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Sanford School Program Sparks Conference In South Africa

June 12, 2015

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  • Joburg with sun behind the buildings

    The conference will be held June 12-13, 2015

    (Image courtesy MMX)

This article highlights a conference for African journalists—the Menell Media Exchange. The MMX conference welcomes more than 400 delegates to a two-day program in Johannesburg this weekend. (Follow the live feed of the conference here.) The event  offers practical ways for journalists to improve their work, and advocate for press freedoms in South Africa and across the continent.

The MMX conference actually has roots in Durham, North Carolina. It's a spin-off of Sanford School of Public Policy’s Media Fellows Program, which invites journalists from around the world to Duke’s campus for a period of study and interaction with international peers. Alumni of the program began to gather regularly, and soon these gatherings became a conference which provides opportunity for interaction and exchange among journalists.

MMX is supported by Mary Menell Zeints and her husband, Jeff Zeints, a Duke alumnus. This article originally appeared on For more information about The MMX or The Media Fellows Program, please contact the program’s director, Laurie Bley.

By Tanya Pampalone

It wasn’t long after mining executive Clive Menell died that his family decided to honor him in a way befitting the man.

His daughter, Mary Menell Zients, remembers how, in the sixties and seventies, her parents’ home in Parktown North was a gathering place for people around the country from different political, socio-economic and racial backgrounds. They were there to discuss, among other things in the South African zeitgeist, how to alleviate the worst effects of apartheid, and to figure out avenues toward a new, democratic country.

At the centre of those conversations, recalls Menell Zients, were the journalists.

“Profound belief in the essential value of a free and vibrant media”

“My father often expressed his profound belief in the essential value of a free and vibrant media, along with his admiration for those who devoted themselves to gathering facts and shining a light on our most pressing challenges,” Menell Zients told a gathering of journalists last year in Johannesburg.

The gathering was the Menell Media Xchange (MMX) at The Campus in Bryanston – the third of its type – the spin-off of a project that began 16 years ago at Duke University in North Carolina.

That was where Menell Zients’s husband, Jeff, was an alumnus. The family was looking at projects at the university with synergies with South Africa, which was just a few early years into democracy.

They were impressed with the journalism programme at the Sanford School of Public Policy – especially their international media fellowship, which brought working journalists to Duke for a short sabbatical to share knowledge and experience with their peers from around the world. The family decided to marry the two – a South African democracy project and the fostering and support of local journalists – with the full support of Menell Zients’s mother, Irene Menell. And the Menell Media Fellowship was born.

The Menell Fellowship

Run under the direction of Laurie Bley, the director of the international media fellowship, the Menell-funded programme allows South African journalists a month-long study at the university. Fellows convene with their international peers and visit with some of the top international media houses in New York City and Washington DC – stopping over with editors and reporters at publications such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, National Public Radio, Al Jeezera, as well as government entities like The Pentagon and NGO’s such as the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Since its inception, the Menell fellowship has seen more than 50 journalists from South Africa complete the program.

It was just a few years ago, that Menell Zients and Bley decided to take the programme to another level.

“The fellowship is great opportunity for individual people to come have a significant personal experience, but in every project you have to build something,” says Bley from her office in Durham, North Carolina. “Mary asked: ‘What could we do to mobilise the alumni group that would generate something lasting on the ground in South Africa?’ So we started this project, focusing around an annual event, to try and create an inclusive journalism community that would be able to provide resources and build capacity on the ground.”

It started out as a gathering of Menell Fellows alumni but slowly began to transform into a conference connecting the broader media community.  The goal is to provide resources,  support and create networking opportunities. The project aims to reinforce the practice of journalism as well as advocate on a policy level for press freedoms.

Over the last three years the conference has grown substantially. In 2012, 100 journalists met for one day at the University of Cape Town’s business school, where the focus was firmly on the looming Protection of State Information bill (dubbed the Secrecy bill) and concerns of political manipulation at the SABC. Former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, James Joseph.

In 2013, the conference moved to Johannesburg and Josh Rushing – a former US army captain who became a correspondent with Al Jeezera – kicked off discussions around the challenging topic of government and media relations.

2015 Focus: Journalism Next: Innovation, Brand and Sustainability

By 2014, MMX had ballooned to more than 300 attendees and included a full day of workshops in addition to the main stage programme.

Bill Adair, the Pulitzer Prize winning founder of Politifact, was the keynote for the 2014 conference, which looked at issues of disruption in the rapidly changing media environment.

Bley’s aim for this year 2015 is to reach as many journalists and media people as possible to bring them into the conversation.

“We want our event to be a platform that brings people together, to share ideas and inspiration. So we want to welcome the whole spectrum of the media community: more educators and students, more researchers, community journalists, more people who work on media freedom issues, those in the non-profit sector, bloggers, tech developers, working journalists, editors and media managers.”

This year’s theme is Journalism Next: Innovation, Brand and Sustainability, and at its heart is how journalists – from top editors to the reporters on the ground – can ensure survival in a constantly shifting and economically pressurised industry.

The keynote speaker for MMX 2015 – to be held on June 12 and 13 at The Maslow hotel in Sandton – is Andrew Phelps, one of the writers of the New York Times Innovation Report.

The programme will again include a day of workshops ranging from how to use free digital tools to boost story telling to how to brand yourself and sell your stories. Panels and presentations from the country’s leading editors and media educators and commentators will hone in on the challenges and solutions around sustainability, the latest innovations in story-telling as well as a hard look at how we covered the biggest stories of the year from Nkandla to Eskom.

Celebrating African journalists

And to stand as a stark reminder of the sometimes ultimate consequences journalists pay for their job, which underscores the necessity of media strength and sustainability, the conference will pay homage to those African journalists jailed or killed, including Bheki Makhubu, who has been imprisoned since April 2013 in Swaziland, and South African freelance photographer Michael Tshele, who was shot dead in January 2014 while photographing a community protest near the town of Britz in the North West.

Says Bley: “Ultimately, what I’d like is for those attending to go beyond feeling inspired for a day only to go home and put it away until next year. I want to see us generate ongoing projects that sustain the energy of our main event.”

Plans are in the works for a mentor programme as well as a student newsroom which offers students a chance to work with journalism trainers and practitioners in a year-long project, including a boot camp training programme that culminates in a multi-media newsroom at the MMX event where fellows can help produce content that will become part of a professional portfolio.

Tanya Pampalone, the editorial director of the Menell Media Xchange 2015, is an alumnus of the Menell Media Fellowship at Duke University and head of strategic partnerships and special projects at The Conversation Africa.