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Local stories going global

Over the past couple of months I have been following a new African news portal, Africa News, the latest in a 12-year history of African online news media. I remember the excitement back in the late 1990s when broadband was first introduced and the subsequent rush of news and commercial online sites. Even more exciting for me was the launch in 1999 of Nigeriaworld, one of the first online portals providing news from Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country, as well as the continent as a whole. In many ways Nigeriaworld was ahead of its time: it didn’t just publish news but also created a space for the exchange of ideas by publishing articles submitted by readers, as well as providing users with  their own ‘web page’ to showcase themselves, their work and their ideas.  

In 2003 another Nigerian site was launched. The idea behind Nigeria Village Square (NVS) was to replicate the late-afternoon tradition of sharing ‘news, gossip, jokes, music, events’. In traditional African settings, people from all corners meet at the Village Square after a hard day's work to sip unadulterated palm-wine, to chat, dance and share opinions. Visitors to the square are warmly welcomed.

The Nigerian Village Square has been established to play this role for Nigerians and friends of Nigeria across the 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 chose to focus on publishing articles submitted by commentators, academics, activists and local celebrities rather than on providing news coverage. It is very much a Nigerian site: it has the feel and style of Nigeria, where the debates can be highly charged. This site is not for the faint-hearted and writers publish at their peril! A cursory glance at the articles’ titles and comments reveals much of the cynicism and humour that characterize Nigerian society. A good example is a piece by Okey Ndibe (no one is more critical of Nigeria than Nigerians) on 48 years of independence: ‘A fool at (almost) fifty’. Ndibe 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 sombre 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.’

Whilst the above sites have relied on providing a news portal together with commentary and analysis, Africa Interactive/Africa News goes much further, creating an organic site with content submitted from locally based citizen journalists using mobile phones and the internet to submit stories. I use the term ‘citizen journalists’ rather than ‘journalists’ or ‘citizens’ media’ as most of the reporters are freelance independent reporters, often from small communities, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to publish within a global context.  

The website’s aim is to publish a ‘more balanced view’ of the continent, a view in which news is not sensationalized, and where stories are locally produced, with Africans telling African stories. It is an ambitious project. Presently there are 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, how they hope to recruit and manage so many reporters.

‘We already do. 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. In short, Africanews.com gives African reporters a podium.’

Apart from a couple of Google Ads, the site relies on ‘partnerships’ with aid agencies and businesses for its funding, which they call the ‘Really Simply Reporting’ programme.  
‘For a reasonable fee, organizations can commission their own mobile reports. 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 communications. 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.’

The reports are presented on glossy sites, with professional videos. That’s fine, but I still have the sense that it allows the ‘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 pay the reporters for their work, which makes their careers more sustainable. In addition, there is a training centre in Accra, where editorial staff work with reporters on a daily basis.

You do not even have to be a journalist to register and contribute to the site. It is open to anyone, and everyone can benefit from the training and support offered.

The sheer amount of content on the site – text, photos, video and podcasts – can be overwhelming. To counter this, most of the written reports are short, informative stories of between 200 and 400 words. But as a result, the stories often lack depth. More background information would help the reader contextualize and fully understand the issues. This is very important when you are trying to overcome stereotypes and myths around Africa, and more linking would help solve the problem. The stories are generally accompanied by a photo or video, which adds to the vibrancy of the site.   

Africa News is an impressive venture, providing space to people who until now have been largely invisible. Independent journalists, bloggers and anyone with a story to tell can now have a voice. All they need is a mobile phone and a recorder – both of which are provided by Africa Interactive. 

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