts. Work fast. Work neatly. Look like you know what you are doing.
  • Respect your job
    If you don’t like it, leave it. Like what you do. Hell, love what you do. Otherwise no job is worth it. Especially on the nightshift.

Vanity, fear, laziness. Beware the three deadly sins of journalistic life.

Filed under: Newspapers, Personal, , , , , , ,

The rise and fall of ZA citizen journalism

I’ve sat through some interesting (and some deathly) presentations over the past few days at the Digital Citizen Indaba and Highway Africa, new media conferences held annually in Grahamstown. Rather belatedly themed “Citizen Journalism, Journalism for Citizens”, the focus was on, well, citizen journalism. (As Roland Stanbridge, one of the original founders of HA, pointed out to me yesterday, the speaker line-up has been predominately South African and a little predictable, which seems a pity given the expertise and range of opinions on this that exist elsewhere on the continent. There were more than 500 delegates here for the event.)

A highlight for me was listening to Dan Gillmor, the author of We the Media, which is available online). I find his views on citizen journalism appropriately anarchic and much more radical than they first appear. (Let me confess that I haven’t read his book, although I did pick up a copy from the stand at HA today.) I hope to blog about all of this soon, but need to think about it a little more and find the time…

This evening, I picked up on Twitter (via @ricegirl2Sarah Rice) that Reporter.co.za is closing, on the last day of Highway Africa 2008. I could be wrong, but I think reporter.co.za was the first and only standalone citizen journalism attempt by mainstream media (Avusa). Terribly ironic timing, if you ask me. I believed Gillmor, Buckland and others at the conference when they said that journalism as we know it has been forever altered by the rise of citizen journalism or participatory media; that there has never been a better opportunity than now for “journalistic entrepreneurs”.

But reporter.co.za is closing after more than two years of publishing. According to the closing note on the site, more than 6 000 contributors have posted to the site. They say the site “has to be transformed to adapt to new technology”. No surprises there, I guess, as there is no scope for multimedia files and the site does have a very old fashioned feel to it. Perhaps Avusa is trying to align its online products and create a little synergy between the different platforms and titles (which seem fiercely and needlessly competitive from where I sit). It would be incredibly useful and interesting if there was some public discussion around the strategy that went beyond the middle-of-the-road “farewell, thanks for changing my life” stuff currently on reporter.co.za.

I can’t see reporter.co.za making any kind of comeback but, perhaps, its demise will create space and opportunities within the traditional titles for readers and citizen journalism that go beyond comments and “send us your photos” buttons. Let’s hope someone at Avusa has been paying attention and that the lessons from this social experiment have been learnt. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Filed under: General, , , , ,

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