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'I remember them when ...'

Jennifer Tennant

"Interns came from all walks of life, with their own histories, bringing different life experiences to the courses, holding conflicting ideologies."

‘You’ll be the lucky one,” I was told on being appointed as the trainer for The Weekly Mail training project. ‘If the paper closes down, you’ll be the only one left with a job.”

So started my five-year association with the newspaper. It was the late 1980s and the height of the State of Emergency and the threat of closure was ever present. My welcome turned out to be prophetic as a few weeks later the paper received notice it was to be closed down for a month — and the training programme went into top gear, running a full-time course for the duration.

The training project was grounded in the ethos of the newspaper and intertwined with what was happening in the country. Interns came from all walks of life, with their own histories, bringing different life experiences to the courses, holding conflicting ideologies.

Training on The Weekly Mail in those days was immersed in the theory of action learning. Real learning happened by doing the job. From day one, interns were expected to get stuck into covering events of the day, asking tough questions of difficult sources, and then reflecting on how it went, what was achieved, and how things could be improved.

‘I hate you,” I was told regularly. ‘You send us into difficult situations, you expect the impossible.” All true. What was also true was that every one of the interns always came up with the goods: great human interest stories; telling quotes; shedding light into aspects of South African life that were seldom told; and, at the same time, sharing in the lives of those whose stories they were covering.

The Weekly Mail newsroom provided the training project with endless resources. There was a wealth of talent and experience on tap, and the staffers gave of their time, expertise and enthusiasm.

There were opportunities to hear anecdotes from the top practitioners in their field. Anton Harber lectured on ethics, asking uncomfortable questions of the interns, forcing them to think about their actions; Irwin Manoim explained desk-top publishing (The Weekly Mail was the first newspaper in South Africa to go this route) and layout and design, and any other topic I could think of to foist on him.

There were Charlotte Bauer’s discussions on feature writing and Barbara Ludman’s on covering the arts. Business, labour and sport got the same treatment.

Shaun Johnson ensured the financial survival of the project through his effective fund-raising methods.

Then there was Don Mattera, the father figure of the project, who brought his own stamp to it. How many journalism courses can boast of holding a training session on English grammar with a duo of Rastafarian beat poets and drummers? Mattera managed to convey his love of words, of language, so that the writing being taught became more than simply presenting reports, turning into carefully crafted articles and essays.

Guest lecturers tackled a range of topics: from understanding the political divides to the academic and cultural boycott; from the concept of journalism and what it took to be a journalist to social theories on the media, such as the issue of objectivity vs subjectivity. Then there were the lawyers ... remember all those laws.

Theory and practice blended seamlessly, becoming ingrained. And all the time the theories, the talks, the examples were happening around them.

There were also the daily incidents the interns had to deal with. I remember the phone calls: ‘Your reporter has just been detained under the Emergency Regulations”, an intern had been attacked covering a protest march in the Jo’burg CBD. There were the threats, the complaints — and the thanks.

Tough days produced tough and determined journalists — and it shows. From the nursery of The Weekly Mail‘s training project came the seasoned professionals of today. The list of former interns who are now at the top of the profession is vast.

It’s satisfying to be able to say ‘I remember them when ...”

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