A sombre mood has settled across the media sector as bad news hogs headlines. Fear of further restructuring and the inevitable retrenchments to follow have pushed anxiety levels to an all-time high.
Despite this, individuals have struck out on their own creating new business entities, forging new ways of work, tackling challenges and reaping the rewards of entrepreneurship. One such example is Mia Malan, founding editor in chief of Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, a not-for-profit based in Johannesburg.
Unsurprisingly the greatest challenges facing her and many others heading up media not-for-profits centre on securing funding, attracting top talent, strengthening donor and mainstream publisher relationships and ensuring sustainability.
Malan has directed her journalism skills gained over 25 years towards reporting on the health sector. Bhekisisa was initially established within the Mail and Guardian newspaper where it competed with finance and politics for space in the newspaper and on the publication’s home page.
A strong working relationship with then editor, Nic Dawes, plus her belief in adding value with investigative reporting and framing health as a social justice issue, saw Bhekisisa secure two pages in each edition and respect for health as a mainstream media issue.
In July 2019, six years after Bhekisisa’s launch, the centre struck out on its own to access online audiences beyond the M&G (it now syndicates copy to the Daily Maverick, News24 and the Mail & Guardian) and then experiencing the logistical and people related issues concerned with establishing a new entity.
The skill of attracting and keeping, donor funding
“You can’t operate without money…it can take a long time, often up to two or three years, to secure funding from a donor from making contact to receiving funds, the process is complicated and delicate and I had to learn proposal writing,” Malan says.
Is donor interference in editorial policy an issue? “Not if you choose the donors you partner with carefully – so that your and the donor’s objectives are similar. I often wonder why don’t people ask the same question about advertising or government interference?” she says.
“With donors it works the other way around (from advertising); you first tell them what you will do with their support in a proposal and then get the money. With advertising you get the money and then decide what to do with it.”
Bhesikisa’s major funder, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), is clear on its intention to inform policy within the health sector – Bhekisisa aims to achieve the same through its reporting and its audience consists of mainly decision makers, such as policymakers, academics, politicians and activists.
Her ongoing challenge is to meet the rigorous measurement standards set by donors. At the BMGF, she engages with experienced media people within the fund who understand that credibility and independence of the media organisations they fund are crucial; they also call for increased reporting on health matters from the highest level of policy making through to its impact at grass roots level.
In order to reach policymakers across platforms, Bhekisisa produces content in various forms – online, print, podcasts and videos – and distributes its content via several social media platforms to targeted audiences. Covid-19 has further entrenched the centre as credible communicators who craft content to create impact.
Partnerships offer scale and specialised skills
“Current mainstream media is grossly underfunded, the drop in advertising has resulted in fewer and fewer resources but there is still a need to maintain quality,” says Malan, who experienced this while at the Mail and Guardian and fears the Covid-19 lockdown will see further cuts in ad spend and hence staff at mainstream media houses relying on advertising and sponsored events for an income.
Her answer is to partner with entities offering specialised skills, enabling her to produce volumes of credible and relevant copy whilst keeping fixed overheads to a manageable level. Examples include MediaHack, a specialised journalism data skills operation and designers of a Covid-19 dashboard widely used by academics, writers and advisors to government; Eh!woza, a start-up out of Khayelitsha producing community level videos on health.
“Covid highlighted the need for policy influencers to see the impact (of the virus) at grass roots level and the partnership gives us content which we spread across mainstream media and our own audience via our website and social media, plus a diversity of views,” Malan says. “We recently got funding from Global Initiative for stories on Covid-related crimes, we are not crime reporters and have partnered with the media start-up ViewFinder with three investigations coming up.”
With the help of a marketing consultant she has learnt the power of branding, internally and cross branding with partnerships, securing advertising and sponsored posts for the Bhekisisa newsletter and fine-tuning the centre’s webinar profile.
In addition to online print partners, Bhekisisa enjoys relationships with Newzroom Afrika, the latter includes a daily slot offering viewers health information and updates on Covid-19. The centre’s multimedia content will also soon be broadcast by Soweto TV through a formal partnership.
In addition to reporting, her journalists find themselves collecting and analysing data, tracking the impact of their work, using social media to gain scale and participate in the media trainings and public discussion forums the centre offers.
”My job description, as the head of a donor-funded media start-up, and also those of my staff, is very different from that of editors and reporters at for-profit publications. For-profit organsiations don’t have to track their impact, from collecting information about who retweeted them, to detailed online metrics to surveys of how stories impacted readers, to the extent that non-profits do because of donor requirements,” she explains.
“They also don’t have to spend a considerably amount of their time to maintaining relationships with donors and attracting new donors; a third of my time is consumed with donor related work. It is a challenge to juggle so many things and translates into longer hours.”
Her passion for health journalism and the role and impact their work at Bhekisisa enjoys spur her on. To ensure sustainability is what keeps her awake at night. Her plans to ensure the longevity and relevance of Bhekisisa include working on increasing the levels of branding, solidifying and diversifying donor partnerships and renewing their funding agreement with the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation.
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