London — Improved internet connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa has led to the growth of a new wave of digital news companies. They are surviving by doing two things: different types of news journalism and by creating new business models. Russell Southwood spoke to Mapi Mhlangu, Sembra Media about the findings of its new report for Luminate and CIMA.
The report's authors interviewed 200 digital media organizations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. 49 of those organizations were from Sub-Saharan Africa, drawn from the following four Anglophone countries: Ghana (14), Kenya (11), Nigeria (14) and South Africa (10). The organizations chosen were on the basis that they had started as 'digital first' organizations.
According to Mhlangu, the aggregated results across the three continents reflect a common experience in terms of the issues the report identifies: "The findings for Africa are almost identical to trends from other continents, except the cost of accessing online news on the continent because of high data costs."
One of the big trends amongst these digital newsmakers is the number of them that produce 'solutions based journalism'. According to Nigeria Health Watch: "Solutions Journalism adopts a solutions-oriented approach to storytelling; telling rigorous, investigative, and compelling stories of responses to existing social problems ... It differs from the traditional, often problem-focused journalism because it highlights what works, as opposed to what does not, and goes further to investigate why an intervention or solution to a social problem was able to bring change."
Not surprisingly, there have been a number of funding initiatives that have created this trend and Mhlangu gives the example of Covid-19 as one example of how it was used. During the pandemic, health advice given was to wash your hands. The solutions journalism raised the issues of lack of reliable water supply in some communities and focused on getting it to them.
In terms of impact of the more traditional kind of journalism, Mhlangu cited the example of Daily Maverick in South Africa: "Its data journalism connected the dots. Their investigation led to the downfall of a Minister. There was the opportunity to do long and slow journalism, with constant follow-up on the story." Other claimed impacts included: a change in laws or the legal system (38%), a criminal investigation being opened (31%), a change in police services and practices (30%),
However, the search for new business models remains challenging. Nearly a third (32%) of those who answered detailed financial questions said that grants from private foundations or philanthropic investments was their primary source of revenue. More traditional sources of revenue like various versions of advertising and sponsorship - were only a primary source for under 10% of those questioned. Only 2% relied primarily on subscriptions to the organization's news website.
The report touches on the scale of the challenge that digital media faces to be commercially successful in Africa: "... it is interesting to note that the median number of annual page views for the African media in this top revenue tier was just a fraction of the page views required to achieve these revenue levels in other regions: the median was only 4.4 million page views per year among these top media in Africa, compared to 14.7 million in Southeast Asia, and 29.6 million in Latin America."
The reason the researchers give for this disparity is that the organizations sampled are niche sites receiving larger amounts of grant funding. The report identifies the trap this kind of online niche media is caught in: "Without significant traffic, they don't even qualify for the higher ad rates that they could earn from programmatic advertising." Also, in other regions there were higher amounts of initial capital than in Africa in the founding year.
In terms of African organizations answering these questions, the report notes: "Researchers reported that it was especially difficult to get answers to all our financial questions because many of the media leaders they interviewed had never been asked these types of questions about revenue and expenses before. In some cases, researchers told us their subjects simply did not know how to answer, because they lacked the data or were not tracking the metrics we requested."
In terms of African digital media organizations, being asked these difficult questions is part of a process: "Making people think about how the business is structured is important. Many of those interviewed said they wish people had asked these kinds of questions before they started. For example, we asked whether they had someone who deals exclusively with sales. They are usually passionate journalists who run the business side as they go."
So will this new breed of digital news organizations change how traditional media behaves?: "Two years ago I did work on legacy media organizations: print, radio and TV. All had invested heavily in digital. Some had decided to be digital first but it's very hard for them to be entirely digital when for example, other parts of the organization are doing broadcast."
According to Mhlangu, most of the African organizations interviewed were 3-4 years old. So how many of the 49 organizations will be in existence in 3-4 years time?: "I think only 25 will still be in existence but there will be 50 more that are new. Those that survive will have found the right niche. These are entrepreneurs and some will try something new as some are still very much experimental."
The report is entitled Inflection Point International - A study of impact, innovation, threats and sustainability of digital media entrepreneurs in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. To download it: https://data2021.Sembramedia.org
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