In late February, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan. It was an urgent call to action — immense suffering and considerable loss of life are widespread by the time famine is occurring. In this case, the dire situation in South Sudan was accompanied by crises in three other countries and potential disasters in many more.
Based on experience reporting on humanitarian disasters, the Voice of America developed a comprehensive plan to cover the story from all angles.
The project homepage features the latest stories and a short explainer video.
This time, though, we added a new ingredient: A dedicated website to focus our efforts and give visitors a comprehensive clearinghouse of reporting, data and expert analysis. How we went about developing the project holds lessons for others interested in doing deep dives on big stories.
Severe food insecurity in three African countries and Yemen is one of the biggest stories of 2017. The concurrent crises have displaced entire communities and, despite the efforts of dozens of humanitarian agencies, only deepened over time.
Yet, food insecurity is also one of the year’s most undercovered stories, especially the crises unfolding in northeastern Nigeria and parts of South Sudan and Somalia. Writing in the Washington Post in June, Jackson Diehl said: “[I]t’s shocking that so little heed is being paid to what the United Nations says is the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945: the danger that about 20 million people in four countries will suffer famine in the coming months, and that hundreds of thousands of children will starve to death.”
VOA has published nearly 100 original stories on the hunger crisis on our flagship English website. Hundreds of additional stories in multiple languages have been produced for radio and TV.
Reporting from conflict zones and makeshift health clinics, stringers on the ground have filed many of these stories. Additionally, the Africa Division sent two reporters, Abdulaziz Osman and Nicolas Pinault, to access the situation and produce multimedia reports.
How We Did It
A mix of language services and stringers around the world drive much of VOA’s reporting. Our Africa Division, for example, operates in 15 languages, reaching audiences across the continent and in the global diaspora. Our Central newsroom publishes exclusively in English, based increasingly on reporting that originates in our language services.
For the Hunger Across Africa project, VOA organized a team of journalists, developers and designers. Dino Beslagic, a developer with VOA’s Digital Team, helped with programming and managing the technology. Tom Detzel, an editor with Central, made editorial decisions to keep the topic accessible and engaging to a wider audience.
Anand Mistry, an animator with Central, helped create an explainer video, and Tatenda Gumbo, a producer with the Africa Division Digital Team, made coverage pages for 11 language services. Gumbo focused on creating layouts to highlight the best coverage from each service.
“Due to the varying root causes of drought in Africa and our coverage regions, I decided to use a region/service specific header image that reflects the results of the particular root cause, such as armyworms, El Nino or flooding,” Gumbo said.
We built dedicated coverage pages for 11 language services.
As a reporter with the Africa Division, I oversaw the design, development and editing of the project. The project team worked together to develop a plan and identify priorities. From the onset, we knew we wanted to:
1. Enhance existing reporting efforts. Rather than create new reporting demands, we wanted the project to complement efforts previously planned across our language services.
2. Utilize a custom design. As a standalone project, we wanted the Hunger Across Africa website to feel distinct but incorporate consistent branding. To that end, we developed a custom design for the project but used standard branding elements, including the VOA logo and established typography.
3. Work across language services. To benefit the biggest audience possible, we wanted to find ways to connect efforts on the English-language website with reports filed in 11 other languages.
4. Experiment with new storytelling formats. Like most newsrooms, VOA finds itself increasingly immersed in new approaches to telling stories, from data visualizations and explainer videos to interactive graphics. We saw this project as a great opportunity to try new tools.
Challenges & Next Steps
The Hunger Across Africa project wasn’t without its challenges. It took several weeks to build the initial site, plus many more hours to update and enhance it past the launch. It went through several prototypes, and the design changed significantly along the way. We didn’t always agree on the best technologies to use, but we made compromises to push the project forward. New internal processes and ways of collaborating stretched us past our comfort zones and, at times, encroached on our daily duties. Coordinating across multiple language services and divisions took time and careful planning, and picking the right mix of technologies and people took persistence and patience.
Overall, the project proved to be a success, both at face value and as a model for future efforts. It built on reporting efforts we already had planned and helped us bring attention to a story that simply hasn’t been covered enough. Most importantly, the project provided a framework for experimenting with new digital tools and collaboration formats while helping us stay focused on our mission.
Despite the challenges, we continue to feed the site with our daily reporting on the subject.
The project has received a steady stream of visitors around the world since its debut in April. Closer to home, the impact was evident when printouts from the project were distributed at a House subcommittee hearing where policy makers were discussing important foreign aid funding decisions.
We learned a number of lessons along the way that other newsrooms might also benefit from:
1. Start with the right story. Picking the right story was essential to justify the time and effort that the project would demand. Severe food insecurity made sense on several levels. We knew the story would persist for months, and there were many angles to explore, from conflict and disease to humanitarian responses and efforts to find long-term solutions.
2. Take a “minimum viable product” approach. Rather than wait to develop every aspect of the project before launching it, we kept notes on all possible features and identified the core set needed to produce a “minimum viable product.” We launched the initial site after a few weeks and gathered feedback in and outside the building before finessing and adding new features.
3. Don’t over-engineer it. We knew we needed ways to organize the stories in the project, but it wasn’t clear that a full-fledged database or content management system was warranted. A happy medium emerged in the form of Google Sheets, which we used to track and label stories.
4. Look for opportunities for self-reflection. Tracking drought and famine-related stories for this project helped us reflect on our reporting. We used the chart tools in Google Sheets to track how many stories were being published about each affected country. This made it clear that our online English coverage focused far more on Somalia than South Sudan. After noting this, we took steps to achieve more of a balance.
5. Work across silos early and often. Staffers from across the newsroom had a hand in developing the Hunger Across Africa website. For our efforts to bear fruit, we knew effective communication would be essential. We accomplished this with both digital and analog tools. To exchange ideas on the design and development of the project, we used Slack, the popular group chat platform. To facilitate communication on the production of an explainer video, we produced storyboards and used them to convey and refine visual ideas. We used Github to track changes to the project and share code among the team.
Salem Solomon is a digital journalist with the Voice of America’s Africa Division, where she covers the latest news from across the continent. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Poynter.org, Reuters and The Tampa Bay Times.