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Fine-tuning journalism

It is always tricky interviewing another journalist, even more so when that person is your ­mentor.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the arts journalism course, for a long time the only one of its kind in the country, taught by Gwen Ansell as part of the Cape Town International Jazz ­Festival.

I did the course in 2009 and it was life-changing. It laid the foundation for my interest in jazz writing, but more importantly, led me to leave my position as music writer at the Cape Argus and pursue a masters in arts journalism at the University of Southern California in Los ­Angeles. I returned to South Africa six months ago, equipped with a degree in something I valued, only to find no scope for employment in the field at home.

Ansell’s warning to “always have a plan B” because arts journalism does not pay the bills rings louder than ever. The fact that one cannot survive purely as an arts journalist is due to an overwhelming lack of respect for the culture of arts writing in newsrooms and media houses in general in South Africa. Added to this is a lack of recognition by universities of the need to include arts journalism in their curriculums, hence graduates are often split into artists who cannot be journalists and journalists who do not know the arts. Many editors and academics still do not acknowledge the field. There is little mentoring and, beyond reaching a deadline, there is little understanding of how to process information regarding the arts.

In spite of this, it is an achievement that something as niche as the arts journalism course has flourished for 10 years. Ansell explains how it came about. “In the first year of the Cape Town Jazz Festival, the festival flew every journalist it could find down for free. It accommodated us for free and demanded absolutely nothing of us except that we write something, even if we hated the place. I shared a hotel suite with people who arrived a day late and had not even accredited themselves by the second evening.

“At the time, I thought: ‘This is freeloading; this is not arts journalism. There has to be a way to raise the ­standard’.”

Following discussion with festival founder Rashid Lombard, two years later the programme was initiated. The course ran for five days and students were recruited from intern programmes at Media24 and ­Independent Newspapers.

Over the past 10 years, significant improvements have been made, including recruiting a broader pool of people. The length of the programme has been extended to seven days, culminating in the actual jazz festival. In 2010, the course introduced a new element in the form of “training the trainers”, run by Fiona Lloyd. This course is designed to mentor arts trainers to ensure that arts journalism is not relegated to the margins.

A bridge between people and the arts
This is the second year the course is being run and students this year come from Kenya, Zimbab-we, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. Said Lloyd: “The conversation we’ve been having is how arts journalists are a bridge between people and the arts.”

Last year, the festival also introduced the photojournalism programme run by photographer Peter Mckenzie. Together, the three programmes have 20 participants annually. Said Ansell: “Every year, I see a crop of people who know what it is they want to do. In arts journalism, we start getting applications even before we advertise. We can get anything up to 100 applicants. This year, the oldest is 63! The main requirement for the course is that one should somehow be involved in writing about the arts, so even arts publicists are encouraged.”

Having done the course myself, it equips journalists with the necessary responsibility to cover subjects pertinent to the arts, an ability to listen to music better and to have a deeper understanding of what jazz is about. Students are encouraged to work not only in print, but also across the board in multimedia and, at the end, are expected to produce stories published by a variety of outlets. Over 10 years, nearly 160 have graduated from the course.

The course has survived because of a variety of funders. “In the years when we have not had adequate donor funding, espAfrika has dug into its pocket and I am more grateful than I can say for that. Most years, it has been a combination of different funders,” Ansell said. The National Arts Council was keen to extend the reach of these skills into the African continent and it provided some scholarships for pan-African candidates.

The programme has also received support from the department of arts and culture, about which Ansell said: “It’s rare that a government department shows that kind of vision.”

Arts journalism is often confused with taking the role of the critic or entertainment and lifestyle writing, neither of which it is. Rather, the way Ansell and I see it, arts journalism is good journalism applied to a specialist field, in this case the arts.

Transferable skills
This is why, even though the course is attached to the jazz festival and focuses on the history of jazz within a South African context, the main goal is not to create jazz writers. Rather, the subject matter of the festival is used to teach transferable skills, that can be applied to any kind of specialist field.

But it does distress Ansell that people who are now arts writers know so little, not just about jazz, but about music. “There are many on these courses who don’t know the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet. That’s not so much about newspapers, but about the education system. The most important thing about the course is to teach people to immerse themselves in music more broadly. I just want an intelligent story out the other end.”

Ansell said that, as long as there were sufficient resources, the course would continue. Her advice for future arts journalists is to learn to do what journalists all over the world are already doing: carve your niche in blogging.

For more from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, see our special report.

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