When the pandemic struck so did fear, anxiety and uncertainty as the world found itself suddenly stuck at home shielding from a novel virus. This provided a fertile ground for misinformation to spread. Rumours about Covid-19’s provenance swirled as false cures such as steam inhalation made their way across social media.
Inundated with fact-checking requests from friends and family, I joined a group of journalists in South Africa who saw the crisis as an opportunity to launch a newspaper to combat the deluge of fake news.
At a time when the pandemic had hit advertising revenue and forced many in the news business to take pay cuts, starting a media venture seemed counter-intuitive. But we did it anyway.
Led by Simon Allison, a foreign correspondent and Africa editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, our team of reporters, editors and illustrators began publishing The Continent, a weekly pan-African newspaper designed to be shared and read on messaging apps, especially WhatsApp. The first edition launched on April 18, 2020.
The product is a PDF file published to subscribers each Saturday morning. The decision to distribute primarily on Whats App was strategic. WhatsApp is the biggest messaging app in Africa. For many, it is their main or sometimes only route to the internet as it is easy and cheap to use. Because of its popularity, misinformation is also spread there, often among large groups. And because WhatsApp is a closed network, the fact-checking efforts seen on Twitter and Facebook are impractical.
The experiment has been a success. More than 18 months into its existence, The Continent now has 16,000 subscribers. More than half of these are on WhatsApp, says Kiri Rupiah, head of audience engagement. Others subscribe via Telegram and Signal apps or a mailing list. Rupiah says that the paper has subscribers in more than 100 countries, who on average pass it on to at least two contacts, expanding the paper’s reach.
As the The Continent’s former news editor, I see three factors that have contributed to its success.
The first is an appetite for a continent-wide paper made by Africans in Africa. We publish articles about politics, culture, sports and several points in between, treating them with the seriousness they deserve. That is unique in a world where decisions on coverage of Africa are often made in western capitals. Local outlets interested in coverage of Africa are constrained by the financial commitments and often take copy from wire services such as AP, Reuters or AFP, where coverage is filtered through a western lens.
A vibrant press is crucial
Second, we publish reporters who are already based in the countries they are writing about. This means our reports are rich with local knowledge and vital context not readily accessible to reporters who are merely passing through. We have worked with a network of more than 200 writers, journalists, cartoonists and illustrators from across Africa and elsewhere. Notable bylines have included Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, Maaza Mengiste, the Ethiopian writer, and Raila Odinga, the former Kenyan prime minister
Most important is the distribution via messaging apps. We meet readers where they already are, offering a well-researched analysis of the week’s biggest stories, packaged neatly into a PDF that can be digested easily. A community of readers has emerged.
We believe a vibrant press is crucial to a functional democracy. Our mission is to provide information about our continent to readers, at no cost. This has led us to ruffling a few feathers along the way. Reporting that debunked the Covid cure being touted by Andry Rajoelina, the president of Madagascar, angered the government. So did a piece about alleged abuses committed by people now in the Rwandan government in the aftermath of the genocide.
Our most impactful work has been reporting on Covid-19 in Tanzania when the late president John Magufuli denied its existence and clamped down on reporting. The situation was so grave that The Continent’s correspondent wrote under a pseudonym. Their reporting painted a different picture from the government’s rosy outlook. Opposition leaders told us our reporting had changed the conversation around the pandemic in the country. Because The Continent has no website or a physical paper, it cannot be banned by governments who would no doubt love to do so.
Subscription to The Continent is free and will remain so. But paying the paper’s contributors requires a significant outlay. In the early days Allison and co-founder Sipho Kings paid out of their own pockets. Since then, the paper has attracted funding from donors such as the National Endowment for Democracy. An advertising deal with a major bank is also in the pipeline.
There have been challenges. Sending money across Africa has been an unexpected one. Bank charges of up to 40 per cent are sometimes incurred.
Burnout has been another. Producing a weekly paper is a tough task for a small team of eight. To prevent exhaustion, we take occasional publishing breaks of two to three weeks for team members to recharge our batteries.
Now in its second year, The Continent is on more solid footing with big plans for the future.
‘I think that it is important for there to be strong media coverage from the Global South of international issues,’ Allison said. ‘And I would like The Continent to embrace that mantle and be able to send correspondents to Washington, Brussels or Beijing in the same way that American newspapers send correspondents to Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg. That will be a powerful thing if we can pull it off.’