People are fascinating. You encounter those who have no problem opening themselves up to you upon your first meeting, and others who let you find out about them slowly over time. This past weekend I met the former. I met a gossip journalist from a very popular tabloid who told me how and why he does the job that he does. Gossip journalism in South Africa is something that has always had a bad reputation, but a reputation that has allowed many journalists to live quite happily and most importantly, comfortably. This young journalist, in his early 20’s, is considered to be at the top of his game. He is highly sought after by some of the country’s biggest newspapers and continuously produces front page “scandal” pieces. As I chat to him, I keep telling him how absorbing his life is. He begins to open up about how he goes about doing his job. He says right of the bat that he has never written anything false or fabricated. All his stories are well researched, and should he ever be dragged to court by any of his targets (mostly South African celebrities and sports stars) he has all his bases covered. He befriends a lot of the people he eventually stabs in the back. People trust him at the beginning, they open up to him and consider him a friend, he gets his story and moves on.
He often says that he lies awake at night thinking about the lives he has ruined or is about to ruin, and sometimes feels guilty about it, but at the end of the day newspapers need to be sold, and targets met (pun intended). He loves the infamy. He loves that people talk about him and have an opinion about the kind of person that he is. He has even used friends and family to get stories. I ask him if he thinks he is a nice person. He says he is. The small circle of friends who he hasn’t betrayed love him. His mom is proud of the work he does and scolds him should his story not make the front page. He says as long as his mom is proud of him, he will continue to do it. We continue to talk and drink wine and I begin to understand why people find it easy to open up to him and tell him things, even though they’re fully aware of the line of work he’s in. He says he gets invited to the country’s biggest events and that is where he primarily gets his stories. “When there is liquor around, people will tell you anything,” he says. People in the industry call his kind “vampire journalists,” a title this young man has no problem with. “At the end of the day, if the newspaper sales are good, I sleep well at night. This job has given me a good life. I enjoy it.”
One of the main things he is concerned about is his safety. He says he goes to events and often runs into people he has written about. Most of them want to physically harm him, and he has to leave the event to keep the peace. He says he does try to apologise to them, but the “sorry for ruining your life and career” apology often falls on deaf ears. This is a man who is immensely proud of himself and what he has achieved. He says he doesn’t want to be a gossip journalist forever but does want the work he has done to give him “legend status.” “People don’t like you,” I say. “It’s fine, as long as they talk about me and my stories,” he replies. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, but does want to be well-known for the work he has done. He adds that he has gained a lot of respect from colleagues in the newsroom because he is almost always the first to break a story and because he is able to do this consistently, many are in awe of him.
“I love alcohol, I love partying and I love talking to people,” he says, “and I have managed to find a job that has allowed me to do the things I love daily.”