(Yes, I am using this as an excuse to share more pretty pictures of Cape Town).
Hi everyone! I’m back with my May Writing Corner, and as I mentioned at the end of the last post for this feature, I’m going to be talking in a little more depth about my time at Cape Chameleon at the beginning of this year and what it was like doing journalism in a foreign country, which I hope will be quite interesting for you guys!
I didn’t really know much what to expect when I arrived in Cape Town back in January, obviously I’d been given information about where my placement was and I’d familiarised myself with the Cape Chameleon site and some of the other articles that had been published, so I knew the kinds of things that other volunteers had written, but I didn’t really know what to expect from the day to day running of my placement.
I was pretty much thrown right in when I started, my supervisor talked me through the site, the editorial policy and the theme that she wanted for January’s articles which was Human Rights and then set me to writing up a pitch for my article. Pitching articles was not something I really had to do at Uni, but it’s definitely a skill I’m glad I picked up during my time at Cape Chameleon as I’m sure it’s going to be very useful in the future!
Coming up with my initial story idea actually wasn’t the most difficult bit. By a stroke of luck, I’d actually come across a story before I came to South Africa that fitted really well with the Human Rights theme: the protests against gender based violence which erupted after the rape and murder of a University of Cape Town student in September 2019.
For journalists, your social network is one of the most important things. Knowing people that you can contact for any given story is always going to be incredibly useful and this is one of the initial hurdles you face when you’re writing stories abroad: in the UK, I might know of people/organisations that I can approach, in Cape Town, where I wasn’t really familiar with anything yet, I did not.
However, as with any news story, a Google search for people and organisations who are involved with the topic you are wanting to cover is always a good place to start. Pretty soon, I had a list of contacts from organisations which worked on tackling gender based violence.
Taking on any controversial news story though, it’s inevitable that some people won’t want to talk to you and for several days, I didn’t hear back from any of the contacts that my supervisor and I had emailed. This was also another learning curve when it came to working in a different country: people in South Africa tended to respond slower to emails than people I’d contacted for interviews in the UK, so follow ups were key, especially when I only ever had a week at most to turn an article around.
When it came to the interviews, there were other considerations that I had to take into account that were specific to my situation and the country I was working in. When I did interviews in the UK, if I was doing a face to face interview, I would either walk (if it was an interview I was doing in Stirling and the place was within walking distance) or take public transport to my interview and I would always go alone. In Cape Town, for safety reasons we weren’t encouraged to take public transport and walking was a big no, so I would take an Uber to all of my interviews and I never went to any of them alone, as I felt safer travelling with another person, so I either went with my supervisor or once with the other girl on my placement. All my interviews also had to be relatively local, in order to keep Uber bills (which were covered by Projects Abroad) to a minimum.
One of the best things specifically about doing Journalism in a different country, is that you get to see more than just the tourist spots. Over the course of ten weeks in Cape Town, I interviewed people who worked for a variety of different organisations, from the Women’s Legal Centre, to Rape Crisis, to the Cart Horse Protection Association and all of these organisations were in different areas which I may not have visited had I not been doing interviews.
I was also very lucky with my placement in that we were allowed pretty much free rein in what we wanted to write about. I recognise that this is unusual and when I work as a journalist I probably won’t have the same amount of freedom but it was a really lovely thing to be able to choose the stories that I wanted to write and pitch what I felt most passionately about to my supervisor. I think that really improved the quality of my work as well, because having an enthusiasm for a topic definitely shines through in your writing.
I feel like writing in a different country also allowed me to really stretch my skills as a journalist to cover topics that I might not necessarily have tackled writing here. I don’t think I would have covered either of my controversial topic articles, gender based violence or illegal abortions here in the UK, not because those topics aren’t important, but more because I’d never really had the opportunity to tackle things like that when I was writing as a student journalist (aside from covering the results of the Irish abortion referendum in 2018 for The National Student). In Cape Town though, with my supervisor wanting us to write at least one article covering a controversial topic a month, I really had to stretch myself to come up with articles that would challenge me as a writer and be thought provoking and interesting for readers.
Getting to meet people who do really cool things is obviously one of best things about being a journalist and that’s even more true when you’re writing abroad, I got to meet so many amazing people whilst I was out in Cape Town, and it thrilled me even more that so many of the people I interviewed were women doing really great things to improve the lives of other women. I found interviewing the counselling co-ordinator from Rape Crisis Cape Town really inspiring and definitely came away from that filled with desire for change. I also interviewed a lawyer at the Women’s Legal Centre when I was doing my article about illegal abortion, and it was definitely the kind of interview where I felt like I could genuinely have asked her questions all day long about her work, they specifically focus on women’s rights which obviously thrilled me.
I recognise that not everyone will have the time/money/opportunity to go and work in a different country as a journalist, whether you’re doing it as a volunteer like me or if you have a paid job. However, if you do have all of those things, then I would definitely recommend taking advantage of writing opportunities abroad: I had a brilliant time, I learned so much and it’s definitely an interesting talking point on your CV when it comes to applying for jobs!
Have any other writers out there spent time working as a writer in a different country? Would you like to if you haven’t? Anyone else been to Cape Town? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to read any of my work for Cape Chameleon, you can find my articles here, they’re still relatively recent, so you can find quite a few of them on the first page:
As always, if you are a writer and you would like be featured on Writing Corner, I have spots available through the rest of the year, from June To December, then please get in touch! You can contact me either via my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through my DM’s on Twitter (@iloveheartlandX). I take all writers, published/unpublished, agented/unagented and it doesn’t have to be about fiction: journalists, poets, non-fiction writers, everyone is welcome here!
I should have my May Book Vs Movie post up tomorrow (I know, sneaking it in at the last minute), and I’m hoping to have my review of my final read of May, Call Down The Hawk up on Monday, so keep a look out for those.