Planet Duke: Writing their own stories

The annual Duke Menell Media Exchange helps African journalist share skills.

When Laurie Bley stepped on stage in Johannesburg to welcome attendees to MMX16, the annual Duke Menell Media Exchange, she entered to the strains of “The Room Where It Happens,” the song from the Broadway show Hamilton in which Aaron Burr yearns to go behind closed doors, to enter the chambers of power. Bley explained that, by attending the two-day conference, the nearly 400 African journalism students, working journalists, newsroom managers, journalism educators, bloggers, and nonprofit leaders there had chosen to enter that metaphorical room, and all of them shared that power.

The theme of the conference was “Telling Africa’s Story,” and Bley, the program’s founding director, says she works to keep the focus on helping Africans telling that story. “I’m an outsider. We never want to be bringing experts over,” she says of the program’s focus on providing resources to working journalists. Some in attendance were Menell Media Fellows, South African journalists who come to Duke for a month. With so many journalists returning home with skills and information to share, it’s important that they have a venue like MMX to do just that.

“I’m serving,” Bley says of MMX. “My privilege is that I’ve been given a tray to carry.” It’s the Menell Fellows and other journalists in Africa who decide what they need and what to do, or, as Bley says, “what to serve on it.”

Helping the fellows spread the word is how MMX got started. “It’s just a way to get the community together,” Bley says. Jeff Zients ’88 and his wife, Mary, a native of South Africa, fund both the fellowships and MMX, which are named in honor of Mary’s parents, supporters of freedom of the press and democratic change in South Africa. More than ten years ago, in a conversation with Bley, Mary Zients noted that though she was happy that the individual fellows were having important and worthy experiences, she wanted to see a better way for them to give back, to share what they’d gained at Duke so that all South African, and eventually all African, journalists would benefit. Alumni fellows agreed, so Bley began by organizing fellow reunions.

From those early meetings grew MMX, which this year included panels on the common (one, for example, on editorial independence and censorship), the challenging (“Decolonizing African Data”), and the unexpected (“Digging Deeper: Re-Thinking the Story, Reshaping the Narrative”). “Digging Deeper,” a panel chaired by South African journalist, educator, and MMX editorial director Tanya Pampalone, included a poet, a writer, a journalist, and a comedian. Panelists and attendees came from South Africa and several other African nations, and the program was so popular that it trended on Twitter in South Africa during both days of the conference.

“Our original vision of MMX as a place for Duke Media Fellows and others to share experiences and best practices has grown into a conference that is widely known as one of the few gathering places of media professionals in the region,” says Mary Zients. “We could not be prouder of the effort and the extraordinary results.”

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