Freelance Journalist

February 15, 2024 (Updated )

From cutting his teeth in South Africa to searching for stories in Scotland, Lukanyo Mnyanda has always been curious. Returning to Edinburgh after a four-year stint in Johannesburg as the editor of Business Day, Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation meant he had little time to settle in as the Financial Times’ Scotland correspondent. Now, the self-described “news-obsessive” is diving into a new gig as the paper’s energy correspondent. 

We caught up with Lukanyo in 2023 at the Student Publication Association’s National Conference, during his time as Scotland correspondent, to find out more about a day in the life of a national newspaper correspondent and what made him set down his editing gloves to return to reporting.

What’s a typical morning like for you?

In terms of the day-to-day, after Covid The Financial Times no longer has offices [in Edinburgh], so the routine of going to the office is gone. I get up, do some reading, and try to catch up on what’s been happening in the world, then take the kids to school. I also try to make sure I’m on top of local news. I send an email to my desk in London, letting them know what I’m going to be doing for today, and try to fill my day with meetings — spending as much of it as possible outside of the house.

There isn’t really such a thing as a typical morning— the days are totally unpredictable. One of the nice things about our job is that we never know what the next day is going to be. For example, I could never have predicted that the First Minister was going to resign and that half an hour later I was going to be at her official residence, listening to her farewell press conference.

The [time since] has certainly been different. Scotland has been in the midst of this huge political story, so there hasn’t been a shortage of things to do. I haven’t had to plan, the news has just happened and I’ve followed it.

Journo Resources
"Someone starting in journalism now will face more challenges than I did [such as] the decline in the economic fortunes of the industry. It affects inclusion; if people can’t get basic financial support starting out in the profession, then it means that only the wealthiest will be able to join."
Lukanyo Mnyanda, correspondent for the Financial Times

What did you want to be growing up, was the plan always journalism?

We’re all influenced by our parents and I come from a family of teachers. Out of me, my parents, and grandparents, I’m the only one who isn’t a teacher. I thought that’s what I’d end up doing when I was a kid because it’s all I knew.

I came into journalism by chance. I got into Rhodes University, which happened to have South Africa’s best journalism course and started studying it there. I’m not sure at what point I decided to become a journalist, because I was studying quite a broad degree, meaning I always had other options.

Why do you think you got The Financial Times job?

Even though Scotland is part of the UK, covering it is almost a foreign correspondent job, looking at Scotland with an outside eye for an audience that isn’t particularly local. As an outsider, I can imagine what a person who lives in Johannesburg or Hong Kong will want to learn about Scotland. I’m often not writing for people from Glasgow, who already know the place really well.

I’d also worked in Scotland before, at Bloomberg’s Edinburgh offices for seven years. So, whilst I don’t know what made the editors of The Financial Times give me the job, I can imagine them looking at my experience and background and seeing an interesting combination of local and foreign. Somebody who knows Scotland but also knows it from an outsider’s perspective and can use that to serve the right audience.

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What’s a typical day like for you?

It’s fairly fluid. We follow the news, and news is dynamic. News doesn’t follow my diary. So, there isn’t really such a thing as a typical day, they are totally unpredictable. One of the nice things about our job is that we never know what the next day is going to be. When you have a specific beat, for example, when I used to cover the financial markets, your job is to cover whatever happens on the beat, so I’d spend my days following the strength of the pound and meeting with analysts.

However, when you’re a foreign correspondent, your brief is so much wider and less defined. You don’t always know what you’re going to do tomorrow or the next week. Although you do have stories that stick in your head, those that you plan in advance. For example, you might want to do an investigation piece and those can be worked on over days, weeks, or a year.

What are you most proud of in your role as Scotland correspondent?

The [resignation of Nicola Sturgeon is] going to be hard to top. Taking this sort of job, you expect to be able to spend a couple of years getting to know the place, building contact lists and settling in. I knew Sturgeon was always going to leave someday, and that there would be a transition at the top of the SNP, but I didn’t think the story would come this soon. Maybe sometime after the election in 2024, possibly 2026.

I joined in the middle of 2022, so I thought I had a couple of years at least, but then it all happened within the first seven to eight months. It has been quite scary, quite daunting. In some ways, I felt like I hadn’t been here long enough, or that I didn’t have enough contacts, but I think I’ve been able to pull it off. I’m proud I was able to cover such a big story.

Former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned in 2023. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

If you were starting again in journalism, would you do anything differently?

Some people have everything planned out in life, and I’d like to think of myself as a much more spontaneous person — even the choice of career came about by chance. Maybe I’d be more structured if I started again.

Although the world would be different now. When I started in journalism it was still the traditional path, where you joined and learned how to tell and write stories — the internet changed that but didn’t come about until I was at university. I’d also be quicker at adapting to the digital side of the job if I began again.

Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?

You have to be curious about the world, and never lose that sense. Journalism is an opportunity to learn about the world. That’s what I love about my beat, covering the whole of Scotland; one day you can cover the NHS and a few days later you’ll be asked to write about the climate crisis. You’re not a specialist in any of these things, but you get an opportunity to learn. That’s the biggest gift I’ve received from the job.

So, the biggest things are having a curious mind and having that eagerness to learn. You almost have to be obsessive — I don’t know if that’s advice or not, but possibly more just the description of the personality you need to do the job.

Someone starting in journalism now will face more challenges than I did. I think I was part of that lucky generation when the media was still quite strong and journalism was, if not well-paid, a secure job. You still had pensions, paid holidays, and all these things that I’m not sure somebody coming out of university and into journalism now would get. That is the one downside, the decline in the economic fortunes of the industry. Also, it affects inclusion; if people can’t get basic financial support starting out in the profession, then it means that only the wealthiest will be able to join, meaning people from lower socio-economic backgrounds will be left behind.

Journo Resources
"You have to be curious about the world, and never lose that sense. Journalism is an opportunity to learn about the world, that’s the biggest gift I’ve received from the job."
Lukanyo Mnyanda, correspondent for The Financial Times

What would you change in journalism?

The British press strikes me as quite polarised. You open a newspaper and know exactly what the editorial stance is going to be before you’ve even read it. It’s almost like newspapers have become extensions of political parties.

I mean, people attack the BBC for attempting impartiality — which can lead to views that are simply untrue being given the same weight as facts — but then you have newspapers on the other side who are pursuing narratives which fit their ideological goals. I’d like to find a balance between the two, where nobody is expected to be 100 per cent impartial. We are humans so that’s an impossible target and there are some issues we can’t be balanced on.

How do you think the ‘culture wars’ rise in opinion-led, often broadcast, journalism has affected the balance?

It’s definitely led to journalism being less impartial. It makes society more like an extension of social media, where people sit in their bubbles all day, watch the station they agree with, and never get exposed to alternative views.

The whole point of journalism is that it’s supposed to be a medium that opens people’s minds and debates issues. Instead, it’s creating more polarisation.

Lukanyo's author page on the FT, showing a range of long reads about Scotland, including on rent controls and the Edinburgh Festival
A selection of Lukanyo’s pieces for the FT while in Scotland. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

How can people follow in your footsteps?

When I got my first job, coming from a small town near Port Elizabeth in South Africa, I’d decided I wanted to do journalism and so I literally walked to the local newspaper when I was a student — at eighteen or nineteen years of age — knocked on the door, went straight to the managing editor and said: “I’m on holiday for the next month, I’d like to see what happens in the newsroom”. He was so shocked he gave me a job there and then, and it was my first ever job in journalism.

So, local press was my start. Fortunately, in Britain, local journalism is still fairly robust. So, don’t be shy to knock on doors. It links to inclusion, some people might be lucky and have lots of connections, others might be like me and start out with no connections at all — so you must make them yourself. You have to be willing to go to your local paper and say: “Can I please talk to the editor?”

After extensively working in both countries, what’s the main difference between British and South African journalism?

As I mentioned earlier, I think the British press is more polarised. Individual South African journalists and editors may have opinions, but I can’t think of any newspaper which I can open and immediately link to any political party — although they may have views on broader ideological matters. Whereas many British papers are very distinctively Labour or Conservative.

Although, on the positive side one thing they do have in common — and South Africa may get it from the UK, as it’s the younger nation — is that the press in both countries is free and vibrant. In certain countries, you cannot write certain things unless you want the police to knock on your door, whereas in Britain and South Africa it is, fortunately, independent and very loud.

What do you do to unwind after a long day?

I’m one of those unlucky people who don’t have any hobbies. I just read the news. When I’m done with my own news I just go and read other people’s news. That’s the nice thing about this job, it doesn’t feel like work. I’m being paid to do something that I really enjoy doing.

George Devo
George Devo

George is a freelance journalist and also studies politics at the University of Sheffield. He writes for the student newspaper Forge Press, where his piece on the struggles of student parents earned him a nomination for ‘best feature’ at the Student Publication Association Awards in 2023. He’s a proud Brummie and a long-suffering supporter of Norwich City football club.

Header image courtesy of Lukanyo Mnyanda