Given the amount of collective insecurity among journalists, the inward focus common in media outlets is understandable. But what shape does this navel gazing take in a country like South Africa? A free press is critical for any functioning democracy but all the more so in a young country like South Africa.
The South African press is robust enough to investigate (and attempt to hold accountable) those in power. But it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The sector has been considerably weakened by shrinking revenues, leading to the downsizing and juniorization of newsrooms across the country. On the whole, South Africa has been slow to adapt its business models to new economic realities. The Covid-19 lockdown has been particularly harsh for legacy media brands.
Despite the inescapable reality of the business, there’s an innovative spirit driving new developments. The Continent, a free WhatsApp-based weekly newspaper, is one such development (you can subscribe for free here). My friend Simon Allison is one of the editors at The Continent. I reached out to him to find out more about this project and what the reaction has been so far. It was good timing, as The Continent just took home the best news service prize from the African Digital Media Awards.
“The Continent was a response to a distribution problem,” Simon told me. “We wanted to create a pan-African newspaper, but the cost and logistics of doing so — exacerbated by the pandemic — are prohibitive. So instead we designed a newspaper to be read and shared on WhatsApp (which presented some interesting design and editing challenges). What we save on print and distribution, we put into paying journalists.”
For everyone outside of the United States, WhatsApp is the core daily smartphone application. From classes taught on the platform in Lebanon to high-profile hackingcampaigns, WhatsApp’s reach and influence are possibly unparalleled. Across a number of African markets, prepaid WhatsApp packages are much cheaper than standard data plans. This market reality means WhatsApp is the internet for millions.
But I haven’t seen too many media outlets using the platform for distribution. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity. The Continent looks and reads like a print product, but with all the advantages of digital. Distribution costs are near zero and it’s also delivered instantly. Given WhatsApp’s encryption, the paper sits neatly beyond the long arm of censors. This last factor is incredibly important in countries where free media is under threat. This piece isn’t intended to praise WhatsApp or its parent company Facebook, but the genius of The Continent lays in its ability to go where the people are without incurring any publishing costs.
“WhatsApp is our primary distribution network because it is the most popular social media platform in Africa. But The Continent works just as well on Signal or Slack — after all, it’s just a PDF,” Simon notes. “But what WhatsApp’s popularity does allow for is an exponential growth in circulation. Many of our subscribers forward the publication on to their friends, family, and colleagues — effectively doing our distribution for us. After less than six months, we currently distribute in 81 countries — think of the investment required for a print product to achieve the same footprint.”
Instead of complaining about the dire state of publishing (and rates for journalists), the editors at The Continent are using the most popular digital platform to reach massive audiences for free. The fact that this project originated in South Africa and not New York or Berlin highlights how open-source technology can have an incredible impact in developing markets. There are still massive barriers to break down in terms of African media, but The Continent is proof of the innovative spirit that some journalists are bringing to the table.