The Continent: Changing the Game in African Media
About the Episode
Since its launch three years ago, The Continent has become the most widely distributed newspaper in Africa. Issued via WhatsApp, The Continent tells stories “by Africans, for Africans,” and reveals just how different African news looks when the people living it are the ones writing the stories. Editor-in-Chief Simon Allison joins us on Deep Dish to talk about shaping this new outlet, and Brian discusses what he learned during his month-long trip to Africa, including what US news consumers often don’t hear.
[Brian Hanson: INTRO: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm your host Brian Hanson with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
One of the backbones of democracy is a strong independent media that provides a population with factual information and an understanding of what's happening in politics, economics, and society.
I was in South Africa for the month of April and had a glimpse of daily life there. We recorded this episode on April 27th, which is Freedom Day in South Africa, commemorating the first post-apartheid elections, which were held on this day 29 years ago in 1994. In the United States, recent events including Dominion Voting Systems versus Fox News debates over the role of TikTok. And social media in our news environment and concern about the spread of disinformation from various perspectives. All of these things have drawn attention to the role and function of media in our own democracy, well in South Africa. One of the things I wanted to understand was the role of media here in this country and more broadly on the continent.
So with this episode, we wanna introduce you to an innovative effort and perspective within the news media landscape here in Africa. I'm joined by Simon Allison, who's the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. Since it's launched three years ago, the continent has become the most widely distributed newspaper in Africa. And further it's designed to be read and shared all through the instant messaging platform, WhatsApp. The Continent aims to tell stories by Africans, for Africans, and to change the game in African media. Simon was speaking with me from Johannesburg and I started our conversation by asking him what a US audience should know about media in South Africa and on the African continent more broadly.]
Simon Allison: We are trying to figure out how does our craft evolve to meet the challenges we are facing in the 21st century in South Africa in particular, those challenges look pretty daunting. We've got the financial issues that are plaguing traditional media houses, forcing them to have a lot smaller staff, a lot more junior staff. Cuts in terms of quality and breadth of coverage are commonplace across the board. There are political challenges, of course, although it must be said that any political challenges faced by media in South Africa are nothing compared to what they used to face 20, 30 years ago under the apartheid regime. So we are in an incomparably, freer media environment than we used to be. But perhaps most significant of all is the changes in the information landscape that we are facing. Where do people actually get their news from? And increasingly, it's not newspapers, it's not TV stations, it's not even websites, it's TikTok, it's WhatsApp, it's Facebook, it's Twitter. These social media platforms are so powerful when it comes to sharing information that it's making it very, very difficult for journalists to compete. That's the bad news. There is good news. and the good news is that across Africa, we are seeing some of the most interesting media innovations happen anywhere in the world because the challenges that we're facing. We've had to deal with for a while now and we are starting to figure out solutions and I have a feeling that, American and Western media are about 5 to 10 years behind in this journey. but they'll soon catch up and be starting to copy the models that we are developing here in the global south.
Brian Hanson: So I love that. Very provocative and probably based on what I've seen. Very true. So let's dive into one of those models And it's one that you've been, personally very involved in founding and launching, which is The Continent. Could you share a little bit about what is this project and, what are you trying to do with it?
Simon Allison: Three years ago, which was April 2020, was a pretty dark time in world history. Um, that was the beginning of the pandemic. All of us were terrified. No one had a clue what was going on and what happened was, and this happens all the time to journalists, is your friends and family, start using you as sort of informal fact checkers. And at the beginning of the pandemic, this was happening all the time. My aunt would come and say, you know, Simon, I, I've just read that steam inhalation can cure covid. is this true? And I'd have to say, no, no, it is not. Please follow actual medical advice. that was my first response. But my second response was always to ask a question and that was, where did you hear this information? And the answer was always the same. WhatsApp. Now I don't think WhatsApp is a big deal in the United States, but in much of the global south, it is the dominant social messaging platform. So it's a way that you can communicate with your friends and family. It's encrypted, it's personal. it's not broadcast to the entire world like Facebook and Twitter and it is extraordinarily influential. South Africa's a great example of how we've effectively built our communities on WhatsApp groups. So I live in nice suburban Joburg and my street has a WhatsApp group, the neighboring street. So the three or four streets that form the block, they also have a WhatsApp group. Then the whole suburb has a WhatsApp group. And this is how people communicate as is how they make plans. This is how they discuss problems. My family has a WhatsApp group. My church has a WhatsApp group, et cetera, et cetera. So, this is a really, really powerful information sharing platform. The problem is there are no major media houses who are designing their information to be shared on this platform. What that means is people who are sharing fake news and disinformation who are always much faster than traditional journalists when it comes to figuring out new ways of reaching people. They are able to take advantage of this incredibly powerful network. So what we did was we thought, Hey, we need to do something about this. We need to figure out a way to put high quality, fact checked, reliable news onto WhatsApp. How do we do it? And we looked to Zimbabwe for our answer. So Zimbabwe, has been dealing with a very, very difficult press freedom situation for a very long time, and its journalists have come up with fantastic, innovative solutions, and one of them is this company called 263 Chat. Now 263 is Zimbabwe's dialing code, that's where the name comes from. It started as a Twitter account where people, could ask questions and its audience would respond. That became a little bit dangerous because that was all public, which meant that government officials could see what was being said and who was saying it. So they switched to a closed, private WhatsApp group, where they could have a kind of forum to discuss politics, to discuss economics or issues of the day. And suddenly Nigel Mugamu, who was the founder of 263 chat realized, well, you know, all these people in my forum are desperate for good quality news. Why didn't I make it for, so he started putting together a pdf, of news that he had got reporters to write and an editor to edit properly. And this pdf. Was just given to the people who were in his WhatsApp groups. I think within the course of a year or so, it developed an audience of about 50 or 40,000 subscribers, making it probably the biggest newspaper in Zimbabwe and that was because it decided to leverage the power of WhatsApp, and so we decided to do something similar with The Continent. We thought we really care about Pan-African news. That's sort of my background as an African editor, an African correspondent. we care about African journalism. We care about making African voices heard. So how do we do this? Well, let's make a newspaper to talk about it. How do we distribute it? Let's make a PDF and put it on WhatsApp and see what happens. We did this in April 2020, and by the end of the first week we had a thousand subscribers.
Brian Hanson: So that's a fascinating distribution model. And I think one of the things that we have seen certainly in the United States is one of the challenges about any news outlet is do people believe it and increasingly we've got these fragmented news environments in which folks just don't trust, news from other environments, and they trust their own. How big an issue is that, and I can imagine the distribution of WhatsApp is part of the solution, right? But how do you think about that in terms of expanding your audience and really building the credibility of, uh, the continent as a source of information?
Simon Allison: You're absolutely right, WhatsApp was part of the solution because it's closed and private. It is the way that people talk to friends or colleagues or family people they know. And when you are talking to people, you know, you automatically assign a greater level of trust to that information than you would when you're talking to a stranger. That's part of it. The second part of it is that we have not ever done any advertising or promotion. We have relied entirely on word of mouth to grow because we don't want someone to see an advert and subscribe because we don't think the quality of that interaction. Is very high in terms of building trust. Whereas if your daughter comes to you and says, Hey, I found this newspaper, I think it's great. I think you should subscribe and read it, you're gonna put a lot more trust in that publication than if you had heard it from some anonymous source. So that's been pretty crucial to our growth. And it has probably slowed us down a little bit, but it's a sacrifice we are prepared to make. Cause we'd rather have a, a smaller number of people who trust us reading us than a lot of people who don't believe a word we say.
Brian Hanson: One of the things that you've referred to, and I did too in my intro is this idea of the news by Africans for Africans. Can you talk about why that's important and what has it been until this kind of approach?
Simon Allison: So, one of my, most exciting jobs early in my career was, a major British newspaper was changing over its Africa correspondent. So one was leaving and new one was arriving, but there was a gap of three or four months in between. And they approached me and said, would you cover this gap and be our acting Africa correspondent? I was so excited. Um, yes. You know, I, got ready, I got all my best stories together and it was the most dispiriting three or four months of my life. I kept pitching the foreign desk every day, three or four stories. All they were interested in were stories about Oscar Pistorius, or stories about Cecil the Lion. Um, who was that famous Zimbabwean Lion who was killed by an American hunter. they said, look, you know, your pitches are interesting, but for our audience, this is what they're reading. And that makes sense. I have no problem with that. There's a lot of fantastic journalism done by western publications, but it's for a different audience. Where is the high quality? Foreign correspondence done for an African audience. Let me give you one very concrete example of where this makes a difference. towards the beginning of the pandemic, again, I was with a pool of journalists who were invited to interview Bill Gates, of the most significant men when it comes to influence in global health. And I asked him about whether he supported a waiver on intellectual property for a potential coronavirus vaccine, which was a huge issue in the global South.
Brian Hanson: Mm-hmm.
Simon Allison: I had asked that question and in fact, so unprepared was Bill Gates for that question that he hadn't, prepped it with his team. So he made up his answer on the fly. And I heard subsequently from, um, someone in the Bill Gates Foundation that had caused a huge drama because they had not agreed on this as their policy. He said he did not support the TRIPS waiver, but that was the value of having an African journalist in the room asking the question that matters to an African audience.
Brian Hanson: And for people who may not know the background, the importance of the intellectual property waiver is that the, covid vaccines were all patented, so therefore the few companies controlled access and price, and if there was a waiver so that others could produce the vaccine at lower cost, they would be more widely accessible. Obviously, the producers and inventors of the vaccines weren't very excited about that. And Bill Gates lined up with them in his answer to your question. So yeah, incredibly important question for this area.
Simon Allison: Yes and we try and work with African journalists to cover their own countries wherever possible, but also to get African journalists to cover international stories in a dream world, in a few years time, we'll be sending correspondence to Beijing, to Washington, to Brussels, asking plenty of difficult questions.
Brian Hanson: So, I would be curious if you could give a couple more examples just so that our audience gets a sense of some of that difference of emphasis and focus on stories. So one is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the other is, the violence and conflict that's currently happening in Sudan. What comes to light differently here than it might in Western coverage?
Simon Allison: Both of those are great examples. Let's start with Ukraine the first thing is just a question of media resources. So this is a huge story for Western newsrooms. Of course it is. So they have pretty much committed the entirety of their foreign reporting budgets to cover the war in Ukraine, which means. They're not covering other wars. you know, the war that was happening simultaneously that was far more deadly was the Civil War in Ethiopia. And that was getting a tiny fraction of the coverage that Ukraine was getting. And again, I don't have an issue with Western media who, want to do that. I think it's our job as African media to do a much better job of covering that situation. So in our newsroom, our resources all went into covering the war in Ethiopia rather than the war in Ukraine. This is why you need, strong journalism from all parts of the world. The current Civil War going on in Sudan is another fascinating example where the overwhelming discourse, on Western news channels in particular has been about western countries evacuating their nationals and getting them to safety as if that was the main priority. Yes, of course that's important, but this war is affecting an entire country. hundreds of people have been killed. There are enormous, incredible community resilience initiatives that are happening to save people, to get them to safety, to get them to evacuation, and all we're talking about is US special forces with all their guns helping a few Americans onto a plane or whatever. It's fine. American media can do that. It's their job, but there needs to be someone else telling the stories of the Sudanese neighborhood committees, the evacuation, committees, the people doing incredible work in this particular context. There's also been a almost total absence of really good scrutiny of the role of foreign powers in facilitating. the Sudan crisis or allowing it to happen. This is really, really important and these are the questions that we need to be asking.
Brian Hanson: Just a shameless plug for Deep Dish, we have an upcoming episode looking at the Sudan crisis and particularly those issues. We also have a terrific episode on the conflict in Ethiopia. So, we're trying to do our bit back home as well.
Um, Simon, as we talk, one of the things I'm hearing is a bird in the background there. Can you explain what that is? I mean, this is a whole cultural experience we're having here.
Simon Allison: Yes. Um, that sound is the call of the infamous Hadeda Ibis. It is a large gray, mean looking bird that has flourished in the suburbs of Johannesburg. And has made itself very much at home here they have a really loud shrill and piercing cry. It wakes up my daughter sometimes in the mornings and there is nothing we can do about it except to live with them.
Brian Hanson: That's wonderful. It was one of the first birds I saw when I was here and I was so enamored with it. I was like, wow, that's so cool. And then it started making that noise and I became less enamored all the time. Okay, Thanks for that. Let me return back to the media project and one of the challenges that I can imagine that, you face, which is Africa of course, is a huge continent with hundreds of millions of people with, tremendous diversity in terms of languages, cultures, political systems, local issues, relations to the outside world and you're trying to create a media product which can reach broadly in the continent. So how do you think about and prioritize your audience and how to manage this question of reaching an audience in such a diverse place.
Simon Allison: It is absolutely impossible, because there is such a range of experiences and, perceptions and histories and languages and cultures. We cannot possibly hope to reach them all. yet of course we have grand plans where we would love to roll out, a Kiswahili version, a Hausa version, a French version. All in good time. But for now, we are focusing on an Anglophone audience. and that inevitably means that we do have a skewing of our coverage towards the big anglophone countries, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, et cetera. but we work really, really hard to make sure that we cover our blind spots and actually our goal for the end of this year is to have reported on the ground in every single African country, and I think we've only got five or six countries left before we can claim to have done that.
Brian Hanson: Wow, that's incredibly impressive. One of the things that media organizations pretty much everywhere is facing is, with the financial models of the old advertising model, no longer supporting media and you all have made the conscious choice not to go in that direction, kinda financially, how are you able to pull this off?
Simon Allison: I think this is somewhere where we are a little bit ahead of the curve and not necessarily in a good way. What we have come to realize is that there isn't a sustainable business model that works for African media, I can't think of a single media house that is profitable or can exist without, substantial donor funding, certainly not one of the sort of quality you'd expect of an independent media house. So we have embraced the philanthropic world. It has been a learning experience. We've set up our newsroom and our accounting practices and our sort of the structure of our organization to allow for that to happen. And for the moment, we are focused on building a quality news product and meeting the immediate need. But we do think that as our audience gets bigger, we will start approaching advertisers and see what is happening? I think in the longer term we're looking at initiatives like the International Fund for Public Interest Media, which are asking governments to commit a share of their overseas development aid budget towards supporting independent media. Those kinds of initiatives are gonna have to be where independent media funding comes from for the global south in particular, in the medium term, because there just isn't a business case that works.
Brian Hanson: Another aspect I want to ask about of The Continent and how you think about the news environment and The Continent's place in it How do you think about the relationship between The Continent and local media? Is there a division of labor, something that you can do better than they can do? Or kind of what's your approach?
Simon Allison: It's a great question to ask this week, actually, because we've got a really great example of how this works coming up. So in Zimbabwe, there's a prominent politician by the name of, Fortune Charumbira, and he has just been accused of two cases of sexual assault. A case has been filed against him, and this has been widely reported in Zimbabwe media, who have done a lot of great work in terms of speaking to the complainants, doing all the due diligence, getting the documentation, getting the police dockets, et cetera. But that story has pretty much died in Zimbabwe. Now, the reason the story needs to be heard outside of Zimbabwe is because Mr. Charumbira also happens to be the president of the Pan-African Parliament, which is the African Union's legislative arm. This makes him one of the most senior politicians in Africa, and yet there has not been a news story that has taken the story of his alleged sexual assault into the broader conversation. And so that's where we exist. We think it's one of the roles we play is to be paying close attention to what local media are doing and then amplifying the work, with all due credit. we do pay all our journalists, to write for us. We don't accept news stories for free, and we try and pay as much as we possibly can. And what we found is that, one or two stories for us will allow a journalist in a country like Zimbabwe to continue writing for local media, at a salary that may not be able to cover his bills. So in a way we can use our funding to subsidize the work that's happening in local journalism. And often we try and commission the writers who did the original reporting to write for us as well, wherever possible. But it is a really, really important thing because otherwise those, those stories don't get the attention they otherwise deserve.
Brian Hanson: You've been doing this now for three years, and I'm curious kind of what are some of the surprises or successes of this effort that you found along the way?
Simon Allison: There's been a couple, from a editorial perspective, writing news for WhatsApp designed to be read on your phone means you are writing stories a lot shorter than you would otherwise write them. I would write a story for the Mail-in Guardian that would be 1,200 words, and that was my standard. Suddenly I'm writing the same story at 300 words, and what I'm discovering is if the editing is good enough. You can still get all the information in there you can even weave a narrative in 300 words. And you have saved your reader 75% of the time they would've taken to read that story. when we say that people don't read or people don't pay for news, they do with their time. And if you're saving people time, they're really gonna appreciate that. And that's certainly been our experience. So that's been one big takeaway. The second big one is just how much fantastic journalism exists on the African continent. a lot of it's not getting the attention and appreciation it deserves. And my theory as to why, and this is another thing we're trying to solve, is that if for example, you are a very junior journalist at the New York Times, you write a story. By the time that story is published, it's gone through three layers of fantastic Fact checkers and editors and copy editors, and the end result has your byline on it and it looks fantastic, and that means you're gonna get the next commission and your portfolio is looking great. That doesn't happen in most African newsrooms because the resource crunch is so severe that the sort of copy editing layer is very depleted. The fact checking layer is depleted and it means that really, really great journalists are not getting the editorial support they need to thrive, and we need them to get that support so that they do thrive so that African journalism starts doing what it can and should be doing and must be doing, which is holding the powers that be to account.
Brian Hanson: At the beginning of this conversation, you talked about models that are developing in Africa that are probably ahead of what's happening in the United States and other Western countries, and, are there other things that you see going on in the news media environment in Africa that we should know about? Because they too are on those leading edge experiments, of how to deal with the challenges that media's facing worldwide.
Simon Allison: Absolutely. Um, one of the best examples is the sort of thriving community radio space across a lot of the African continent. Radio is still by far the dominant medium, of news And you know, when I read articles about, news deserts in the United States, where local newspapers have shut down and there really isn't any credible local journalism going on. but there are places, that you wouldn't necessarily expect. like the Democratic Republic of Congo has Radio Okapi and it's sort of affiliates who do incredible work covering really granular local stories in the languages that people can understand, And I think that's a sort of model that one day, where some countries might look on and think, Hey, maybe we should have looked at that before shutting down all of our local newspapers.
Brian Hanson: This has been a fascinating conversation. It really does illustrate the challenges in the media environment and how they also are creating opportunities for innovative solutions. I'm wondering what advice for young people you would have, who are interested in getting into journalism and interested in getting in at a time where so much is changing. What would you encourage them to do and for their approach to be?
Simon Allison: It's a challenging time to become a journalist. One of the reasons why I am so nervous over the future of Twitter is that was a launchpad for so many young journalists of my generation. But I think the foundations of the profession remain the same. And that's talk to people, do your research. Find a really, really interesting story, and this is the part that I think a lot of us don't put a lot of time into, which is think about how to tell that story. It's not enough to just write a 1,200 word piece anymore. You have to think about the platform, the way to reach people. And the question you're gonna have to ask yourself is how will people access this? Like, where are people? And for us the answer was, well, the people we want to reach are on WhatsApp, so let's meet them there. but now you're finding a lot of people doing really great news on TikTok. And they are starting out now and they will be sort of heavyweights of our profession in 20 years time because they figured out that's where the audience was and they tailored their message for that audience. And the way that the information landscape is changing so quickly these days means that there are constantly new opportunities of how to tell stories and new audiences to reach with these new platforms. And the journalists that are able to innovate the most are the ones that will have the most chance.
Brian Hanson: Simon Allison of The Continent - I want to thank you so much for sharing with us your vision for transforming media coverage in Africa and for helping us understand this media environment and why it matters.
Simon Allison: Thank you, Brian.
[Brian Hanson: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish.
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Thank you for listening. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back next week with another slice of Deep Dish!]
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