Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
True Genius: How to go from “the future of journalism” to a fire sale in a few short years
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE

“We are just focused on being where readers are”: Pan-African weekly The Continent publishes directly on WhatsApp and Signal

The Continent has now published 53 editions and has more than 11,000 subscribers a week who receive the publication for free.
Aug. 3, 2021, 10:48 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In Africa and much of the global South, the spread of rumors, hoaxes, and calculated “fake news” primarily happens on WhatsApp, whose closed network and low data costs are good for keeping in touch with family, friends, and colleagues away from lurking eyes of random acquaintances.

But that intertwining of personal relationships and impenetrability is also the reason that Facebook-owned WhatsApp is the perfect platform for the lightning-fast spread of dangerous misinformation.

In April 2020, a group of journalists with Adamela Trust — a nonprofit associated with the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian — decided to make a gamble and publish a weekly newspaper that could bring high-quality, reliable and fact-checked information to audiences via chat apps.

The Continent is a pan-African weekly distributed on WhatsApp and Signal and designed to be read on a mobile screen, with mostly short news pieces of 250 to 400 words, and a few longer pieces of about 900 words. Editions are sent out as a PDF on Fridays. (You can subscribe by emailing “subscribe” to TheContinent@mg.co.za, or by sending a message to The Continent on WhatsApp or Signal at +27 73 805 6068.)

The Continent has now published 53 editions and has more than 11,000 subscribers a week who receive the publication for free. Subscribers are asked to share the publication on their own WhatsApp networks — not “indiscriminately, but with people and networks who you think might value the work that we do.”

“We conducted an audience survey towards the end of 2020, where we found that on average, each subscriber shares the publication with about seven other people,” said Sipho Kings, co-founder and editorial director of The Continent and a 2018 Nieman Fellow. “We know we have ‘supersharers’ who share the publication with over 20 other people each week.” Altogether, The Continent could be looking at a circulation of over 100,000 in just one year. The team has counted sign-ups from 105 countries so far.

Led by a small team of nine (all working remotely) and having published contributions from nearly 200 journalists, writers, photographers and illustrators from across Africa in the past year, The Continent has covered numerous important and urgent stories, starting with reliable information from African researchers and public health experts on the Covid-19 pandemic, and on to other ground-breaking reporting: the injustice of “vaccine apartheid” with rich countries hoarding Covid-19 vaccines; the impact of Nigeria’s sudden and dramatic Twitter ban (applauded by none other than Donald Trump); a tender photo essay on being queer in Uganda, in a country where it is dangerous to be LGBTQ.

Perhaps the most impactful was reporting around Covid-19 in Tanzania, a country whose president John Magufuli was a prominent Covid denialist who refused to acknowledge the presence of the disease in the country, even as The Continent’s reporting showed hospitals filled with patients battling “acute pneumonia,” as officials called it. WhatsApp’s encryption meant that The Continent could not be banned in Tanzania, at a time when that country’s mainstream media reporting on Covid-19 was severely muzzled by the government. Magufuli died in March 2021, officially from “heart complications,” after weeks of speculation that he was infected with Covid-19.

Another big win was a special edition that covered the 2020 U.S. election from the vantage point of African observers and published articles in 10 languages — English, Kiswahili, Yoruba, Kirundi, Lingala, Somali, Cameroonian Pidgin, Nigerian Pidgin, Arabic and Portuguese.

“The special edition was supposed to be a political statement. What more of a statement could we make than an African publication flipping the gaze back in our languages and on our terms?” said writer and analyst Nanjala Nyabola, who guest-edited that edition. “Foreign publications write about Africa all the time without worrying about being understood. Why shouldn’t we? The Continent was a perfect partner for this because the whole publication stands for innovative, boundary-pushing African journalism.”

The whole edition was really subversive in that way, she added. “We had an African woman illustrator on the cover and the image is about looking at the U.S. from an African vantage point. We wrote about the election in our languages without worrying about translation or interpretation. We flipped our audience as well. We encouraged our writers to imagine that our audience was our African language communities rather than outsiders. And it worked out great.”

Still, for all of The Continent’s early success, the inscrutability of WhatsApp is one of its greatest drawbacks for the publication, in a digital age where back-end metrics are everything.

“Funders and advertisers always want to see precise metrics, but the truth is we have no concrete idea — except through surveys and estimates — what happens after we send it out to our subscribers,” said Kings. “But for us, rising above our apparent ‘lack of metrics’ is really about setting our own terms and publishing quality, consistent journalism. We’re confident we’re doing great work.

“The plan is to keep it free, to get good journalism to as many people as possible,” Kings added. “We do want to create a way for people to support us with some sort of payment gateway, to raise funds that go 100% to reporters.”

The feedback from readers has been overwhelmingly positive, Kings said. “We get messages from folks who want to chat about the news or a particular issue we covered in the week…plus lots of messages of support, and people saying thank you.”

The Continent’s first few editions were self-funded, but now the publication has attracted funding from a number of outside organizations, including German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the National Endowment for Democracy, Internews, the Mott Foundation and Africa No Filter. The publication ran one advertisement last year “as an experiment,” said Kings, and advertising as a source of revenue remains a possibility — but not from fossil fuel companies; not from arms dealers. Adverts must match the quality of our work and the journalism we create,” stated the 50th issue editorial.

Most remarkable in a media landscape where many publications are struggling to transition to profitability in the digital space is that The Continent’s product doesn’t work like a traditional news site. You can download PDFs of individual issues, but that’s not the point.

It’s part of a bigger trend, with Africa in the past two decades frequently being described in “leapfrog” terms — millions of Africans now own mobile phones without ever having used landlines, and households are moving from no electricity straight to modern solar technologies without having being connected to the electricity grid. Perhaps the African leapfrog has come to newsrooms too, with The Continent being fully virtual, remote, and on a social app without ever going through the digital wasteland of a million iterations of websites and paywalls.

“We’re not publishing on a website because we don’t need to,” said Kings. “The format we have works, and we are just focused on being where readers are. For us, that means being on WhatsApp.”

Christine Mungai is a 2018 Nieman Fellow, writer and journalist, and curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, Kenya, a co-creation space that supports public interest storytelling.

POSTED     Aug. 3, 2021, 10:48 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
SHARE THIS STORY
   
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
True Genius: How to go from “the future of journalism” to a fire sale in a few short years
Genius (née Rap Genius) wanted to “annotate the world” and give your content a giant comment section you can’t control. Now it can’t pay back its investors.
This study shows how people reason their way through echo chambers — and what might guide them out
“You really don’t know whether this person making a good-sounding argument is really smart, is really educated, or whether they’re just reading off something that they read on Twitter.”
Misinformation is a global problem. One of the solutions might work across continents too.
Plus: What Africa’s top fact-checkers are doing to combat false beliefs about Covid-19.