Every week a designer in an editorial office in South Africa lays out a weekly 30-page issue of a local English-language publication. The paper is produced by a small team of 9 locals. They report on key events from across the continent, debunk fake news and investigate crime and corruption.
But there is one big difference from the typical outlet – they never send their issue to print. A weekly 30-page PDF goes straight to their readers’ private messages on WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and emails. The Continent does not have a print edition, a website, a group chat or a channel for that matter.
They call this “the WhatsApp Distribution Model” (note: the model now includes other messenger apps, but WhatsApp was its genesis).
Launched in April 2020, the publication already has more than 15 thousand subscribers on WhatsApp and a few more thousand on other platforms. According to internal surveys, the average subscriber sends the paper to at least 7 contacts, creating a community of more than 100 thousand consumers weekly. Though the real number could be much larger.
Perhaps more importantly – this subscription model seems to be highly resistant to authoritarian pressure. Operating on an independent encrypted messaging platform makes the weekly almost impossible to shut down.
Subscribing is simple: a reader just sends a message to a local phone number. After receiving the issue in pdf format they can resend it to their colleagues, friends or family – all for free. The only thing The Continent team asks subscribers is to send the paper only to those who they think “would appreciate reliable news from a continental perspective.”
The Continent team didn’t invent the WhatsApp distribution model. It was originally conceived by another African multi-platform media, 263Chat, which is based in Zimbabwe. But The Continent took it to another level – making the messenger their only distribution method.
Production for messengers has its challenges. The layout is very different from that of classical newspapers. Also stories are much shorter – just about 300 words.
“I think that also is a big part of our success – people know that they can read our stories quickly. They are accessible, but they still have a lot of substance,” says Simon Allison, The Continent’s editor-in-chief.
At the same time, the venture is strikingly simple. “I don’t understand why every media house in the world is not publishing in this way,” Allison adds.
The Fix met with Simon Allison at the IPI World Congress in Vienna in September 2021 and asked him to reveal the details of The Continent’s success.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Fix: Why did you go with WhatsApp? What made it your platform of choice?
Simon Allison: We wanted to reach audiences that could not really afford data. In many African countries you buy specific data-WhatsApp bundles. You may not be able to access the internet but you can access WhatsApp.
We also thought it was really important to create a newspaper, because a news website is a bewildering choice of where to click. With a newspaper you guide a reader through the content [you publish and find the most important – The Fix]. We wanted to create a newspaper that works in a digital form, so this is what we ended up doing.
TF: You were really only the second ones to do that. It must have been not very common for users?
SA: Users share information via WhatsApp – messages, memes, images. Also, a lot of fake news is shared on WhatsApp. People were very comfortable with sharing news, but the problem was that those news pieces were produced by people who are not journalists, who had some kind of an agenda.
Our audience was actually very familiar with transmitting information via WhatsApp and when we gave them real news they enthusiastically shared it and it formed the foundation of our distribution model. We actually work very hard to keep as few subscribers as possible.
TF: That is an unusual thing to hear from media publishers. Why is that?
SA: It’s because of the technical challenges of distributing on WhatsApp, which has strict restrictions on mass broadcasts. They want to stop people from using WhatsApp for spam and fake news.
You can only send a message to 256 people per hour, that’s the maximum. With our 15 thousand subscribers it takes us almost the whole weekend. The more people we have the longer it takes us to send every edition.
We prefer to have a smaller number of really committed subscribers, because they are really our distribution network. We send to them and then they send to their friends and family and colleagues. We get an exponential increase in circulation.
TF: Most publishers who use messenger apps for distribution do it through groups or channels. You send your paper directly to private messages.
SA: We don’t do it through groups because when you are in a group you can see everyone else who is in a group. That’s a security risk in countries where the media sphere is persecuted. We don’t want a security agent to be in a group and see all the people and their phone numbers – that could be problematic.
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TF: How do you get people to send you a “subscribe” message? How do you advertise/ market the publication?
SA: We do not advertise or market at all. The very first edition we produced in April last year, we sent it to our friends and family and our colleagues. We told them: “If you like it – please share it”.
We said people who really like it can send us a message and be added to our subscription list.” By the end of the first weekend we had around one thousand subscribers. These were people from 30 countries we had never heard of.
We don’t know what non-subscribers do with the paper and who they share it with. Even though we think that real numbers are much bigger, we can’t really measure those.
TF: How do you measure your influence and your subscriptions?
SA: We do regular surveys and ask them – how they like our product and what they do with it. That’s how we get our estimates. Some people do not share at all, some people share with one or two contacts and then 20% of subscribers share it in multiple WhatsApp groups and with multiple individuals. That’s where we get the big numbers.
TF: Do you have subscribers on any other platforms? Do you plan to move them from WhatsApp to let’s say email or a website?
SA: We prefer them to be on a mobile messaging platform like WhatsApp, because it is more immediate communication. The way people engage with WhatsApp is different to the way people engage with email. Email is always professional, there is lots of spam. WhatsApp tends to be only your friends and family that communicate with you.
TX: What does your communication with readers look like? Is it strictly “can I subscribe and thank you” or do people message you all kinds of stuff?
SA: People message us all the time and we were not expecting that. Distribution is done manually, there is no software; a person with a phone sends out the PDF.
So when people respond there is a real person responding to them. So we get loads of feedback every week on our issues and stories. But we’ve also become an informal fact checking service. People often receive something from their family and send it to us asking to “verify this for us” and we do. It is almost always fake news, but we are very happy about playing that role.
We have a lot of tips from our readers. Like “I am in Burkina Faso and this is the big story, do something about it”.
TF: Who is in charge of distribution?
SA: We have a team of two people who do that. On Telegram and Signal it’s easy, you just press one button. WhatsApp is the difficult one. In most of South Africa WhatsApp is by far the dominant messenger. I am pretty sure that all the Signal subscribers are other journalists, because I don’t know anyone who uses Signal in Africa.
TF: How does this distribution model shape your relationships with other stakeholders in the market? Do, let’s say, state authorities treat you like a real media player or like some online joke?
SA: I don’t think they understand what’s happening. We have a content sharing partnership with the Mail and Guardian, a South African newspaper. We only get feedback from governments when Mail and Guardian republishes a story. They don’t understand what’s going on yet. I don’t think that will last long, but I like the space it gives us.
Occasionally we receive feedback. We did a big story on Rwanda recently and they were very angry with us. But Rwanda’s government is the most technologically advanced in Africa, they are a lot more attuned to different ways of doing things.
TF: But they cannot shut you down anyway, can they?
SA: No, and that’s one of the benefits. We exist in South Africa that has one of the best media protection laws in the world, so we can use those laws and that security to tell stories about Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia – countries that are very restrictive.
Then we can send our PDF to those countries. The government at no point can see what we are doing, they can’t see us sending one PDF to this one person in their country. It is a private network, encrypted, it goes straight to people’s phones, they then share it with their friends and family. So it is effectively uncensorable.
TF: How do you monetise these over 100 thousand readers? You are free for readers, right?
SA: It has to be free, because you don’t have any control over it. You can’t put a paywall up because people won’t be able to share.
There are a lot of obstacles to membership models in Africa. Especially for us as pan-African paper – paying money from one African country to another is a nightmare. If we pay a journalist 100 dollars for a short news story we have to pay a bank 50 dollars to transfer that money to him. That makes membership models almost impossible because the cost of doing business is so high.
In the short term we rely on donor funding and so far we’ve been very successful.
TF: What about advertising or other commercial products?
SA: Advertising is the next big thing. We started with that two weeks ago. A major African bank approached us and said: “We’d want to advertise with you, but we also want you to write some stories on a topic we’d choose” [As a form of native ad – The Fix].
We weren’t sure, so we explained the situation to our readers and asked them what we should do. Should we take this money or should we not?
We got a huge response – more than 10% of our subscriber base responded and engaged. More than 80% said no problem, we understand that journalism is expensive. As long as you are not trying to trick us and you are clear with us. So we are going to go for it. We’ve been approached by small advertisers, but we said no to them.
TF: Is there demand for African news?
SA: There is a huge interest in international news written by African journalists with a local perspective. It is a fundamentally different way to approach the news. An example of this is the way we talk about vaccine access. The stories we write, as the countries that don’t have vaccines, are very different to stories you see in European or American newspapers.
But almost all the news accesible to Africa comes from Western organizations. It is quite unique to have an African-based organization with the African journalists writing the news. There is a huge demand for it. The same applies to Kiswahili and French.
TF: Do you consider becoming a distribution platform for other media? Can it be a paid service?
SA: Yeah, absolutely. My dream would be a free service for African papers and then Western papers pay a lot. It can be a form of wealth distribution.
TF: Do you plan to go beyond Africa? Let’s say Eastern Europe?
SA: I’d love it. That’s the thing – the starting costs are really small. Almost all (90 percent) of our budget goes straight to journalism, because distribution costs almost nothing.
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