06/12/2017 16:31 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 16:31 GMT

How Independent Journalists In Africa Are Flourishing

It's almost indisputable that a free, independent and professional media plays a crucial role in democratic societies.  The media holds governments accountable to the electorate as well as investigating important issues, fostering active debate and enabling people to express different points of view.  Democracy is strengthened when the media draws attention to issues of corruption or injustice or educates the public about issues that will affect their lives such as health, education or human rights.  

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The space for independent media is shrinking in many countries across the globe. With the rise of internet use, many are no longer willing to pay for access to news content, resulting in the media becoming dominated by commercial interests, advertising and public relations.  

This poses a threat for less profitable endeavours such as investigative journalism and social justice reporting.  Those offline can also struggle to access critical information that could enable them to make more informed decisions.

In many countries news also remains under the watchful eye of authorities.  Internet freedom has been progressively shrinking over the last six years, with more governments targeting social media to restrict the dissemination of information around elections or when anti-government protests are taking place. During the same period, there’s been a proliferation of fake news, bias, propaganda and hate crimes.  Combined, this has increased mistrust in the mainstream media.

In a crowded space, there’s a risk that the plight of marginalised communities will be ignored and that issues relating to social justice, transparency and accountability will be drowned out by more sensationalist rhetoric and commercially viable entertainment.  

Thankfully, organisations are working hard to ensure that critical information reaches the most marginalised in society, that their voices are amplified, corruption is uncovered and a more just society is promoted.   

At Indigo Trust, we’ve been fortunate enough to support some of these groups in sub-Saharan Africa.  We spoke to them to better understand their approaches.  

Getting the Right Content to the Right Places

For those offline, community radio remains a potent medium.  Media Matters for Women has explored how information can be spread through Bluetooth networks and telecentres.  During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, they rapidly disseminated life-saving information through these channels.  They’ve also partnered with VOTO Mobile to provide free voice messages to callers in their local languages.  

Video, photographs and audio content can also maximise engagement.  Messaging Apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat are growing in importance, though technically it’s harder to distribute at scale via these platforms and monitor their reach.

Independent news agencies like GroundUp, in South Africa recognise that they can’t cover everything everywhere.  Rather, they focus on telling real life stories which highlight a bigger social issue.  

Establishing Strong Partnerships

Social justice organisations hold plenty of newsworthy content.  The trick is supporting them to identify stories that are timely and relevant.  Sarah Hartley of Dim Sum Digital highlighted how tapping into real-time conversations on social media can support this.

It takes time to build relationships with newsrooms.  Journalists are often time pressured so offering them content that can easily be turned into a story, ideally with accompanying images, infographics, audio or video footage can really help. 

For smaller news agencies like GroundUp and Health-e news, republication in mainstream publications with wider readerships, like News24 is critical.  It’s useful for organisations to identify something unique that they can provide for these outlets.  Children’s Radio Foundation have been approached by the international media as a gateway to young people’s experiences.  

Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Data Journalism

Raymond Joseph, a media consultant reminded us of the power of data-driven storytelling.  People can be put off by data, but the stories it can reveal are fascinating.  Civil society often holds treasure chests of data that can provide insight into issues like housing, education and health without even realising it.  

Adi Eyal of OpenUp would love to see data journalists being embedded within civil society organisations so that they can understand the impact of the data they hold and expose it.  We need to think beyond spreadsheets and integrate data use into current work streams.  As an example, Wazimap, which provides detailed demographic data on particular regions can help people to better understand service delivery issues and their relationship to issues like poverty.  

Measuring Impact

It's hard to measure impact in the journalism space.  Groups like Africa's Voices are exploring how content can drive social change while freely available platforms like Google Analytics help organisations track republication.  Children's Radio Foundation has tracked engagement through social media, SMS, call ins and What's App groups.  This helps them identify key themes being explored by listeners.

It's also worth reflecting on the impact of stories qualitatively.  For example, after GroundUp published several stories about broken street lights in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, the City eventually resolved the problem.  Meanwhile, Media Matters for Women measures audience appreciation by interviewing citizens, officials and community leaders to understand how their programming has benefited them.  

Generating Revenues

It's hard to finance social justice news solely commercially, particularly without losing integrity.  Our grantees believe there's a need for philanthropic organisations to step in.  

Some revenue can be generated through advertising, sponsorship and value add services such as training or distributing critical information to hard to reach communities in partnership with NGOs, businesses or government. 

Organisations like Hillside Digital have found it easier to secure funding for a story series or through building a customised tool for mobiles.  

It remains a challenge to ensure that social justice issues remain at the forefront in the media, with obstacles like sustainable revenue models, accessing marginalised communities and human capacity still tangible obstructions.  Nonetheless, it's promising to see groups across Africa beginning to address these challenges head on.  They continue to work tirelessly towards creating a more just society.

Special thanks to: Sharon Bylenga (Media Matters for Women), Adi Eyal (OpenUp), Nathan Geffen (GroundUp), Sarah Hartley (Dimsum Digital), Raymond Joseph (consultant on GroundSource), Danny Lurie (Hillside Digital), Ephraim Mashishi (Siyakhona Multimedia Cooperative), Michal Rahfadlt (Children's Radio Foundation) and Gavin Weale (Livity Africa) for sharing their insights with us.