ON THE CLOCK: THE FUTURE OF (SELFIE) JOURNALISM

I have been thinking about my chosen profession recently. In fact for the past 14 years. Each day I have asked myself if this is something I want or wish to do for the rest of my life. I have asked myself this question on every occasion I have returned from the heat of the field, still half listening to the interviews in my head, still getting accustomed to the characters in the play let alone sorting out the facts from the truth. I have asked myself this question while still trying to find the words to describe the mood, the cadences of ordinary scenes pregnant with nuances beyond logical description.  The scars in someone’s soul.  Hours after the interview(s) I would still be listening, trying to find the best way to include into my script all the silences between words in the interviews, to find the words that could describe feelings that were never expressed, thoughts that were never uttered, the hopes and fears that were caught somewhere in someone’s throat or which silently gathered behind brave round eyes or spilled over in a moment of weakness onto curled eyelashes and leaked without a sound on firm cheeks. Spreading across someone’s face in a distant smile.

I would still be thinking, wondering if there is a way to write about the sound of a silent tear drop, the weight behind each one, and how each tastes different to the other. Some are as light as mist while others heavy and thick like a pound of dead flesh, drop loudly on quivering cheeks like a thunderstorm. Other tears flow slowly as fluid as crimson lava from a raptured volcano etching pigments of memory on tired faces long after the eyes have dried up. Each tear contains a story. A story which seconds on the clock could never contain.  In order to write I tell myself, I can do it.  I close my eyes to the silent tick of the clock, each red dot marking a second, a minute, an hour before the show is over. I close my eyes and in the darkness tell myself that somehow I can do it. I can make them hear the sound of falling a tear drop.

The pressure is sometimes so strong I need a song that can help me silence the critic inside. I need music to initiate movement. To silence the white noise. In all honesty I cannot remember a day when I didn’t ask myself if this is truly what I have chosen to do with my life. Because in many ways I didn’t fully believe or accept that journalism and I are well suited.  The pressure to file a story every hour was both a wondrous thrill and a heavy burden. It was superb when the story pumped like the inaudible flow of blood in your veins, when you knew all the elements of the story as well as you know your own name, when you knew the subject inside-out, when it was a subject you believed in, when love took over and you found yourself floating on water like a surfer who has just caught the largest wave, the highest tide, flying. In those moments time would be irrelevant, in fact, when you reached the point of equilibrium between yourself and a story it felt as though time herself was bowing to you, waiting for you.  It stood as if in an eternal salute to a master creating a timeless experience balancing the past and future fully in the present moment.  Everything would be in sync, synergized and you would never ever want time to start its relentless drill again. Tick Tock. In fact you didn’t even think about it.  But those days and moments were rare, because you were not a specialist you had to learn a story from scratch every day, like cramming for an exam every single time you go to work.  Most days putting a story on air would be as hard and tedious as trying to squeeze milk from an old-cow whose udders have lost their youthful lustre.  In those moments time would always be against you, either too fast or too slow.  In my early days as a journalist, I  found myself quite perplexed, both at myself and the nature of what I was attempting to do every day,  to write down stories I was never told.  I would have to shut my eyes tight. Forget about time, write what was not said with varying degrees of success. At times I thought I put too much pressure on myself,  which is why at least once or twice a week, I would find myself  immobile unable to move, because I was still waiting to hear the splashing sound of  a falling tear drop as it hits the floor. It never has.

Today, I would like to believe that I can look at what I do with a certain level of professional dispassion.  Perhaps I am mature enough to capture a tear-drop and tell a timely story.

Technology is ever-changing the way we consume and understand news and current affairs. To a large extent, the tools we use, the technology itself has become news.  What makes the headlines today would probably have never made it onto a national news bulletin when I started working with words and silences over ten years ago. What would make headlines ten years ago, is not even considered news today.  Reporting/Journalism has never been as fast as it is today, it has never been so easy nor so convenient for any journalist, reporter or ordinary person with the right tools to break a story and make headlines.  There are a multiple ways in which stories can be told and often new reporters and journalists are expected to have an ability to use all of them with equal competence. From filing radio hard copy, voice reports from the field, capturing video footage,  taking photographs, getting the interviews, tweeting about it, posting (selfies) with news makers on Instagram, Facebook, liveblogs and podcasts while simultaneously conducting live television reports with a selfie stick for a camera operator. Then there are infographics, photo snacks and hashtags, meant to compress everything to 70 characters and 30 second videos.  Your value as journalist is embedded in your ability to do all these successfully, and by success we mean your tweets must go viral, your story must be shared by millions, reposted by a hundred thousand more, tagged, favoured, and retweeted, liked, by your followers around the world. That has become the bottom line. Any errors made we can apologize for later.

There’s no time to pause before we report what we see.   The story of the sound of a tear drop is out of sync with the times, it is old news. What  we are asking journalists to do today, is like asking someone who was trained as a  General Practitioner, to start doing brain surgery, be a  vet, an obstetrician , an ophthalmologist among other things all in the course of one day. Any self-respecting medical professional would refuse such an assignment not only because it is impractical but simply because such an assignment is a recipe for failure and the worst case scenario would result in one of the patients suffering from lack of attention and or expertise advice. Whatever the outcome we can all expect the results of this to be average at best.

While it sounds very impressive to say you can and have been able to do all of those things, it is ultimately not sustainable. Perhaps not so much for the corporation itself as it operates on the belief that it can just as easily “replace” you with someone younger and more eager to not only do all of the above, but to also run and build a website from scratch and do marketing and publicity while you’re still trying to figure out how Twitter works.  The question is not whether one person can  perform all those functions, it is whether doing so would be in the best interest of the profession and the bottom line.

I understand. I was trained in all the imaginable methods of reporting from what we called desk top publishing (DTP) at the time, to photojournalism, TV, radio journalism, online journalism. I’ve learnt how to edit words, moving and still pictures, design websites, edit documentaries, write scripts, shoot video footage, and produce essays, learn history, politics, and a few foreign languages in three years.  I know how it feels like to be turned into an octopus with suctions on every imaginable aspect of journalism, a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is wonderful to have a working knowledge of these tools of telling stories, but ultimately what matters most is the story. You can have the best and most technologically advanced story telling tools – but they will never tell a story like a human being can.

So in the past four years as freelance journalist I have seen how amazing it can be to be a one man show on the rare occasion that it works, and how devastating it can be when everything comes falling apart like a deck of cards. Because in the end we only have two hands, two eyes, two ears and two feet.

I have enjoyed working in solitude as a radio reporter for eight years. Yet nothing is sweeter and is more wonderful and fulfilling that embarking on a creative project with like-minded people. I have tasted the undeniable high of working with others. Nothing surpasses a High Five with another hand at the end of a long day.  No technology can replace another human being. The Technology we use is just a tool, it will never replace another human’s eye, another person’s perspective. It is a delicate balance between being independent, versatile and being unreasonably narcissistic.  An inanimate object, no matter how technologically advanced and innovative it is, can never replace a human mind heart or soul. And if one day we wake up and think  it does, then we will do so at our own peril.

The bottom line is,  life is better when we’re doing it two-gether.

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6 Comments

    1. Thank you Debbie for reading! Glad you loved the piece. Happy New Year to you precious. This is indeed true, multimedia presents an entirely new challenge. On the other hand it provides an opportunity to be better journalists and better writers. Here’s to making it count! 🙂

      Reply

  1. Jedi, I’ve just discovered your blog, and if I don’t stop reading now, I’ll end up reading every post. I’ll leave it as a treat to return to. I love your writing, and the personal, thoughtful style. I find myself wishing we’d become friends during my time at SAfm. This piece resonates because I’m questioning whether I want to continue as a journalist, and whether making the choice to freelance was the right one.

    Reply

    1. Hey Bibi! Great to hear from you. Thank you so much for reading my blog and taking the time to share your thoughts about it with me. I truly appreciate it. As for our profession I do believe that it is throwing up such interesting challenges in general it’s not easy to figure out the best way to go – it’s like trying to shoot at a moving target. Freelance journalism is without a doubt the craziest adventure I’ve been on since 2011. I think it takes a lot of courage, will-power and stamina to continue as a freelancer. Often the costs are prohibitive and “clients” aren’t always willing to pay more for stories which means one is always simply breaking even or financing your own stories at a loss. Which is why most people end up just going back to a predictable 9 to five. Strategy is critical here and I am still working on mine. There’s a lot of “vanity-journalism” writing by experts which often passes as journalism but really isn’t. So in truth there aren’t many people who are actual journalists out there even though many say they are which can be confusing. I think it’s worth thinking about the reason (motivation) you became a journalist in the first place and let that guide you to your next path. If you can find another way (more creative, lucrative) of fulfilling that first desire (the reason you became a journalist) then go that way. How I see it now is, we have a lot of reporters, but we don’t have enough journalists. But change can help bring perspective on what’s important to you. Other options include specializing in a particular field, moving cities or countries, writing for foreign media, doing in-depth investigative pieces or applying for fellowships and grants. I do hope our paths meet one day and so we can exchange notes on our progress. Trying something new and challenging is always a good thing even if it doesn’t always give us the results we were hoping for. That’s also part of growth. We never know how something will work out until we try! I hope you find your answers soon.

      Reply

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