African newsrooms have tapped into messaging platforms to connect with audiences by harnessing the benefit of tech power to serve communities characterised by high data costs.

While to many media organisations that is an obvious move, in Africa the cost of data has led to complex decision-making when it comes to platforms and content.

At the same time, the confluence of technology and journalism can help bridge the information divide in Africa where high data costs keep many people offline.

For example, Scrolla has a particular interest in readers who cannot afford data and have low quality mobile phones. They have taken the opportunity to partner with telecoms service provider MTN to drive content through their data free content app to an Africa-wide audience.

Speaking during the Jamfest digital media conference, Scrolla CEO Mungo Saggot said the company is keen to break boundaries through mobile phones.

“Advertisers in particular see the market very much through a kind of segregated prism which we think are actually quite restrictive so we’re keen to to break those boundaries and mobile phones allow us to break those boundaries,” he said.

COVID-19 impact

The COVID-19 public health crisis has worsened the financial status of African newsrooms which had been strained by the steady decline in recent years due to the uptake of digital news and the challenging economic environment in many African countries.

This is according to a research article on Africa Portal which also found that migration to online platforms was the only solution for the survival of news media. To save their media product, African newsrooms ought to capacitate staff with digital skills and embrace innovation and creativity to build a strong online presence.

Scrolla distribution expert Thabiso Sekhula, said newsrooms need to produce content that solves people’s problems which will then mean a brand is remembered and has impact.

“I think content does well especially when it links to people when it’s super helpful whether you solve people’s problems or you tell people something really interesting that they didn’t know so it has to start with that the idea it cannot just be distributing things for the sake of it if you really want great reach,” she said.

Sekhula said Media needs to internationalise distribution strategy because jumping onto every platform can lead to reduced quality.

“If you’re going to go on a platform make sure you have a strategy for that platform- don’t just jump on Instagram. We all know, messaging apps are quick, punchy, funny and breaking new so make sure that it’s got that punch,” she said.

Quality journalism leads to increased users

Moving to messaging applications means moving to where the audience is.

This was the logic used by Nigerian publication Premium Times which learned to do this in 2011 using Blackberry Messenger (BBM) This early shift into digital meant that the publisher could then use platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp more effectively.

Premium Times head of digital strategy and technology Richard Akhwumi said they used WhatsApp to distribute Hausa language content together with their English content to ensure a wider reach.

“We’ve been doing an experiment for over a year using WhatsApp particularly focusing on Hausa language which is a language used across Africa. So we have that platform. We’ve actually experimented on WhatsApp with five different groups in the Hausa language and have a platform in the English language,” said Akhwumi.

Using digital as a distribution channel

For some new African news outlets, using messaging platforms as a distribution channel meant they could intimately connect with readers and serve an invested audience.

For example this has proven to be beneficial for The Continent because feedback has allowed them to learn from their audiences and build a community that has turned into their distribution network.

The Continent editorial director Sipho Kings said launching at the wake of the pandemic when the financial damage being done to the media created concerns. With a mission to strengthen accountability and quality journalism in Africa, Kings said the pandemic also revealed the critical role of local news in empowering communities.

”Readers are the distribution network , that community that you build. Every time we create an edition we ask people to share it we say judiciously and it’s one of those things where we all have an experience where this disinformation does really well because it’s someone you know sending it to you so they’ve given it a stamp of approval,” he said.

“So if you turn that on its head and people are instead sharing good journalism

all of those people sharing it are effectively endorsing it which is really powerful,” he added.

Digital security paramount

In Africa, the work of journalists has been essential to guarantee the protection of other broader societal rights but civil unrest in Ethiopia has seen the media under attack and this function compromised.

Tikvah Ethiopia is a Telegram based news platform that maximised the platform’s popularity in Ethiopia to engage a wide audience and is now Ethopias biggest and trusted social media news outlet.

Telegram is the biggest messaging App in Ethiopia because the country is regarded as a highly restrictive and sensitive political space.

Telegram offers end-to-end encryption as well as a self-destruct timer that can remove messages without a trace.

Tikvah Ethiopia journalist Mahider Sibhatto said journalists have focused their work on reporting security problems in various parts of the country. They disseminate information in various ways and raise social development issues for their 1.2 million members.

“We provide timely and reliable information, news and ideas,” she said.

“It is used to expose false information for example when information is disseminated by the government or opposition forces or any other body, members verify the truth that is really happening on the ground and inform other members,” said Sibhatto.

“This allows people to get reliable news information without having to wait for news hour,” she added.