Local Journalism Is A Public Service—And Needs Everyone’s Support
News and information is a public good and must be supported by everyone. Image by Unsplash
Journalism as a public service is as vital to people’s lives as is education and public health, and must be supported by all and sundry, not only those who create it.
BULAWAYO (The Citizen Bulletin) — A majority of Zimbabweans I know, and have interacted with in different fora, want free education and free health. In fact, many local politicians often use the promise of free public health and education as a campaign gimmick because they know that’s a long hanging fruit to many of their followers.
However, no one, including politicians and pro-democracy activists, openly campaign for news and information as a public good. That, in my view, is partly the reason why the Zimbabwean media is constricted, overly controlled and seriously underfunded.
Over the past two years, my team and I have been working tirelessly to rebuild The Citizen Bulletin and reposition it into a hybrid, member-first news outlet. The journey has been mixed with jubilation, hope, disappointment, and despair. It’s not easy to grow a nonprofit news venture completely reliant on donor funding into an established hybrid news outlet powered by a combination of revenue sources including corporate sponsorships, membership fees and native advertising, amongst others.
There are several factors that render this a Herculean task. But two stand out. The first is Zimbabwe’s nationalized news ecosystem that enabled the State to build a State-only media sphere at the expense of local, independent news outlets. The second is Zimbabwe’s comatose economy that obliterated traditional advertising, the media’s major cash cow. The Citizen Bulletin was born during these tough times, and just like other independent nonprofit media, has been surviving through grants, which many a times, do not come without strings attached.
For example, many funding organizations in Zimbabwe focus on critical sectors such as public health, education, and food security. A few of them focus on advocacy work including but not limited to human rights activism. Because of this, many nonprofit media organizations brand themselves as quasci-media organizations, throwing themselves into unholy spaces, reserved for pressure groups. To attract funding, these organizations engage in advocacy work, and many other issue-driven activities that have nothing to do with journalism as we know it.
The Citizen Bulletin has over the years strived to stay true to its mission and refused to join the bandwagon of emerging nonprofit media organizations driven by cash rather than principles underpinning the practice of journalism. Perhaps, this explains why almost all our grants have come from Foundations that strictly support media work, and not advocacy and or activism.
Operating under such a complicated environment requires innovation. But innovation requires boldness because not every iteration works. Over the past year, we have been struggling to launch a membership initiative. Membership is touted across many established media markets including the United States and United Kingdom amongst others, as a panacea to the sustainability and trust problem facing the news media today.
However, although Membership as a revenue model for news has worked in several parts of the world, including in neighboring South Africa, in Zimbabwe, it has only been successful in spaces such as politics religion and sports though there isn’t much empirical data to show what exactly drives people to support certain causes, and not others, such as the media.
That’s why, as a pioneer in this field, we, at The Citizen Bulletin, have been struggling to launch Membership although we have spent so much time and resources orienting would-be members and marketing the novel approach to our followers. It’s a tall order. It’s difficult to convince people who don’t understand that journalism, just like education and public health, is a public service. I believe that educating people that journalism is as vital to people’s everyday lives as are other public services and goods is an integral part of all civic engagement efforts. It shouldn’t only be the news media touting itself as a public good.
Religious and political groups as well as business organizations must add their voices, and champion this cause. The media did that when these sectors needed to lure members for their own causes. At that time the media didn’t need members because advertising was still its breadwinner which single handedly ensured its survival. We also need civically engaged and media literate citizens who know and understand that without local journalism, democracy dies in darkness. That’s why we all need to support journalism as a public service.
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In December 2021, my team and I posted an appeal for donations for our newsroom work in one of our WhatsApp groups. The response was overwhelming. We had a dozen of our readers committing to support our reporting through monetary donations, not just content sharing and news tips. We were at long last inspired. At least there is hope in something we had initially thought would take us decades to breakthrough.
Our team is now using insightful feedback we have received from our readers over the past several months to prepare to launch a well-rounded membership initiative from which we hope to unlock several other revenue streams such as paid events, merchandise sales and advertising, not just membership fees.
Public service , Hyperlocal reporting, Bulawayo
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