Award-winning journalist Carryn-Ann Nel has overcome many obstacles in her long career, but the most difficult challenge she set for herself was to obtain a master's degree in journalism. Her graduation from Stellenbosch University (SU) on 11 December was a jubilant occasion.
Nel describes the graduation ceremony as one of the greatest and most enjoyable moments of her life. “Those few seconds where you walk across the stage and everything just goes silent... I realised the two years of research and writing my thesis was all worth it. I am grateful and extremely proud."
After the graduation ceremony, she went out to dinner with her family. “We celebrated my master's degree with tears, bubbles and beautiful speeches," says Nel. Congratulations poured in from hundreds of colleagues, family and friends on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).
Nel has been a keen writer since childhood when she started keeping a diary at the age of ten, something she still does faithfully. Her Afrikaans teacher at high school, Rika du Plessis, encouraged her to channel her natural flair for writing into journalism. In her typical unabashed way, Nel confesses that in her early youth there was an ulterior motive for wanting to become a journalist - she loved cricket and desperately wanted to meet her hero Herschelle Gibbs.
“So, I was thinking of how I could meet him. Through journalism of course! And I did eventually meet him – the day he appeared in court for drunk driving – but that's a story for another day! I never became a cricket writer because I fell in love with news."
Nel, who lectured journalism at SU in 2019 when she occupied the prestigious Rykie van Reenen chair, has been a journalist for 18 years. She earned her stripes at Die Burger and made a name for herself at Rapport and Beeld. Later she switched to the digital news platform Netwerk24 and these days she works as a content producer at Media24's TV production house, Pop24.
There are too many career highlights to mention, says Nel, but she singles out the day when she was in the same room as former president Nelson Mandela. “Even though I didn't meet him in person, our eyes locked. That was a huge moment for me, as I was a junior journalist at the time. Other highlights were my days as an education reporter in Johannesburg during the #FeesMustFall protests. I felt that I was part of an important chapter in the history of our country. On a more personal level, another highlight was when I was named best columnist at Media24 in 2013 for columns I wrote for the youth market. I didn't expect it at all, it was wonderful to be recognised."
For her master's degree under the guidance of Prof Lizette Rabe, Nel investigated paywalls and subscription models and the impact they have on the media landscape. During the time she worked at Netwerk24, her curiosity was piqued as to whether South Africans had already made the mind-shift to pay for news. She also wanted to determine to what extent paywalls contribute to the sustainability of journalism in a competitive advertising market.
“My conclusion was that readers who can afford it should pay for news, otherwise quality journalism will suffer, especially in a market with news that is not verified and fake news that causes us daily headaches. I think my research contributes to the question of the sustainability and future of journalism. Are paywalls part of the solution to making good journalism sustainable and ensuring that newsrooms can function? I think so."
When asked how she coped with the stress of working and studying simultaneously, Nel's wit shines through once more. “My first answer is a lot of wine!" But on a more serious note, she mentions that she gave up alcohol in the home stretch of her thesis. She focused solely on her studies, and it was worth the sacrifice.
“It was definitely the most difficult two years of my life. I think what worked for me was that I planned my week thoroughly and tried to get enough balance. I also wanted to enjoy my student years and not feel like I was switching off and not seeing my family and friends. My parents' names, Vivier and Lorraine, should be on the degree certificate alongside mine because they were the people who got me through. Juggling work and studies wasn't always easy, but I didn't want one to suffer due to the other. I just had to make time to give my best to both. It was important for me not to 'lose' myself, but to still find a healthy balance between work, studies, and my personal life."
Nel started her master's studies while Covid measures were still in place, and she attended most of her classes online. “Prof Rabe and I stayed in touch regularly via e-mail and WhatsApp calls. She kept me on my toes and motivated me to never give up. She constantly reminded me of one of Madiba's most famous quotes: 'It always seems impossible until it's done.' I think that will stay with me forever."
Social media star
Nel describes herself as a “go-getter" and someone who always persists and always wants to know “why". About her large following on social media, where she candidly shares titbits about things like matters of the heart and body positivity, she says it's important not to take yourself too seriously.
“I think balance is always the answer. I have held fairly senior positions in my career, yet I feel I should never take myself too seriously or be a know-it-all. I remain a human being with faults, and I still learn about the world every day, but I am also a human being with a responsibility to use my platform for the good. I also think the feedback I get from social media users makes me feel like I'm initiating important conversations."
The popular journalist is also philosophical about the future. “I believe one should master as many fields as possible in the industry. You should never stop learning otherwise you'll stagnate. That's how you can enable yourself to step into any role, precisely because you never know in which direction the industry will move next. You have to keep up or you're going to fall behind. It's so exciting to know that you are empowering yourself all the time! I'm excited about the future because I think it forces us to think more innovatively and creatively about how we're going to tell stories."
PHOTO: Stefan Els