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Senior journalist advises students keen on media careers

Tuesday, November 4, 2014
'Love book, be prepared'
Andy Johnson GISL CEO

Students at the UWI Guild's recent media symposium to gain insight into today's media jobs were more interested in the celebrity/personality cult aspect of the media industry than in either the business/financial realities, or the investigative, public interest, issues-driven side of media. 

More than half of the audience left before hearing perhaps the most interesting speaker, a veteran news journalist. The three speakers on Tuesday represented three of the many possible roles in today's widening media spectrum: a performer/presenter (Samantha John), a businessman/manager (O'Brien Haynes), and a journalist (Andy Johnson).


Samantha John: CTV presenter

Samantha John, 7 pm news presenter for state-owned CTV, former TV6 news anchor (2007-2014) and a person with radio broadcast experience, spoke as a public performer: someone who projects their personality to win audiences, using skills of good diction, effective body language, polished appearance and a varied broadcasting, theatrical and media production background to give an attractive, confident face for presentation of the news: a successful brand ambassador for a television station. 

She engaged the audience with her personal, lively story of how she entered the media at a time when no-one was around to help. As a child, she'd play the cuatro and sing jingles; as a young woman, she was largely self-taught, taking a short course in broadcasting, learning skills from studying radio personalities like Jim Sutherland, Selma Ayee and Edison Carr of Radio Trinidad, and showing dogged persistence in applying for media opportunities, starting as a freelance announcer to provide vacation relief at a radio station. 

“It is showbiz-based, it is competitive, and you're on your own,” she said, but she also shared how much she loved her job, and stressed the importance of teamwork in any media position. She emphasised that media workers needed passion to put up with the long hours and holiday work; and she said that successful media staff must be self-motivated, always looking to improve their skills on their own initiative.


O'Brien Haynes: Synergy TV general manager

The second speaker, O'Brien Haynes, currently general manager of the entertainment-oriented Synergy TV, spoke about “walking the thin line between business and news,” asking frank questions about advertising's role in possibly influencing the news, and observing that often, media staff is untrained and need help. With a background as a radio announcer who rose to become a radio programme administrator in charge of a staff, and later, a TV station manager, he chose to focus on business concerns in media. 

He raised some interesting questions: How exactly do media make money today, given the saturated state of T&T media? How do radio or TV stations find creative ways to sell similar products? How do you get talented, capable staff? Is building an ever-wider audience the only important thing? He noted that media is used more and more for entertainment than information, and commented that Trinidad's traffic gridlock between 5 and 7 am is what has pushed radio shows at that time slot to become more important for competing stations. 

He said the biggest source of competition to conventional media (print, radio, tv) was social media. And he emphasised that soon, all forms of media—radio, print and tv—would be on one platform, so that staff would need to become skilled in all forms. He spent more time on talking about a media business’ need to build a large, loyal audience, than about issues of content.


Andy Johnson: GISL CEO

Veteran journalist, former TV6 Morning Edition host, former Guardian newspaper editor and current CEO of the Government Information Services Limited, Andy Johnson started by mentioning some of the many committees he was now part of in his current role. He is a member of the government-appointed task force on Ebola; he sits in on the meetings of the committee to seek reparations for African slavery and indigenous genocide; and back in 2011 he had to coordinate diverse information as part of the State of Emergency. He said competing demands on time and mind were a tough, stressful reality of media work, especially at senior levels.

“In 2010, when I took this job, some called me a dog and a traitor...” he said, still smarting from what he saw as very unfair criticism about personal career decisions. He noted that in the US, it was well known that senior journalists might transition to State work. He observed that while local journalists were sometimes (unfairly) criticised for doing State work, they were never criticised for leaving mass media to work in the private sector (at banks or energy companies or other private firms, for instance): a clear double standard.

Johnson recalled his very first payday was as a reporter in October 1972 for an publication by the United National Independence Party run by university academic Dr James Millette. He cited the long history of communication between UWI and local journalism, recalling how Dennis Pantin would help him as a journalist explain complex economic topics to a general audience.

He advised students: “You have to start by knowing your country. Know the place; know the names,” he said.

“You have to be tech savvy,” he next stressed, mentioning the need to be familiar with laptops, different software and social media to survive in today’s media landscape.

But nothing could replace intelligent curiosity married to good reading skills, he said. 

Identifying himself as a “newspaperman” first and foremost, Johnson urged students serious about journalism to, above all, “have a love affair with books and reading”— because it was only through broadening/deepening one's interests and awareness that one can develop an understanding of issues and people that influence or shape news.

He said for any good newspaper worker, preparation was the key

“Come at an issue with as much information as you can. You have to be able to ask difficult questions. You have to be able to challenge authority... Be prepared to make people angry, but ensure your information is correct... You must be able to check all the facts. Every single thing you write, either you or, someone else, must check it,” he said.

Among his mentors, he said, was Peter Jennings (1938-2005), an ABC news anchor who was praised by Bill Clinton for his “dogged determination, curiosity and hard work.” Jennings covered many world events, including the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Middle East issues, the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Johnson noted that Jennings was an autodidact: “He read any and everything he could get his hands on.”

Johnson also praised Harrison Salisbury (1908-1993), an eminent journalist who spent 20 years with the United Press and was their foreign editor for the last two years of World War II. Salisbury was also the New York Times Moscow bureau chief from 1949-1954, and won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1955. In the 1960s, he covered the civil rights movement. He was among the earliest journalists to oppose the Vietnam War.

To the blank looks of the UWI students who seem to have never heard of such people, Johnson said: “History is a vital part of understanding your world, and a requirement in media.”

“None of us is perfect, but there are role models. We can learn something from nearly everybody,” he said.


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