Scrolla and The Continent: news sites charting innovative paths
In a break from lamenting the state of our mainstream news media, I want to examine two local media ventures which are exploring new paths.
Scrolla offers popular news on the cellphone for those who can’t afford data. “I thought there was a sweet spot between mobile phones and popular news,” says Mungo Soggot, who recruited journalist colleagues Toby Shapshack and Phillip van Niekerk to the project about two years ago.
The barrier, he says, is the cost of data, so Scrolla is designed as a low- or no-data offering of short, punchy stories in English and isiZulu. “It is an attempt to bring good, exciting content to ordinary South Africans. Too much of the media is concentrated on the top end of the economic scale,” says Van Niekerk. “The advertising industry has stratified South Africa and that thinking comes out of apartheid. We want to break that mould.”
So it is tabloid in style, but not in substance. “We are fixated on brevity and punchiness … [but] it is not the old formula of giving people soccer and crime. We cover politics, peoples’ economic struggles, lots of sport, music, fun things that are part of people’s lives. We try to be inclusive – it is news based in communities as well, reporting out of townships and villages where the mainstream media hasn’t been for ages.”
They have seven fulltime people and seven retained freelancers, dotted around the country. “We are finding real talent outside of the usual pool and not people who are sitting behind a desk and monitoring social media,” Van Niekerk says.
They cite two stories with pride: they broke the story of Rose Ndlovu, the former policewoman who was insuring her relatives’ lives and then killing them; and kids in Katlehong who turned a giant pothole into a swimming pool. The authorities filled the hole a few days later, disappointing the kids but showing – they argue – how the media can still make power accountable.
They raised seed money from the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) which allowed them to go multilingual, and won a Google Innovation Award, which got them serious technical input. Now they have private investment from the likes of Michael Jordaan and Wendy Appelbaum and have hit a million users a month. “It has been a launch and testing phase and we are happy with how it has gone,” Soggot says.
They have little sponsorship/advertising so far but are confident that as they build numbers, they can convert them to income through multiple revenue streams.
They plan to roll out two more languages in the near future – isiXhosa and Afrikaans – and are already looking to launch in other countries like Nigeria.
The Continent is a different operation: a digital-only weekly dedicated to covering Africa through African eyes, distributed for free on Whatsapp. Editor-in-chief Simon Allison said that when he started out covering Africa in 2011, there were about a dozen reporters on the African beat. A decade later, there was hardly anyone doing it. “I was struck by how few African publications have the resources to cover Africa properly.”
His inspiration for how to do it came, ironically, when an edition of the Sunday Times was leaked onto WhatsApp before it hit the streets, and it went viral. “I am sure it was the most read Sunday Times edition ever. We thought, what if we did that deliberately?”
He launched The Continent early in the pandemic lockdown. It is set up as a separate trust and they have a content-sharing arrangement with the Mail & Guardian. Now, without any marketing, they have the problem every publisher wants: they can’t cope with the 20 000 subscribers they have. “Distribution on WhatsApp is complicated, so we have done everything to keep subscribers down”. Instead, they encourage people to pass it on, and estimate that every subscription gets shared with seven others.
The readers, he said, are well-educated, urban, most 18-44 years old and tend to be working in government, corporates, diplomats and academia.
They can give the publication way for free as they have generous donor-funding, secured until 2024, and “we will use this runway to build advertising”, he says. ABSA was their first advertiser, but to break through they will need to convince a cautious advertising community that there is value in the continental market – where many have failed in previous attempts – and in free social media distribution.
That journalists are trying new ways of delivering their work is itself good news, as it is only through the courage of innovation that we will deal with the shortfalls in our news sector. Interestingly, the initiative is coming from individual journalists and not our hidebound media houses.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and holds the Caxton Chair of Journalism at Wits.