Over the past couple of months I have been following a new African news portal, Africa News, the latest in the 12-year history of African online news media. Africa News goes much further than previous attempts to create online news communities serving Africa; the site includes content submitted by locally based citizen journalists who use mobile phones and the Internet to submit stories for publication.
But it’s important to understand past attempts at news portals in Africa before assessing this new one. I remember the excitement back in the late 1990s when broadband was first introduced and many news and commercial sites began to rush online. Even more exciting for me was the launch in 1999 of Nigeriaworld, one of the first online portals reporting news from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, as well as the continent as a whole. From there, I could read up on all the latest news and more.
Nigeriaworld, which is part of the Odili group of online media, was very much ahead of its time in that it didn’t just publish news but tried to create a space for the exchange of ideas. It published reader submissions, enabled comments and provided users with their own web pages to showcase their work and ideas.
Recreating a Village Square
In 2003, Nigeria Village Square was launched, building on the success of Nigeriaworld. According to its “About” page, NVS aims to replicate the late afternoon tradition of sharing news and gossip, and so on:
In traditional African settings, people from all corners meet at the Village Square after a hard day’s work to sip unadulterated palm-wine, share news, gossip, jokes, music, dance, events and opinions. Visitors to the square are warmly welcomed and can get directions, information and clarify misconceptions.
The Nigerian Village Square has been established to play this role for Nigerians and Friends of Nigeria across the entire globe. We convene in our virtual village square to exchange information about our country, the communities in which we currently reside and the larger world around us. More importantly, ideas developed here enable us improve our lives and advance the country’s ideals.
Unlike Nigeriaworld, NVS focuses more on publishing articles submitted by commentators, academics, activists and local celebrities rather than on providing news coverage. NVS taps into the Nigerian tradition of highly charged debate. It is not a site for the faint-hearted and writers publish there at their peril. A cursory glance at the article titles and comments reveals much of the cynicism and humor that characterizes Nigerian society. A good example that shows how no one is more critical of Nigeria than Nigerians is a piece by Okey Ndibe on 48 years of independence, “A Fool at (Almost) Fifty.” He writes:
Tomorrow Nigeria will turn, by one mode of reckoning, 48 years of age. It is safe to forecast that this, like most of the country’s preceding anniversaries, is bound to be a somber anniversary. At 48, which is virtually 50, most Nigerians remain apprehensive about the direction of their country. One of the salient statements that struck a chord with me from the moment I first heard it is the declaration that a fool at 40 is a fool forever. Nigeria, at almost 50 years of age, is flirting with dangerous, tragic folly.
While NVS and Nigeriaworld have concentrated on providing news portals together with commentary and analysis, Africa News publishes reports from locally based citizen journalists who submit their stories using mobile phones and the Internet. I use the term “citizen journalists” as most of the reporters are freelance independent reporters from small communities who would otherwise not have the opportunity to publish within a global context.
Africa News was started by two Dutch journalists and an entrepreneur with the aim of publishing a “more balanced view” of the continent — one in which news is not sensationalized and where local stories are produced by local people. The site exists in stark contrast to Western media, which is often highly selective about which African stories it regards as important. Africa News concentrates on the stories that Africans themselves believe to be important.
One of the reasons the founders chose Africa was because the continent has one of the fastest growing mobile markets, which is crucial to a news service that relies on mobile phones for much of the stories. The hope is to eventually provide each reporter with state-of-the-art mobile phones and small digital recorders such as the Flip videocamera which is presently only available in the U.S. Currently, the site’s citizen journalists are using Nokia phones to send their reports.
Africa News is an ambitious project. There are now some 250 reporters from 32 countries but the aim is to create three times this number and to provide them with the necessary technology to produce their stories. I recently asked Ben White, responsible for commercial development for the site, how they hope to recruit so many reporters in 33 countries. How will they manage this number of reporters with the potential to produce a huge amount of content?
“We already do,” he told me. “The network is growing by the day. Local media talent find Africa News on their own or via word of mouth. Members are looking for a place to share their views and opinions with the world. Via this network our members are starting to link and coordinate activities with each other…Our network is comprised of African media talent, journalists, photographers and filmmakers, as well as people looking to further develop their CV and establish a career in media. Our editorial team works with the network [of contributors] on a constant basis.”
Apart from a few Google Ads, the site relies on “partnerships” from aid agencies and businesses for funding — something they call the “Really Simply Reporting” program.
“For a reasonable fee, organizations can commission their own mobile reports,” White said. “We put together a briefing on a project, event or theme and send this out to one of the local journalists in the field. They can then make a visit to the location and collect the necessary text, photo and video. The report is then uploaded and edited before we send it off to the client. Our partner organizations use these mobile reports for their own websites, newsletters and other communication. These reports are often used in the effort to better communicate with stakeholders — the partners, clients and donors that would be interested in knowing more about what is happening on the ground.”
Africa News’ reports look fine, presented on glossy sites with professional videos. But I still have the sense that they allow “partners” to present themselves and their work uncritically. I would like to see some of the local reporters investigating the partners and making independent assessments on the projects rather than simply collating text, photo and video.
One of the things that sets Africa News apart from other similar “citizen media” sites is that the commissioned reports mean Africa News can afford to pay its reporters for their work. This makes journalism a more sustainable career option for these citizen reporters. In addition, the site has established a training center in Accra, Ghana, where editorial staff work with reporters on a daily basis. It should be noted that contributors are not required to be professional journalists; anyone can register and contribute.
The sheer amount of content on the site — text, photos, video and podcasts — can appear overwhelming at first, but most of the content is made up of short, easy-to-read stories between 200 and 400 words. Unfortunately, this also means that the stories can lack depth. There is a need for more background information to help the reader fully understand the stories in context, which is very important in overcoming stereotypes and myths around Africa. More linking would help solve this problem. Accompanying photos or videos add to the vibrancy of the site, distinguishing Africa News from many mainstream media outlets that rely solely on long blocks of text.
These criticisms aside, Africa News is an impressive venture that provides space to people who have long been invisible to the media — independent journalists, bloggers and just about anyone who has a story to tell.
Sokari Ekine is an activist with a background in human rights in Africa. She presently works with The Global Women’s Strike and Kabissa: Space for Change in Africa. Sokari blogs at Black Looks, Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine and Niger Delta Solidarity Campaign, and is the African correspondent for MediaShift.