June 20, 2016

Keeping the “Interest” in Public Interest Journalism

A New Reboot Report on Audience Engagement for Media Development in West Africa

No matter what your field, inspiration often comes from unexpected sources. Media innovators working in West Africa, for example, are taking lessons from Buzzfeed and Upworthy.

Once described as the fastest growing media site in history, Upworthy takes an innovative approach to analytics. “Attention minutes,” the amount of time people spend per piece, is the site’s key metric, rather than pageviews or clicks. This approach stems from the belief that “for democracy to work, the world needs more empathy;” in other words, emotional resonance is vital to sustaining interest in public interest journalism.

Sites like Zikoko in West Africa are beginning to emulate this strategy, with content spreading steadily across the continent and through the diaspora, earning it the moniker of an “Afrocentric Buzzfeed.” Right now, with media increasingly influencing governance, it may be time for public interest journalism to follow suit.

Lessons like these drive Reboot’s latest report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa,” supported by Omidyar Network. In a time of growing journalistic freedom and power to hold governments accountable, funders have a chance to support media development for both social and economic impact. As my colleague Nonso recently wrote, Reboot’s in-depth research in Nigeria and Ghana showed that audience engagement can drive both innovation and government accountability in this era of new media. The new report examines some pathways in this direction.

Audiences are the Future of Media Development

Despite citizens’ critical role in reshaping media and improving governance, few organizations are leveraging them for both social impact and financial sustainability. Beyond the low-hanging fruit of elections and major corruption scandals, citizen energy remains largely untapped.

Interested funders and entrepreneurs can both improve media’s impact on governance and increase financial stability by focusing on audience engagement. That’s not to say that it’s a quick fix: Few people leap straight from reading the news to taking political action. However, they can be pushed through increasing engagement levels, and funders can provide tactical support to media at each of those levels:

Level 1: Acquisition: To acquire an audience, media must differentiate. Currently, too few in West Africa leverage the power of niche, choosing instead to imitate mass media and “do everything.”

A powerful counter-example in Nigeria is Sabi News, which has realized the value of a niche orientation. A digital news and opinions platform known for its popular columnists, the site features a roster of social and political commentators whose analysis of current events run from bitingly critical to refreshingly entertaining.

Prior to Sabi’s launch in 2014, its founders conducted an audience survey asking Nigerians to name five journalists. Over 80 percent of respondents couldn’t name more than one. However, most could name at least five commentary columnists with ease. This insight drove the site’s editorial strategy and columnist-focused positioning; the site today boasts audience metrics comparable to much bigger organizations.

Level 2: Activation: To get audiences talking, media must understand what makes them tick. Most are using blunt analytics that mask the nuances of engagement. The international example from the Filipino news site Rappler is among the more innovative.

Alongside each story on Rappler is the question: “How does this story make you feel?” Readers can choose from eight emotions, selected with help from psychologists, including “amused” and “annoyed.” While deceptively simple, the strategy has proved highly successful, and Rappler believes this may be a “gateway” to further engagement on the substance of news stories and debates. These metrics are also helping journalists hone their skills in telling stories that resonate.

Level 3: Action: Converting passive readers into active citizens is challenging. But one opportunity to motivate citizens is to create politically opportunistic content, tied directly to unfulfilled government promises.

This strategy was successful for the radio station Nigeria Info, in partnership with the budget advocacy group Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform. Frustrated by the Rivers State Governor’s signature education initiative, which was woefully underperforming, the partners developed a radio program dedicated to education issues. [Disclosure: Reboot supported the design and early implementation of the program.] The show quickly gained popularity, and a highly engaged listenership put pressure on the state to deliver on its commitments.

Within a year of launching the program, the government had implemented several overdue policy reforms and initiated promising new educational programs. The radio station has since applied this strategy to other negligent government bodies, including the National Emergency Management Agency and the state power company.

An Important Moment for Investors to Step In

These kinds of tangible governance outcomes help demonstrate to citizens that their voices and media matter, inspiring further civic engagement. This, in turn, both strengthens the media landscape and advances accountable governance. While audience engagement is key, beyond these specific strategies, the research showed a great need for new financial pathways to give media the space to experiment with engagement.

Right now, overall investment in media is low; of the USD 110.3 billion spent on official development assistance in 2012, only 0.4 percent was targeted at media development. Private impact investors often overlook media, as its impact is diffuse and difficult to measure. In this environment, new investments are vital, and have high potential for impact.

Funders have an opportunity to improve the viability, effectiveness, and sustainability of independent media. They can do so by incentivizing journalism at the individual level; improving investment approaches at the organization level; and innovating financing at the philanthropic field level. These opportunities can help ground conversations between funders and media organizations, and serve as a jumping-off point for other ideas. By detailing these, we hope our newest report will be a source of inspiration for further work.

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Click here to read the complete report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.”

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