In 'No Ordinary Assignment,' journalist Jane Ferguson considers her path
Jane Ferguson's new memoir collects the memories and experiences of one public broadcasting's most intrepid correspondents. Ferguson has covered conflict zones in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for nearly two decades, and her work has made her a trusted, and decorated voice in journalism today. She was in Telluride recently for the Original Thinkers Festival.
Gavin McGough: So you were actually exposed to conflict at a very early age growing up in Ireland. Is that right?
Jane Ferguson: That's right. I grew up in Northern Ireland, essentially the very, very last Protestant village before you get to the heartlands of South Armagh, right along the border with the South, with the Republic of Ireland.
It was a particularly restive, a pretty violent period in Northern Ireland.
We had, of course, the Troubles, where there was the uprising by the IRA against British rule.
Of course, I look back now and I connect the dots.
When you write a memoir and you realize, gosh, you know, I spent most of my life covering insurgencies and really trying to understand what makes people, you know, what makes otherwise relatively ordinary people, bakers and farmers and cab drivers, what makes them commit acts of violence or to take up, you know, arms against a seemingly enormous and immovable foe.
I couldn't understand.
And so looking back, of course, I see myself as this little girl who was growing up on a farm in rural Northern Ireland, and very much so aware that somewhere out there in the mountains, in the fields, in the hills, were these IRA men who were sort of mysterious and yet well known.
Gavin McGough: And how did those initial experiences growing up in the Troubles shape your later pursuits, your work in war zones later in life?
Jane Ferguson: Any event like that, whether it's a war or an uprising or, you know, even just a humanitarian disaster, but conflict in particular, it is experienced on a personal level.
You know, I go to a refugee camp in Lebanon with Syrian refugees there and they don't really talk geopolitics, you know, to a kid or a young person there.
You know, 'Dad is missing, you know, we can't go to school anymore, and we moved here and now we live in a tent.'
This is how war is experienced on a granular level by each individual.
Gavin McGough: And what was it like taking the initial dive into war reporting?
Jane Ferguson: It was hard. You know, I graduated, I didn't plan to go straight to the Middle East.
I mean, I knew I wanted to live and work abroad. I really, really wanted to get out into the world, but I had presumed I'd take a job in London at a broadcaster, and then I'd work my way up and then one day I'd get my first field assignment.
But the financial crisis happened in 2007, 2008, 2009.
I graduated 2007 from college and broadcasters were laying off hundreds of staff, thousands in some cases, the newspapers were folding. radio stations going bust.
It was really impossible to get a job, and so I decided I would go to Yemen to study Arabic.
And I enrolled at a school there.
I was lucky enough, I had a relative, a family friend really, who was an honorary aunt (who) gifted me just enough money so that I could go to Yemen for four months and study.
And I studied Arabic at a school while I really tried to figure out what it was I wanted to do.
And it was really after that, that I decided I was going to have to go freelance, because, you know, none of the networks were hiring and they certainly weren't hiring me at the time.
Gavin McGough: So you've traveled through war zones, and you've already written a memoir at barely the age of 40. What's next? What excites you about journalism today?
Jane Ferguson: At this stage in my career, I'm pivoting into what I hope will be a different form of service.
You know, I've worked in public broadcasting for so long and the greatest years of my career were in public service.
The service I think I can best offer now is to try to build a new solution to what is essentially the collapsing business model of news, certainly of broadcast news.
I really want to roll my sleeves up and get involved.
And so I'm sort of talking to people in tech, trying to see how we can envisage a new business model that, you know, may not involve networks anymore, but certainly keeps journalists working in the field.
Right now I'm teaching at Princeton University, just for the fall semester, as a guest professor, which I love and being around the, you know, young, bright, brilliant, curious minds.
So that's really helping me shape what it is I want to do, just being around them.
Gavin McGough: You know, what does it strike you that young people are thinking about today?
Jane Ferguson: You know, I think they're very focused on finding a way to live their lives that is not as pressured and intense as the generations before them.
I get asked by students now, you know, 'how do you make sure I have a work life balance. How do I take care of myself?'
I came up in my twenties just, you know, working 20 hour days and chain smoking my way around the world and driven by certainly a sense of purpose and passion, but not a lot of sense of self care.
Especially for kids at elite universities, I think they feel as though they're going to, the second college ends, they're going to fall behind.
So I'm trying to get them to relax and feel like they can do meaningful work that is, that they're passionate about.
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