Journalist Lydia Matata On Working At A National Newspaper, The Importance Of Taking Risks And Her Transition Into Film Making

How did you get into Journalism?

“Real’ Journalism began when I was hired by The Star Newspaper. For three years I worked with this amazing team on the online desk and wrote articles for another amazing group of people in the Features department. Prior to The Star, I did some reporting when I was in University but I think the real journey began with books. I’m a book dragon (I refuse to call myself a ‘bookworm’).

The natural progression of that, I think is wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be as good a writer as the one’s I had read. So at first, my goal was to be ‘Lydia, the best-selling novelist.’  Then I realized that before I get that huge book deal, I should probably find a way to feed myself, hence Journalism school.

I joined University in 2009, and I was really active in the Journalism Club. As a result some of my articles were published in the school magazines and we had this great program at school where as a project you could produce your own publication.

In my first year, I produced a magazine focused on college life. I interviewed different students on and off campus for feature articles on their different experiences. Then in my third year I produced a magazine called The Hustle, which focused on young people dealing with the job market and entrepreneurship. All the stories had real people who I had interviewed. I loved it; I loved seeing my byline and I loved talking to all these different people.

I’m an introvert, so Journalism has been the only way I could talk to new people and that process of trying to make the information I gather understandable and palatable to a reader, that will always be one of my favourite things.

What school did you attend and was it difficult for you to find work after school?

I studied at Tangaza College, my major was Print and Online Journalism. I was lucky enough to get a job a few months before I graduated.

What was your experience working in Print?

The first few months were tough, because all things are difficult at the beginning.  For The Star it was my first real job. Meaning it was no longer about writing for the sake of my enjoyment. When you have an employer and bills, you have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it.

A lot of stories got killed during those first days because as much I had studied Journalism and tried to do a lot on my own to get experience, I still had to learn many things from scratch. But when I eventually got my name in print or on the website, I experienced a thrilling experience I like to call the ‘high of the byline’ which basically refers to those heady days in the beginning when you see your name printed on a national newspaper or site. The feeling fades eventually but at that time, it made me feel that finally, this is real, I am a real Journalist.

Having to sit in one space until you produce one or multiple things  within a deadline also gave me the discipline that I rely on today in my self-employed life and of course there were Features. Writing features is factual but it mirrors the creative writing process and styles of fictional writing. There is also leeway to focus on a subject that you want to write about. Unlike news where you write about what happened after or as it happens.

How long did you work in Print and what are your most memorable moments? 

For three years I was employed at The Star Newspaper, and for the past two years I have been an independent Journalist writing for various publications. I have had articles published with the Global Press Journal, JournAfrica, and the Inter Press News Service.

My most memorable moments were winning the Young Journalist of The Year Award by the Media Council of Kenya in 2014 and the Gender Reporting Award the very next year.

My least enjoyable experience was writing news, particularly anything political. I wasn’t writing on anything big mind you, no political scandals. Just who said what at rallies, statements by government agencies. Not only was it repetitive, I don’t think this focus on everything politicians do is beneficial to readers. I hope the Kenyan media will gradually move away from that and focus on real people, what they are doing to make the country better or how political and socio – economic issues play out in the day to day lives of our readers.

Why did you leave Print?

I loved film just as much as writing, particularly documentaries.  I became obsessed with this one feature  that got a bit of buzz after it was published and I kept thinking “Someone should make a documentary about this”  then I realized that that person should be me.

So I took some leave days, some cash out of my savings and a cinematographer friend and I embarked on a crazy journey to make that film independently. This had a mixed bag of results including not so good footage with really bad sound but it was exhilarating and I realized there is another life beyond sitting at a desk for 9 to 10 hours a day. Eventually my film project got me into a documentary mentorship program and a grant.

What challenges have you faced working as a freelance Filmmaker?

All things are difficult in the beginning. This is more true for freelancers than for anyone else. When you are a freelancer there are no set structures for how to work and how you get paid. Things were slow in the beginning, I did not know what I would do with my day or where the money would come from but gradually more opportunities in both film and journalism began to flow in.

It’s really difficult to find regular paying gigs that keep you liquid. This also has an impact on my social life. When I was employed, I could meet someone at an expensive restaurant or coffee shop at the drop of a hat. Now I can’t and for a long time I was embarrassed to let my friends who are still ‘bout that life”know that I am not but I got over it. There are tons of cost effective things to do in Nairobi,  if you are on a budget, including staying home and binging on a good book or series.

Another challenge has been trying to explain to people what I do. Most people do not think I have a real job but I’ve learnt to put those kinds of opinions in an out-tray marked ‘whatever‘.

What projects do you have coming up and where can we see your work?

Life after employment has also given me the opportunity to focus on the kind of journalism I like; featuresI am currently working on a feature documentary , name withheld, for now, which has received quite a bit of support in terms of funding and pitching opportunities both locally and internationally. However, I direct, produce and edit documentary shorts which you can watch on my page – I am also still working as a freelance print journalist.

Knowing what you know now what advice would you give to your younger self about starting a career in Journalism?

I would tell my younger self, not to let fear be my biggest motivator. I still wonder whether I should have taken the first job I was offered. I am forever grateful for the experience because it built me up to what I am today but the truth is I was scared. When you’re faced with the unemployment rates among graduates, you feel compelled to take the first sure thing you see. Fear is also what made me stay in employment long after I wanted to leave. I was afraid I would go broke and my entire life would fall to pieces.

I would also tell my younger self not to give too much credence to what people think because you will work your behind off to build the life they approve of and not the one you want. Lastly  a quote from one of my favourite films, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,  “Everything will be okay in the end, if it is not okay then it is not yet the end.

I would then end by telling my younger self, ‘Future you is doing better than okay, she’s truly happy‘.

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  1. Great piece. Inasmuch as being self employed is fulfilling, the biggest challenge is being disciplined and inconsistent income. That’s if your not already dealing with people asking you when you’ll get a permanent and pensionable job.

  2. Hey James, thanks for your comment. You’re so right. Freelancing is tough in any career field and in this day and age, it’s kind of like the new starter job.

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