Digital natives fill coverage gaps, drive impact
Public-service content attracts financial support in Africa, SE Asia, and Latin America
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
What follows is the Content and Impact chapter of SembraMedia’s Inflection Point International study of 200+ digital native media in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Read the full report here–also in Spanish and Portuguese. It is republished under Creative Commons 4.0 ShareAlike international license (Disclosure: I am treasurer of SembraMedia and participated in the editing of the report.)
The media in this study range from small, volunteer-run news sites to profitable corporations reaching millions of readers. However, the majority of their founders said they started their news organizations not because they wanted to become entrepreneurs, but because they felt compelled to cover topics other media neglect.
The top five coverage areas cited across all three regions were:
Kátia Brasil, Executive Editor of Amazônia Real said she started her news organization because the daily newspapers were not covering issues she and others believed were important about the Amazon region.
“When I was a reporter at Folha, I pitched stories about people from the Amazon that were never published because readers from São Paulo supposedly were not interested in the facts of other regions of the country,” she said, noting that nothing much has changed since she started Amazônia Real in 2013.
Echo, founded in 2018 in Thailand, has a young, culturally progressive audience who it serves with content on issues traditionally considered to be taboo, such as sex and sexuality.
BaleBengong.id in Indonesia concentrates on marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ communities, people with mental health issues, and audiences with HIV/AIDs, among others. They provide citizen journalism training workshops to people in these communities, and much of their coverage comes from a team of more than 300 volunteer contributors.
Filling the news deserts
Most of the media in this study do not appear to compete directly with traditional news organizations. They fill news deserts, and work hard to attract audiences that often feel underrepresented by existing media outlets in their markets.
“We created a news organization in a community that had no other local news source,” said James Smart, co-founder and editor-at-large, Tazama World Media in Kenya.
In most cases, the media entrepreneurs we spoke with were motivated by making a difference to their communities and society, which leads them to cover complex, high-impact topics.
For example, Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, based in South Africa, is Africa’s first investigative journalism project focused on environmental issues.
CodeBlue in Malaysia—with the motto “health is a human right”—has a mission to tell unheard stories about healthcare in Malaysia.
And Sentiido in Colombia aims to reduce discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities through its coverage of gender, sexuality, and social change.
Regional differences in coverage
In Latin America, investigative journalism ranked number one, in Africa, breaking news topped the list, and in Southeast Asia opinion was the most frequently reported type of journalism carried out by the digital native media we studied.
Several of the media leaders in Southeast Asia said they were unable to cover many political issues in real time because they were blocked from attending official meetings: 12% reported being denied press credentials or access to government events, and 14% were unable to secure interviews with government officials.
Our regional research team in Asia suggested the high incidence of opinion pieces could also be due to the extremely competitive digital news market in the region. The relatively small, young media organizations in our sample may not be able to compete with bigger news teams when it comes to newsgathering, so they concentrate instead on providing context to breaking events.
One of the common threads across all three regions is that the media sites with the highest revenue levels tend to include opinion pieces in their content mix (although most publish news and other information as well). In our interviews, media leaders told us that publishing opinion and analysis enabled them to carve out a niche for themselves as they work to build audiences that were often underserved by traditional media organizations in the region. They also said that publishing opinion pieces has been a key way to give underserved communities a voice and to provide more diverse perspectives on the news of the day.
Solutions journalism thrives in Africa
Among the African media in this report, the most frequently reported type of journalism was breaking news, followed by opinion, fact-checking, and investigative reporting. But we were also interested to note a strong showing for solutions journalism in this region—almost half of the African newsrooms we interviewed said they were doing some form of solutions reporting.
Our research team in Africa highlighted that there had been a number of high-profile investments in solutions journalism training projects on the continent in the last two years, including the Solutions Journalism Africa Initiative—a partnership between the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), Nigeria Health Watch, and Science Africa—which provides fellowships and training for journalists.
In their call for the first cohort of Solutions Journalism Fellowships in Nigeria, Nigeria Health Watch describes how this type of reporting focuses on finding solutions to complex problems:
“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.”
Nigeria Health Watch has a team of solutions journalism specialists trained by SJN. Their Torchlight Series reports on solutions to different health challenges in Nigeria and across the African continent, aiming to showcase innovative thinking and to offer new ideas to policy makers.
“It is our way of holding policy makers accountable by showing them that there is no excuse for inaction,” said co-founder and managing director Vivianne Ihekweazu.
In 2020, Tisini, a media-tech company based in Kenya, hosted the first Annual Tisini Football summit, sponsored by telecommunications company Safaricom, to explore “solutions towards improving Kenyan football’s financial affairs. The summit explored financial opportunities in football and how brands can get value for sponsorships and key challenges of financing football sectors,” according to an article on the Tisini website.
Although Tisini primarily covers sports, the news site also features stories that explore solutions to broader health and gender issues.
Solutions Journalism also appeared in the top 10 most frequently reported types of journalism in Southeast Asia, but at a significantly lower level. Of the 52 media we interviewed there, eight sites said they use this approach to covering complex topics.
How news coverage correlated with revenue amid the pandemic
Our research team also sought to find out whether certain types of journalism related to increased revenue. In the 2019 data, we didn’t find a clear correlation, but there was an interesting shift in 2020: media organizations that practiced data journalism, collaborative or engaged journalism, investigative journalism, or solutions journalism — all reported significantly higher revenue than those who did not.
Our analysis suggests that grant funders provided additional financial support for these types of journalism during the pandemic. Although it remains to be seen whether these higher levels of grant funding will continue, we found a notable increase in revenue from grants in 2020—both in percentage of total revenue, and the total amount of dollars for outlets doing these kinds of reporting.
In comparison, advertising represented a slightly smaller percentage of overall annual revenue in 2020 for organizations practicing these types of journalism, although the total amount of money from ads was higher in the same year.
Impacts on society
The majority of the digital news organizations we interviewed in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America said their reporting had contributed to significant political and societal changes—including increased civic engagement, criminal investigations, and resignations of government officials.
The most common type of impact across all three regions was a contribution to increased civic engagement, but there were variations in impact by region.
More than 20% of media leaders in Latin America and Africa reported that their journalism had contributed to a government official resigning or being fired, but this figure was just 9% for organizations in Southeast Asia.
Regional analysts told us that even when journalists expose corruption and other abuses in Southeast Asia, political leaders are not always held accountable. This challenge may be worse in Southeast Asia, but the frustration was echoed by journalists in the other two regions, as well.
Examples of how these journalists have impacted their society, include:
Ghana Business News said its work contributed to new legislation on e-waste and improvements to a school food project.
In Nigeria, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting highlighted the way its reporting on withheld pension payments for retirees contributed to a partial resumption of these payments.
HumAngle in Nigeria trained women displaced by Boko Haram in Borno on citizen journalism and provided them with smartphones to document practices in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps. Subsequently, they have been able to report on food diversions and food-for-sex scandals. HumAngle pays these citizen journalists stipends and publishes the stories in their names. Some of these citizen journalists have gone on to become accomplished reporters who now work for other media organizations.
New Naratif, a regional outlet with an office in Malaysia, said its work helped to bring in donations for students, after this story about the widening education gap facing young refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
In the Philippines, The POST said its reporting on students who sell explicit images of themselves online led government institutions to order an investigation on the matter, including the Office of the President and the Department of Justice.
Marco Zero Conteúdo in Brazil said its reporting had contributed to the release of a man who was unjustly imprisoned after being accused of drug trafficking. Their investigation found that his personal documents had been stolen from him and used by another man who escaped jail while being held on drug trafficking offences.
Reporting recognized at a local, national, and international level
More than 82% of the media leaders we interviewed said their original reporting had been picked up or republished by other media outlets, evidence that national and international media trust and respect their journalism.
More than 50% said they had won local or national awards, and more than 25% said their journalism had earned them international awards, including the prestigious Gabo Award in Latin America, and the Pulitzer Prize, which is awarded to media throughout the world by Columbia University.
In some cases, these prizes were awarded for collaborative work done in partnership with other media ventures. For example, some of the media we interviewed participated in the Panama Papers and shared in the Pulitzer Prize as a result.
Partnerships among media extend impact
Across all three regions, collaborative journalism projects, as well as other kinds of partnerships are growing and helping these media reach new audiences, conduct transnational investigations, and more.
More than 80% of the media in this study said they had formed partnerships in the last two years.
In addition to the Panama Papers, many of the media we interviewed also collaborated on other global investigations led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), including the Paradise Papers, and the FinCEN Files.
Media that specialize in fact-checking have been especially active in building alliances. In Latin America, Argentina’s Chequeado championed the development of the collaborative project Latam Chequea in 2014. The network has grown to include more than 30 fact-checking organizations across Latin America.
Types of media partnerships reported
Chequeado, which launched in 2010 and was the first to focus on fact-checking in that region, has dedicated considerable resources to training other journalists in fact-checking, as well as helping to launch fact-checking sites throughout the region.
Verificado, a fact-checking site in Monterrey, Mexico, credits Chequeado with helping them to gain credibility, and a new income source, by helping them to join Latam Chequea.
Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking organisation included in this study, launched in 2012. It is based in South Africa, with regional offices in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. It is dedicated to promoting honesty and accuracy in public debate throughout Africa.
“We can’t fight misinformation in Africa on our own,” they state on their website. “Our partners are crucial to our success. Collaborations and partnerships with companies, international development agencies, charitable foundations, individuals, networks, civil society organisations, and the media ensure that we create a sustainable, scalable and lasting impact.”
The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute in the U.S., has been key to helping digital native media in this vital news area. All of their members adhere to their commitment to impartiality, transparency, and accuracy.
In the Philippines, Vera Files has received recognition for their work in combating misinformation, but we found fewer fact-checking sites in Southeast Asia than in the other two regions.
Media analysts in that region said part of the challenge in building a robust fact-checking network is the number of languages. At least 1,000 languages and dialects are spoken in Southeast Asia. But they also said they believe there has been significantly more foundation funding for fact-checking in Africa and Latin America.
Measuring news impact effectively can increase revenue
News organizations that are skilled at tracking and promoting their impact tend to attract more grant funding, make better membership appeals, and get more private donations.
Measuring impact is also key to understanding how news coverage affects their communities, governments, and other key stakeholders.
The media leaders in this study seem to understand the importance of tracking impact, and nearly 70% told us they were measuring their impact in some way. But many also admitted they would like to learn to do it better and that they need more effective tracking systems.
This week’s newsletter is based on a blog post on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.
Inflection Point Part 1: Digital media entrepreneurs punch above their weight
Inflection Point Part 2: Digital natives fill coverage gaps, drive social impact
Inflection Point Part 3: Digital natives still depend heavily on grants, advertising
Inflection Point Part 4: Three skill sets needed for successful digital news media
Inflection Point Part 5: Media freedom and journalist safety