14 February 2018

South Africa: Here Are 12 Things We've Learned From Four Years of Donor-Funded Journalism

Work at a non-profit media house? Then you know your job is not just reporting anymore.

Today, Bhekisisa is one of South Africa's largest specialist health reporting units, but that wasn't always the case.

In 2012, the M&G covered few health issues. The stories that did make it into the paper went on to live out their lives buried in the paper's online health section, which garnered less than 3 500 page views a month.

Then everything changed.

In 2013, the M&G launched Bhekisisa with support from the German government. Almost two years later, the backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation allowed us to launch our own website pioneering solutions-based journalism in Africa and expand our team here in Johannesburg and across the continent.

By 2017, we'd grown but so had our stories' reach. Here's what we've learned along the way.

1 / 12 Donor-funded #journalism has helped to increase our online readership 420-fold between 2012 and 2017, says our @miamalan. - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

And the average reader wasn't the only one taking note.

2/ 12 Our stories have had a policy impact, have been quoted by the health minister and parliament and have led to a UN delegation visit. #journalism - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

But it wasn't business as usual in our growing newsroom.

3 / 12 But donor-funded #journalism has also changed our staff's job descriptions. Their work duties are very different from traditional journalists, writes @miamalan - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

It was a whole new world of data - and everyone had to get up to speed fast. In the end, it helped us all develop a shared understanding of what worked, and what didn't.

4 / 12 In addition to reporting, our staff also have to help compile quarterly donor reports, gather extensive metrics data, track who retweets stories for reports. #journalism. - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

Between deadlines, we juggled everything from sending out invites to approving venues and even designing merchandise (more on that soon).

5 / 12 The centre has also had to start with income-generating projects, such as critical thinking forums, and media trainings, which staff spend weeks organising. #journalism. - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

We never knew how good at math we really were.

6 / 12 Donors have different objectives, resulting in staff having to track different metrics, and compile financial reports in different formats and for different periods. #journalism - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

We learned new ways of thinking about our content...

9 / 12 Multimedia stories are the most likely stories to get online users to click on another story, so we'll be doing more short videos and podcasts, says @miamalan. #journalism - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

...and realised we needed positions most of us had never seen in a traditional newsroom.

10 / 12 And we've received funding to appoint an engagement officer and programme associate to lighten our administrative + social media burden. #journalism - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

The data also set some of us free of the desk, well at least when it comes to our editors.

11/ 12 Metrics have also taught us the senior staff's stories are well read. So we'll be restructuring their time to include writing days without admin duties. #journalism - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

In the end, it wasn't better, it wasn't worse, it was just different.

12/ 12 Donor-funded #journalism isn't better or worse than traditional journalism. It's different. And it's important to acknowledge that. (Psst, want to know more? Watch out for @miamalan 's latest paper via @gijnAfrica ) - Bhekisisa M&G Health (@Bhekisisa_MG) February 8, 2018

You can read Mia Malan's latest paper on donor-funded journalism via the Global Investigative Journalism Network here. An edited version of a paper was delivered in February at the third symposium on the relationship between journalism and foreign aid in Africa and Latin America hosted in Ghana.

A version of the paper will be published in Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies journal later this year. You can follow Mia on Twitter @MiaMalan.

Have something to say? Tweet or Facebook us on @Bhekisisa_MG

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