By Enoch Sithole: Founder and coordinator of Yaounde-based SisterSpeak237, Comfort Mussa (CM), has turned her passion for telling underreported stories into journalism training, helping journalists to acquire entrepreneurial skills so as to create their own employment in the news business.
Mussa started off in 2014 as a blogger under the auspices of SisterSpeak237, an NGO specialising in telling underreported stories. Ajenda reached out to her to learn more about the training she affords journalists.
Ajenda: We have gathered that you train journalism entrepreneurship, can you tell us more?
CM: I started off in 2014 with a blog, which I created to report on underreported stories. Later on, it grew into a local organisation where we train people on how to identify and tell some of these stories that are missing from the mainstream media. Part of that training is what we do on different thematic subjects and specialised reporting. As an individual, I am currently doing a mentorship programme for young journalists. The entrepreneurship module is part of that.
Ajenda: How do you recruit trainees for your courses or how do they find you?
CM: Usually, we write to editors and media owners and inform them of the different (training) programmes. So, for example, the one that we’re just wrapping up now, is a training programme on reporting on sexual reproductive health rights. We reached out to editors and media owners and we said “can we have a contact of a good reporter on your health help desk?” and they recommended reporters. In other times, we make public calls and say “we are doing this programme, if you are interested, apply”, and then we select.
Ajenda: Why do you need to undertake this training? Are universities not doing a good job?
CM: Universities are doing a good job, but the training (they offer) does not adequately prepare the journalists for the job market. For example, in the mentorship programme that I am currently doing with 18 journalists, most of them, if not all, had not thought about a business plan. So, there are people who leave j-schools and they want to start a newspaper, but don’t know how to go about it. There is one who started an online blog, when I asked most of them to give me their career development plan, most of them said, “oh, I want to start my own news website; I want to start my own media organisation”. And then I asked them “have you thought about the business of it? How will you make money? How will you fund it? How will you run it? How will you sustain it?” And, you know, many people have not thought about these issues. These are not things that are taught in journalism schools.
Well, in Cameroon, I can only speak about my context, we are taught if you want to start a newspaper, these are the documents to compile and this is where you deposit them. We will talk about the law, what the law says about starting a newspaper, but there is no teaching about the business part of it.
We have not taught journalists how to think about what is the business climate they are going out into, you know. I feel we need to fill this gap and it makes sense for me to do it with people who are out of campus.
Ajenda: How is the training funded?
CM: Speaksisters237 is funded by different partners. For example, the sexual reproductive health training programme, which we are doing now, was funded by the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives. When we did the hostile environment training for female journalists in conflict zones, for example, it was funded by the Urgent Action Fund (Africa). So, different organisations fund different programmes, but to keep it running, we work as volunteers.
Ajenda: Are there any success stories with regards to entrepreneurship journalism you can cite?
CM: We had a training (programme), I think two or three years back, on environment reporting and we complemented with how to freelance. The title of that module was not entrepreneurship, but we had a whole session and models and resource persons on how to survive as a freelance journalist, because we discovered that many of the journalists working in this traditional media were going for months without salaries. Some of them were getting very little pay for their stories. And so, we had to bring in experts who are freelancers to share their experiences and train them on how to find media houses that could be interested in their stories. We talked about if you want to work with an international media organ, you need to know how to prepare a proforma; how to do a pitch for a story; how to set up a bank account; how to negotiate for salaries, and we have had good success with that because there are some women who attended the training and they are now doing freelance (journalism), working for their local media organs, but also selling their stories abroad. That, for me, was a very powerful one. We keep bringing in a lot of training on teaching and freelancing, because that’s a lucrative way for local journalists to make money.
Ajenda: your name, Sisterspeak237, talks of ‘sisters’, are you training ladies only?
CM: We have a bias towards training ladies. Most of the training sessions will have more ladies than men. But we do train men also, because we don’t want to dig a pit here and create a mountain there. If there is a newsroom and you train all the ladies on disability sensitive reporting, their male colleagues will still do it (report incorrectly about disability), anyway. So, we have a focus on women because of where they are in the newsrooms. Women are not very well represented in leadership (positions) in newsrooms and news organisations in Cameroon.
Ajenda: What sort of time period do your courses take?
CM: It varies. The sexual reproductive health programme took three days. We later had three months post-training, following them up to see how they are doing.
Sometimes, we commission stories to see if they have grasped what we have taught them. For example, where we did the training on reproductive health reporting, we had the funds to commission stories. We did a follow-up, mentoring them through that because adults learn by doing. If you only give workshops where you tell them “this is the right way to do it” and there is no practical stage, we don’t think that’s effective. So, sometimes it may take months or a week or four days, but the length of the training programmes would depend on availability of funding for mentorship and support.
Ajenda: Do you work with any journalism schools in the country?
CM: Well, I would just again specify that we are not training journalism students. We are training mostly people who are out of school. Occasionally, we may have an invitation to go to campus to give a talk about something. For example, there is a university in my city that has invited me to go and talk to the students about reporting on sex and sexual reproductive health rights. So, when we get an invitation, we go to the campuses.