CAPE TOWN — They giggled when I mentioned relying on our news researcher Belinda Harris, who helps Roanoke Times reporters research background and hard-to-find cellphone numbers. Come again? — the South African reporters wanted to know.
When I talked about working on projects for six, sometimes eight or more months at a time (usually amid other quicker-hit stories), there was a similar rumble of indignation.
The nine reporters who fill the 50,000-circulation, five-times-a-week Cape Times newspaper were hungry to learn more about sniffing out stories that lend themselves to narrative writing, I learned during my July 5 talk at the Irish-owned South African paper. About 20 employees of the Times, along with their sister publications (the Cape Argus, Weekend Argus, The Voice and Cape Community Newspapers) sat in on my presentation, which I gave halfway through my 12-day family vacation to visit our Nieman pals Janet Heard and Steve Pike with their kids, Tyler and Ella.
The Cape Times reporters had just covered Michelle Obama’s visit and are more accustomed to reporting on crime, trauma and marginalized communities than I am. About 15 million South Africans live on less than 15 rand a day — the equivalent of $2 U.S. dollars — and two of three children go to bed without a meal.
As we learned on our earlier tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned most of his 27 years, the unofficial unemployment rate in the nation is 43 percent. Which explains why one former prisoner still spends day in and day out there: Not because he wants to relive the horror and drudgery but because he needs the tour-guide job. (Janet wrote an excellent piece about our visit to the World Heritage Site, explaining why Robben Island is due more praise than it has gotten in the recent past.)
At a rugby party on one of our first nights in South Africa, freelance journalist Tanya Farber recounted heartbreaking stories that she’s written in recent years, including a lid-popper about “corrective rape” — the township practice of raping lesbian women to “correct” them of their ways. Farber even managed to interview one of the perpetrators of the crime.
Most South African journalists seem to be so busy covering the plethora of breaking news stories, many of them routinely working 12 hours a day and reporting in three different languages, that they don’t have the luxury to write very many narratives — though their communities are teeming with juicy, heart-rending and heart-pounding stories to tell.
They’d also reported recently on the four Table Mountain muggings over the past two weeks — something Steve and Janet neglected to tell us about until we were well on our way up the eight-hour, 3,000-feet ascent up and around Platteklip Gorge — in the midst of a raging southeaster.
Janet, who is head of news at the Cape Times, said she found this point the most pertinent among those in my presentation: If you’re bored at work, maybe you’re boring. Because face it, there are great stories around us EVERYWHERE if only we bother to look — and to listen, with pure intention and genuine curiosity.
It’s even OK to fall in love with your subjects, sort of, I told them — as long as you heed New Yorker writer Katherine Boo’s advice: “I’m not writing you a love letter. I’m trying to create a portrait of you that your sister would recognize.”
I talked about the need to follow up with subjects and develop relationships on your beat: the reluctant father of the soldier with PTSD who finally decides he’s up for being interviewed three years after his son’s death; the retired copy editor (“sub editor,” in South Africa parlance) who asks me to tell her story before dementia destroys her ability to remember it; the routine Mother’s Day feature on a missionary who ends up inviting me to report on a team of doctors treating cholera in Haiti — during the November 2010 riots.
You never know where a subject will lead you. Jonathan Ancer, the narrative writing guru and group trainer for Independent Newspapers who hosted my talk, is about to publish a riveting five-part serial tracing the journey of his checkbook after it was stolen from him in a burglary earlier this year.
Reporters in South Africa face different challenges than we do. But they stand up at noon to cluster around the TV, checking out the competition, just like we do. They struggle mightily with limited resources, just like we do (maybe even more so, actually). But their biggest challenge isn’t just the Internet; only 10.8 percent of the country has Internet access. It’s also illiteracy, combined with new and very serious government threats to press freedom.
Yet in Cape Town alone, there are about five daily newspapers, more including the tabloids. Two of the broadsheets are written in Afrikaans.
And every day reporters at the Cape Times work doggedly to ferret out stories of corruption, filing multiple stories and speaking multiple languages and knowing in their hearts that if they don’t write it, nobody will. Their tenacity was downright inspiring.
Hours after my talk, a young Capetonian e-mailed me asking me to read and offer feedback on several of her stories. “I am open to criticism,” she wrote. “It is important for growth.”