By Aislinn Laing
Everyone agrees that investigative journalism is critical to safeguarding democracies, holding those in power to account and exposing wrongdoing. But with Google taking the traditional media’s share of advertising revenue, and media houses forced to cut headcounts and budgets, how can this vital area of news reporting be preserved?
Across the continent, different models are being tested. At the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC) in Johannesburg at Wits University, four investigative journalists leading the way shared their methods.
In Kenya, John-Allan Namu, an investigative journalist celebrated for his work exposing the extra-judicial killings of terror suspects by police, left his job in television last year to set up his own investigative journalism media house, Africa Uncensored (http://www.africauncensored.net). Working with a small group of reporters, his aim was to produce paid-for multimedia content, mainly documentaries, to sell to media outlets largely within Kenya.
The group has grasped thorny issues including protests against Kenya’s allegedly partisan electoral board, and the growing number of Kenyans joining the Somali terror group al-Shabaab. But Namu insists that while tales of terrorism will always sell, his organisation is also able to take a topic that wouldn’t necessarily grab an editor with a short attention span and turn it into media gold. Most recently, Africa Uncensored looked at seizures of public land around schools by unscrupulous developers, and the plight of Nairobi’s homeless.
For him, turning a profit is critical, and philanthropic funding does not provide a sustainable revenue stream. “Donor-funded journalism is not sustainable in Africa because of the change in funding cycles and interests,” he said. Instead, Africa Uncensored sells each story ready-packaged and with a price tag. “You count how much you’ve spent when you’re in the field and add a certain margin that will carry you through to your next story,” he said. “We look at ourselves as an organisation that does social good but you have to be able to sustain yourselves at the end of the day.”
For Alvin Ntibinyane, of the recently launched INK Centre of Investigative Journalism in Botswana (http://inkjournalism.org), funding from philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Initiative and USAid is his organisation’s lifeblood, making up 90 per cent of its income. “Because we were getting funding from USAid there were headlines screaming that we were CIA agents,” he said. “The attacks were not by government but from other newspapers. Our stories must speak for themselves.”
It has not always been easy – with two of the four founding members dropping out early on, nor is it lucrative, but it is beginning to get good hits in newspapers with exposes on the Botswana Defence Force’s alleged use of lethal force in tackling Namibian poachers, and the crackdown on media freedoms by President Ian Khama’s regime.
It also received significant exposure through its work with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in mining the Panama Papers.
Ntibinyane still receives support from his alma mater, South Africa’s AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism (http://amabhungane.co.za), which has taken in 50 fellows from around Africa in the past five years, who undertake three-month placements before returning to their original employers to apply what they have learned.
AmaBhungane has more than proved the need for the métier with its lengthy investigation into the Gupta family and its ties to President Jacob Zuma’s government, something now picked up by the public protector’s State of Capture report. The organization, which takes its name from the dung beetle and pledges to “dig the dung to fertilise democracy”, also receives funding from the Open Society along with five other foundations and private donations, making up around R250,000 in the past year.
Stefaans Brümmer, its managing partner, said that to preserve its independence, it does not accept funding from governments, or corporates, or for specific stories. “It’s been clear to our funders from the start that we don’t take instruction or suggestion,” he said.
As well as producing ready-made content for a host of partner news organisations, AmaBhungane has a strong voice in advocacy and successfully lobbied parliament in 2008 not to pass legislation that would obscure the details of company ownership.
In Senegal, Hamadou Tidiane Sy has been running the OuestAf (http://www.ouestaf.com/) reporting network for ten years but only recently came up with a business model. “When I started it was all about passion,” he said. “It’s only now, 10 years later, that I’ve realised if I want this to survive after me, I have to have a business model.”
He took advice from the consulting firm McKinsey that foundation funding would be his best option. “McKinsey told us we would struggle to get enough advertising,” he said. “And it was true, we’ve only had three or four advertisers in 10 years. We have a very strict policy where they are told that they cannot influence our editorial line.”
His focus is solely on traditional print journalism, but the organisation’s website and its single, paid journalist helps keep costs down. It is also selective about the stories it covers, which it places in partner newspapers as well as on its website.
“The premise is that we can’t cover everything, even the biggest media houses can’t do that,” he said. “We decide what we’re going to cover and do it in the best way we can do.”
This has included several series based on revelations from the Panama Papers, and a cross-border investigation into how creaking West African health systems exacerbated the Ebola crisis. Unlike some of his fellow panelists, his organisation seeks funding for specific projects. “So far those who have funded us have never interfered,” he said. “One of the reasons why they’re supporting us is because they believe we’re independent.”
Article by Aislinn Laing