Tinker, tailor, soldier ... journalist
So you’re thinking about being a journalist?
It may be as well not to get too hung up on the movie images of the profession.
There are, of course, those who dodge bullets in the hunt for the most dramatic picture, or spend their time in smoke-filled bars, talking to their sources and receiving explosive documents in plain brown envelopes.
There are even those who spend their lives in the world of film stars and other celebrities. But there’s a wide range of other options, in job, medium and specialisation. Some people prefer writing, others like the more orderly world of the sub-editor, who processes reports and puts them on the page.
There are photographers, designers, columnists, cartoonists, producers, TV and radio presenters, web editors and many other job categories. Different media—print, radio, television and the internet—offer different possibilities and attractions.
Not everybody prefers the inky world of the newspaper: some are drawn to the adrenaline rush of radio’s hourly deadlines or the bright lights of television. Yet others prefer taking time to craft a beautiful feature for a glossy magazine, or are fascinated by the brave wired world of new media.
There are as many specialisations as fields of interest. The more common ones include politics, business, sport and entertainment. But there are writers focusing on the environment, health, science, labour—everything you can think of, in fact (although it may be not quite so easy finding a job as a specialist writer on prehistoric agricultural systems or skateboarding, as interesting as those areas undoubtedly are.)
But most journalists are likely to begin as general news reporters. As such, you’re likely to run around dealing with a lot of different topics and stories, and it gives you an opportunity to work out what your particular interests are, and where you’d like to go from there.
There are particular character traits that journalists share. If you find yourself somewhere in this list, you may well fit the bill. Perhaps the most important thing for a journalist is to have a strong curiosity about the world.
It’s the ability to find interest in all kinds of areas, to ask questions like: what happened next? What does it mean? What is behind this? Without a strong, natural curiosity, you won’t make a journalist.
A certain facility for language helps a great deal. After all, the material has to be written up—even for television, in the form of scripts.
Journalists are storytellers, they narrate the world for the rest of society. One needs to be able to talk to all kind of different people, from the most prominent politician to people in informal settlements.
The job requires energy. There’s no point in sitting there waiting for information to come in, you have to get away from your desk and seek it out. Sometimes this may involve exciting travel, sometimes it will involve discomfort.
Journalism isn’t a nine to five job, it often involves being called at odd hours, working into the night. You need an ability to cope with pressure. Even on magazines that are published once a month, deadlines will be a permanent feature of your life.
If you don’t cope with that kind of pressure, it’s best to do something else. How do people become journalists? In times gone by, it was possible to find a space in the profession without formal training. This has become more and more difficult.
These days, it is best to put yourself through a proper journalism course at a reputable institution. It is particularly helpful to do a specialized degree in something like science, law or business studies before learning the skills of the craft.
Rhodes University offers a three or four-year journalism degree. At Wits and Stellenbosch, there are postgraduate programmes. Other institutions offer useful programmes too.
In evaluating an institution, it is good to look at the people involved in teaching there. Ask also about the nature and extent of practical work.
Journalism requires a string of quite practical skills, and the only way really to acquire them is by practice. And what are the rewards? Sadly, not riches. It is very hard to become wealthy through journalism, most people in the field manage a reasonably comfortable middle-class existence, but not much more.
The rewards are of a different kind. It’s fun to see your name in print or on a screen, particularly when it is with a story that is noticed. It doesn’t happen every day, but once in a while you’ll write a story that has an impact on the world: one which has people talking at dinner parties and in taxis, that makes something happen.
It may just be a dog that is rescued from neglect by a cruel owner because of your report. Or it may involve uncovering a major corruption scandal that gets somebody fired. In both cases, you’ll see that journalism can make a difference.