Gillian Jones via WCJ. 

By Kemiso Wessie

Born and bred in Johannesburg, Gillian Jones brings over two decades of experience in journalism to her role as a financial journalism lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism. 

Her academic journey spans various institutions including the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg), Novia One Business School, Henley Business School and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and its business school. Acknowledging the academic experience as different from the lived experience of newsroom journalism, she says “The academic side enhanced my understanding [and gave] me a different perspective on how to look at journalism.”

With a background in economics and a knack for storytelling, Jones found herself unexpectedly drawn to financial journalism guided by her father’s enthusiasm for investing and her undergraduate studies in economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. However, it was her time as news editor at the South African Press Association, where she eventually became the economics and finance editor, that nudged her into the world of finance journalism by assigning her to business stories, “I just sort of fell into it,” she concludes. 

Jones went on to become the financial services editor for all of BDFM Publishers’ platforms such as Business Day, and Financial Mail focusing mainly on banking, insurance and asset management. She transitioned to a corporate job at one of South Africa’s largest asset managers where she spent four years as head of communications. However, she began feeling at odds with the culture, “I just felt so constrained by it that I wanted to do my own thing,” she adds. 

Jones journeyed into entrepreneurship in 2019 by taking over Story Studio Communications, a communications agency specialising in financial services started by her husband in 2014. This move allowed her to escape the constraints of corporate culture and delve into her passion for storytelling in the financial realm. “I really wanted to be my own boss, and there was also a need for [a] more specialist financial services communication work,” says Jones.

Drawing from her extensive background in financial journalism, Gillian highlights several critical aspects of communicating financial information. “Firstly, journalists just mustn’t be scared of numbers,” she exclaims. Jones says this fear often stops them from asking questions to find stories within financial data because they think they’ll look stupid when they don’t understand, however, she says this is when the questions should be asked. 

Secondly, she emphasises the use of numbers to illustrate and explain a story, “It’s not just about listing a whole bunch of numbers, [you] actually need to take those numbers, understand what they’re telling you,” she advises. “There’s a lot of complexity in finance and as and as a communicator your challenge is to find ways to make the complex understandable to your audience,” Jones adds. 

From her perspective, the field of journalism faces two significant challenges: the struggle to establish a sustainable business model and the impending impact of artificial intelligence on the industry’s dynamics, she exclaims “It’s something we’re going to have to try and get our heads around, I think it could fundamentally change newsrooms as we know them now.”

Jones says academia can address these challenges effectively by trying to understand them through in-depth research which wouldn’t necessarily solve the business model problem, but could propose and explore ideas based on the existing theories and develop new theories. “It’s important that academics are looking at these problems trying to find theoretical solutions. It’s not necessarily a practical solution, but perhaps [it could be,” she says optimistically.

Currently completing her PhD, Jones aims to explore the role of financial journalists as watchdogs in a rapidly changing business environment. Her research seeks to address the challenges faced by financial journalism in staying relevant and equipped to cover evolving contexts. With a particular focus on South Africa, she’ll delve into whether financial journalists in the region possess the capability to fulfil their watchdog role amidst the swiftly shifting business environment. This environment is characterised by rapid changes in the financial landscape and the disruptive influence of artificial intelligence. Such complexities pose significant hurdles for financial journalists, who may find themselves inadequately equipped to navigate and report on these developments. 

To stay updated on industry trends and best practices within financial communications, she reads financial media outlets like Business Day, Financial Mail, Financial Times, and The Economist, “Being well informed is as critical as being able to communicate about it,” she concludes. 

Obtaining her PhD is something she has always wanted to do since she graduated cum laude with her master’s in journalism at the University of Witwatersrand. Her thesis dealt with how the media reports on the asset management industry. As a faculty member at Wits for more than a year, which Jones says is “the perfect environment for doing a PhD,” access to the right people, materials and a conducive environment for new ways of thinking has made it the right time for her to pursue her doctorate.

In her role as a lecturer, Gillian adopts a combination of teaching methods, including guest lectures from industry experts from institutions like the South African Reserve Bank and writing workshops focused on translating financial understanding into compelling stories. Additionally, students deep dive into different financial aspects like company results to give them the confidence to understand the various documents and financial instruments. 

Gillian is involved in a financial journalism fellowship programme with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and funded by Deloitte, one of Africa’s leading professional services firms, to upskill working journalists in financial reporting. The programme has just finished with the first cohort of students. “It just showed us that there is such a thirst for knowledge on how to be a financial journalist,” she adds. 

While not all aspire to become financial journalists, acquiring a grasp of financial concepts can significantly augment their capabilities across various fields. This enthusiasm underscores the importance of offering learning opportunities for up skilling and continuous education. Jones is excited to kick off the second cohort of the programme in July where they’ll implement changes gained from the pilot project. She shares their plans to introduce short courses tailored to the needs and availability of financial journalists.

Jones advises aspiring professionals to always be curious and ask questions. “The best thing to do is understand that you are asking questions on behalf of the general public. It is your role to be nosey, be curious. [and] never be intimidated,” says the journalist. “The best journalists are the ones who ask the most questions and have really inquiring minds,” Jones adds. 

While primarily focused on progressing her PhD research this year, Jones enjoys canoeing for fitness and stress relief and indulges her creative side through garden landscape design, “If I’m outside, I’m happy,” she exclaims.