In 2019, I decided that I wanted to start a media company. The problem? I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be about. I knew from having freelanced with some of the biggest media companies in the world that I was passionate about telling minority stories, yet I was cognizant of how little space existed for me to do that. It was that realization that gave clarity to what the platform I needed to start had to focus on, and yet I struggled with a sense of place. I was a Nigerian living in Uganda and who felt a dedication to both countries, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted my platform to tell minority stories from Nigeria or from Uganda, or both.
I eventually decided on Africa as a whole, and that is how Minority Africa was born. I created the website and social media pages, made a four-page PDF that I shared with a few friends, and I formed a five-person team from my immediate network. Our goal was simple; use data-driven multimedia journalism to tell minority solutions stories from across Africa. It was much harder than it sounded to implement in actuality though. When we launched in November 2019, the reception was huge. Everyone talked about the necessity of spaces like ours but there was not as much information or conversation about the work that goes into making media platforms like ours exist and continue to exist. I could say this was our very first struggle. While we certainly did have the support of the Media Challenge Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network (which gave us our first grant), without both organizations we certainly would not have made it this far.
There was also so much which we didn’t know, about laws for instance, and business, and entrepreneurship, things neither of these organizations could have given us at the time because we were not even asking. How does one seek the knowledge they don’t know they are lacking? In my interaction with other media founders, I’ve found this to be a common struggle, the very first media viability challenge we face is perhaps inexperience about what makes media viable. Here I was at 21, doing this big thing and with this huge imposter syndrome. There’s a lot of belief in the readiness of people who start huge projects like a media platform, and that can be good, but it can also eliminate the space for often needed support. A much better approach would be to consistently ask media founders to communicate what they need and to reassure them that they do not have to perform readiness, in the way that Minority Africa felt like we needed to.
We launched a few months before the pandemic gripped the world and that cut off a lot of the interaction that we would have had merely by being able to see people. It also cut off many of the plans we had for stories. And so here we were, trying to adapt with only $2,500 in our account. The first year as a media company is never easy but it’s even harder in the middle of a pandemic. In my home country of Nigeria, media companies experienced a significant drop in revenue due to a drop in sales and advertisement, which correspondingly led to a drop in salaries.
Newsrooms in the U.S. are believed to have recorded losses that amount to $30 billion in 2020 and, as of July, The New York Times estimated that more than 37,000 journalists had lost their jobs. Despite the 73% of U.S. newsrooms that experienced significant to severe drops in revenue, 14% reported experiencing stable and even growing revenues last year. At Minority Africa, all of our staff was volunteering or remote with other things they were doing, so it was mostly a per time role or “when you have the time to do it” role.
This means that we didn’t have to worry about salaries and that the grant we had was channeled towards producing content and paying freelancers. We also were running as a non-profit newsroom for the very first months. This changed when we started to attend media viability training sessions organized by the Aga Khan University in Kenya and began to see the ways in which we could make our revenue streams not just support the publication, but also give us profit.
Our focus was equally different. While the metric for success in most newsrooms is numbers, the metric for success for us was and continues to be retention. Numbers are great, yes, but more than sharing us, we want people to remember us. This meant that from the start, advertising was not a source of revenue we considered. We didn’t want our content to be tuned to the needs of advertisers, but we also knew that advertising could tip our success metric from being retention-based to numbers-driven.
Advertising revenue in media companies has declined in the last few years and it likely will continue to do so. It is impossible for a newspaper, whether online or not, to compete with the algorithms of tech giants like Facebook. Any newspaper which dares to stops being one. The media can’t and shouldn’t rely on advertising. It can work in some instances, but we figured out early in our first year that it was not a viable revenue model, especially because of the scope of stories we were looking to cover.
If we’re going to stand the test of time, the media needs to look beyond conventional hanging fruits for revenue, like advertising. So what should we be looking at? At Minority Africa, one of the revenue models we decided was more likely to work was an e-learning platform that features short courses on minority issues for minorities, but also for allies and co-conspirators. The goal: to help them become more aware of the proper way to approach ally ship. This platform is still in the works and will go live in the second half of this year.
It may or may not work, even though the indicators point to the former. The global e-learning market is predicted to grow to $336.98 billion by 2026. Estimates also show that revenues from the e-learning industry have grown by more than 900% since 2000 and this is expected to triple by 2025. We’d also not be the first media company to incorporate online courses alongside our journalism. CNN has launched CNN courses.
The reluctance of other media platforms, I think, to consider or adopt this model coils from the idea that journalism cannot teach something. This old-fashioned belief in “objectivity” exists without the realization of many that when the idea of journalism as objective was introduced, it was the method that was believed to be objective — not the journalist. At Minority Africa, we are also running what must certainly be one of the slowest newsrooms in Africa. We publish one to two stories each week.
The future of media hinges on our ability to go beyond breaking the news, and to un-break it, as well. We must give context and background to audiences about what a policy means to them, or what it means to certain groups of people. There’s a lot of news and we cannot compete with social media to break it. What we can do, however, is un-break it. The Correspondent raised $2.6 million in 2019 to do this. It closed in 2020, but what failed wasn’t the model, simply the execution.
It was proof that people will give to media they think can help them make sense of the news. Minority Africa will, at some point, open up for donations, and we believe people will give to us if they both remember us and if they trust us. It’s something newsrooms must keep in mind: Our value proposition has shifted, no thanks to social media, from providing people with news to providing people with reliable news and news that provides context.
I’ll close with this. I remember once reading a post from Nigerian American author and blogger Luvvie Ajayi, in which she said a follower of her blog who has a hearing impairment had asked her to include transcriptions in her video vlogs. Luvvie ended this post with the phrase, “Thank you for asking what you need.” It stayed with me as we designed Minority Africa. The idea for Minority Africa might have come to me but it is in so many ways because minorities constantly asked for what they needed and constantly continue to do so. So thank you to every minority community and person. Thank you for asking for what you need.
This article was published in Poynter, in collaboration with the Media Challenge initiative, a youth-driven non-profit based in Uganda dedicated to building the next generation of journalists.
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