Taking publishing where the audience is, with The Continent's Kiri Rupiah
Learn how publishing on WhatsApp and Signal works for The Continent
Kiri Rupiah is the Communities Editor at The Continent, a publication that covers stories from around Africa in their weekly newspaper. The paper is distributed over WhatsApp, Signal and email.
We spoke to Kiri over a call about The Continent’s journey since its inception two years ago. They recently crossed 100 issues, and they’ve got an audience of tens of thousands (though given that they publish via messaging apps getting the exact numbers for how many people their newspaper reaches is tricky).
We were excited to talk to Kiri, because we really enjoy The Continent’s format, and we wanted to learn more about how she and her team work. The Continent arrives on WhatsApp and Signal in a PDF-format, with large text that makes it easy to read on the phone while maintaining the familiarity of a newspaper. Their content includes ground reports, reviews, analysis, data stories, photo essays and feature stories.
To subscribe to The Continent, email SUBSCRIBE TheContinent@mg.co.za or WhatsApp or Signal +27 73 805 6068
Here’s our conversation with Kiri, edited for brevity. And if you’d prefer to listen to the interview, here’s where you can find our podcast.
In Old News: What is your day-to-day like as the Communities Editor?
Kiri: Okay, so my day-to-day has no set day-to-day because I myself am a journalist. So I do a lot of the writing and I do a lot of editing. But my job is to ensure that we have a community of writers across the African continent who can tell us stories about things that are happening in their countries, whether you are in Mauritius or the Seychelles or in Ghana or wherever it is that you are.
There seems to be a bit of a disconnect in the sense that people are thinking the things that we're dealing with in Johannesburg are not the same things that people are dealing with in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], or people thinking, well, we have fuel crises here, but like people in Mozambique don't have those. So my job is to basically create a stable of writers that can step into the breach and not just parachute — because we hate that, parachuting people into situations.
I want to be able to say, you know what? I want to know what's happening in Senegal. All right. Why are people protesting the price of fuel? I don't want to have to send somebody in. I want to speak to somebody who's already there. What's happening on the ground? What are people talking about? Why is this important? Why should the rest of the continent care? So that is my job as the Communities Editor. So my job as a Communities Editor sometimes overlaps into distribution because that is… my primary job also is distribution, make sure that everybody gets a copy of The Continent whether they are on Telegram or Signal or Whatsapp or email. You are supposed to get a copy of The Continent.
And so the job — the jobs — basically overlap. And I've had an opportunity to just basically, like go through borders without going through borders. So that's my job. When I worked at The Mail & Guardian before I came onto The Continent full time, the newsletter was basically an extension of what I did every day. I was the digital editor for The Mail & Guardian for over four years, and I was writing every single day.
Every single day I was writing at least two types of copy, you know, news or at least a rundown of what was happening throughout the day. And in a way, it did sort of give me on-the-job training on like how to make stories compelling, but short and sweet because we are in an attention economy. Right? You are torn between Snap, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, your mom texting you, your friends telling you what's happening. So it taught me how to get stories out there as quickly as possible. Be very reliable, be very quick and be very accurate. And so, yeah, it really did help with what I currently do.
In Old News: How did the idea behind publishing The Continent via messaging services start?
Kiri: It started basically in The Mail & Guardian newsroom. We've always had this thing where the Africa desk of most newspapers is almost like a separate entity from the rest of the paper. You know, it's treated as though this is a little special project that you write little bits of copy and it's not taken as seriously as, let's say, the business beat or the health beat or maybe if you have a crime beat or whatever.
And we realised in our writing and in our reporting, that a lot of people did not know about the things that were happening on their own continent. They would find out things through AFP, Reuters, international platforms that are outside the continent. They might have bureaus here, but they actually based elsewhere. And they have a lot of stringers and they’ll have a lot of reporters and whatnot, but they are people that are usually brought in to do the reporting, but not a lot of them are actually based in and on the continent. Right? So we have this thing where people want to know what's happening in the same way that you want, wherever you are based, you want to know what's happening with your news locally. But then there's like a dearth of good, reliable information and the kind of stuff that you do get is like snippets and whatever. So we decided to experiment with, how about we actually take on this beat and we treat it as a proper, serious part of the newspaper?
We do serious, in-depth reporting about the continent, about people living on the continent. And we don't just take, you know, wire copy from Reuters and the AFP and all that. [Wire copy] helps, it's great padding, but it doesn't give you a full understanding, a comprehensive understanding, of what's happening on the continent. And then while we were talking about these things and having these conversations and doing our reporting, we realized that a lot of times newsrooms expect the audience to come to them. Right? If you build, they will come. Rather than us going to where our audience is. A lot of people in the so-called Global South use messaging apps. That is their primary means to talk to colleagues, to talk to family members, to share information, to get information. And we realised, especially at the beginning of COVID, when we know there were mass lockdowns all over the African continent, especially, there was a lot of misinformation growing and being shared on these platforms, especially Whatsapp.
But we're expecting people to come to our website, use your data, share this thing on your Twitter. But we are not taking into account that a lot of people are on these [messaging] platforms and using these platforms. And we should go where they are. Instead of asking them to come to us. How about we approach our audience? We meet them where they are.
In Old News: What does The Continent’s news cycle look like?
Kiri: The thing is, our mantra has never been breaking news. There are so many people in the world that are doing breaking news. Everybody is doing breaking news. You have the BBC World Service, you have CNN. You have Sky. You have Al-Jazeera. You have AJ+. Anyone and everyone can do breaking news.
But we tend to go for the more in-depth, considered news cycle. I want you to be able to quote me a week from now, and I want you to have the kind of information where even if that information changes a week from now… Let's just say we're talking about monkeypox. And then there's the rollout of monkeypox vaccine a week from now. I want us to be able to create the kind of news where we are giving people the means and the tools to make sense of their world without feeling like, oh, my goodness, I'm missing out. The problem with social media, especially, and the way social media has like commodified news in a sense, is that you always need to be on a cycle.
And if you miss that one day, you can miss the whole thing. Okay, this is a silly one, but like, think of the way the Don't Worry, Darling meta-drama is happening, right? If you miss one thing, you've missed a key component of the story. And now you’re out of the loop and you have to backtrack and catch up.
That's not our job. My job is to ensure that whatever happens in this week's news cycle, I've made it so that you can understand and go further than what I have given you. We have written in issue 98, [that] there is an issue with African governments basically abandoning their citizens in foreign countries when it comes to, let’s say the example of the FIFA World Cup. My job is done in the sense that I've written the piece, but now you can go further and now do your own reading and going further than the story. That is our main thing. And that requires good, considered, measured journalism. That is it. No bells and whistles. No pretty lights. Just basic journalism.
In Old News: Does the way that you publish protect you from government pressures?
Kiri: If you have a print publication, you can have police raid you. They can walk into your offices, shut down the paper, take it away, whatever. You can have your website shut down. But how are you going to shut down Whatsapp? How are you going to shut down Signal? How are you going to shut down email? So we've been lucky in the sense that the platforms in the way that they are built have helped us be borderless.
You can't stop us from getting in. We are everywhere and we can get to anyone at any point, at any time.
In Old News: Has there ever been one story or any moment in the last couple of years where you've considered breaking the one-week cycle just for this one update?
Kiri: No. This is the thing, though, with a lot of audience growth and all that stuff. We're relatively young. We're less than three years old. Right? And we've built this, I hate to say a brand, but like we've built this brand and we've built this movement in a way because we've been consistent about the way we do things.
You can reliably know that we're going to do things a certain way. It is tempting. It is. It's very tempting. But, you know, the guys come on, this is such a hot story. This is such a hot thing. And everyone's talking about it in the world. And what if by the time we get to Friday we've missed the boat and we are now on the back foot?
But I think people really do appreciate how we do things and they appreciate that slow news, that thinking of ‘this thing is important enough for us to really take things slow and give you multiple angles for you to work out what's going on with this story.’ I mean, it would be great if we could, you know, just be dynamic enough to just [give] a Wednesday copy, a Tuesday copy but people do come to us specifically for that slowness. So it's just a matter of balancing those priorities. Right? I want to give you something of quality, but then also I want to ensure that I've given you something that's going to last longer than the news cycle.
In Old News: Is PDF sent over messaging more accessible than other formats? And are you planning on experimenting with other formats?
Kiri: Our thinking was PDFs because you can still put links if you if you really want to, but mostly the data costs, right? In the Global South, a lot of people use mobile apps and data is not exactly accessible, especially in South Africa. South Africa has one of the highest data costs in the world. And you want people to read this thing. And then also they're using their airtime and you want them to read this newspaper. But you want them to avoid the paywalls and the signing ups and whatever. It was literally in terms of how do we make this thing as easy for people to get and read as possible.
It wasn't so much technical like this is the best format for you to read it in. It's just how do you make it as easy as possible for you to get it and read it? And to pass it on. And PDF is easier. The whole thing with us is: experiment, experiment, experiment. If it doesn't work out, fine. But maybe a year from now, you and I are going to be talking about how we are now putting out voice notes for people to share on WhatsApp. Everything is on the table, there are no restrictions because at the end of the day, what is the most convenient way for you to get your news? Do you want it as a video? Let's say, blue sky, the data costs all around the world drop. And now you’re able to watch videos and all that stuff. But also think about the fact that as I mentioned earlier, we are in an attention economy. You only have so much time to watch a video. You only have so much time to listen to this podcast. You only have so much time to listen to a voicenote. What is the most convenient and easiest way for you to get this thing from us?
Read it, digest it, share it. For now, it’s a PDF… Maybe a year from now, six months from now, who knows? You're going to say to me, actually, I'd prefer it if you’d send me voice notes of your stories. We could experiment with that and we'll see how our audience reacts. That's also the beauty of being a newsroom.
You tell me what works for you? What doesn't work for you? So we're constantly evolving, experimenting, trying new things. If it doesn't work out, that's okay. It's not, you know, the end of the world. But the main thing is to not be afraid to try. Just try.
In Old News: How have you managed to grow your audience of more than 17,000k? Is it primarily word of mouth? And which areas are you seeing the most growth in?
Kiri: We are growing because we have always needed two things: 1) Make it as easy for our readers to find our publication as possible. Right? That was the main thing. Make it as easy as possible for you to find it right; 2) Focus. Focus. Focus. No matter whether we one day pivot to video or podcast, or text, or whatever we were going to do. Our main goal was we had readers in mind. And when you have a reader in mind, you think about the amount of time and effort that they're going to take to read this thing.
You need to give them consistently quality, reliable journalism. I don't care what you do. It doesn't matter what you do, whether you're making video content, whether you're making text. It doesn't matter. Our North Star has been and will always be quality, reliable African journalism from an African perspective, always. Always. That was always our thing. And I think people really appreciate that. Right? Instead of just, you know, it’s an afterthought or you know, this week maybe, you know, it's not that big a deal.
We have always thought to ourselves, we ourselves are journalists and as journalists, we are readers. And what do I want to read? I want to read quality. I want to read something that I know is reliable. I want to share something with you, knowing that you're not going to come back to me and say, ‘What the hell is this?’ You know what I mean? That was our main thing. And then in terms of demographics, we've noticed that we actually, while we're growing quite consistently and steadily on the African continent, especially with young people, we’ve got quite a young readership, like we've got your 18 to 34 professionals and also, you know, people that are making decisions. We also have quite a large readership that is outside of the continent.
We have people that you know, people in Australia, people in the UK, people in Germany. People who say things like, ‘this wasn't covered on German news. I didn't even know this was happening.’ Or you know, ‘I am based in the US and some of the information that's coming out of the African continent, especially from like family members or colleagues, it's very disjointed. It doesn't it doesn't seem like priority news.’ And here is a publication, that comes out weekly, is free and is accessible to me on the platform that I choose. So we are getting a lot of, you know, people that are saying, well, thank you for this because this is not how it is reported on our side. On our side is this Western lens right of Africa is always on “the cusp.”
Same with how a lot of people report about India. Right? India is also on “the cusp.” India is not there yet, it is about to be there. Despite the fact that it's like one of the largest economies in the world, one of the youngest economies in the world or one of the most dynamic economies in the world. It's always India is like about to happen, something’s about to happen. You know, or this is why you should care. Not so much, you know, written for an Indian audience like, hey, this is why this is important to you as a person who lives there or a person who works there, but rather like this is why you as a person who is outside the country should care. And so we are growing concurrently those kinds of demographics. And it's quite encouraging.
In Old News: How do you navigate the lack of analytics when using messaging apps as a publishing platform?
Kiri: For me, while [messaging apps] are like great, as in, I can infiltrate all these little networks and all that. Right? I'm also at a back foot in the sense that because these are closed networks and these are closed platforms, there's certain information about things that I can't get. While WhatsApp, you know, is a closed network and I can't, you know, I can't put a tracker on PDFs and [be able to] tell [that] “you shared this seven times and then it went to seven other people.”
We've been able to also basically predict through the University of Witwatersrand, they've been trying to help us almost like figure out the virology of sharing. Yet it's not ideal. And I wish I had, you know, the way that you can, you know, drill down with a Google console, right? Where you can tell exactly that you opened it on an Android phone and that you are based in this part of the world, and that you are in this demographic and whatever. But for me, as I spoke about, you know, with the whole slow thing, it's not growth for the sake of growth. I don't want to be massive for the sake of being massive.
I want there to be impact. My work has to have impact. The Continent has to have impact. More than, ooh, you know, I reach 100,000 people on average each week. I want to know that it is not just falling by the wayside. You can just blast out. You can blast it out. Share it with anyone and everyone.
But this is the reason why, if you receive The Continent by email, you get that endnote where we say, please share it with people who appreciate and would like to read news from an African perspective. Our job is not about… we are not here to grow. When you're talking about growth, most times it's to get advertisers and then advertisers give you money. And those are the considerations, commercial considerations. That's not where my mind is. My mind is impact. My mind is, did you receive it? My mind is on how many people received it from you? What did you gain from reading it? What would you like to see more of? Growth, most times when you're talking in a newsroom, growth, you know, audience reaching out, blah, blah is almost always for commercial reasons. Advertising. I'm not an advertiser. I'm a journalist. I want you to read it. That's what I want from you. That’s it.
2017 was when things really got a bit wild, where people were making stuff for the sake of making stuff so we could get your eyeballs on the thing. But there was no real impact. Right? Especially when the pivot to video, you remember? The great pivot to video where everyone was like, we're making video content, but like, okay, great, but what is it? What are you doing? Why? And then it turned out, you know, Facebook had been fudging those numbers and now, Crowdtangle is not working the way that it used to because, you know, they were messing with those numbers.
For me, I'm very encouraged that people are coming, especially journalists are coming back towards our main focus and our North Star [that] was the journalism and our readers and not bells and whistles and lights and, you know, and quizzes and whatever. Our thing was, we were here to report and people are thirsty for that. They want that, they need that, and they're appreciative of that.
So I'm glad we're going back to that. Now, everybody is off to Tik Tok. But then it also kind of seems like we didn't learn from that 2017 mess. The one when everyone had a forum and everyone had a voice on the Internet and everyone was just [chasing] whatever seemed to just get you a little uptick in eyeballs. We all ran that way and we were all listening to the side and whatever. And it doesn't seem as though we caught on properly to that. There's nothing wrong. Fine. Look, if that's the place where people are going to find the news, especially young people, then so be it. But I think we need to slow down and really think about what happened the last time we did this?
How did that work out? And how do we move forward without compromising our values as journalists? Like, how do we do that? And yeah, I'm encouraged. But then also I'm like, oh god, 2017 2.0. Here we go again. Like, what are we going to do this time? So yeah, let's see how it goes.
In Old News: It seems like audience feedback is integral to the work that you do. How do incorporate audience feedback?
Kiri: The Internet can be such a mean place. I think because we've always set out to, even when we had a handful of followers, even when we had a handful of readers, we've always tried to almost cultivate a sense of, this is an open door newsroom. Right? Which isn't always great. Obviously, I don't want to hear that we've messed up. I don't want to hear that this wasn't done right or whatever. But it's also helped in the sense that people feel that they can talk to us. I get emails about “I didn't enjoy this piece. Usually, I like when you guys do XYZ, but I didn’t enjoy this piece and these are the reasons why.” And because you've got such an engaged audience and people who trust us and know us and feel they have access to us. They are more likely to treat us as human beings.
This isn't a massive institution like The New York Times where people can be, like, pretty mean and they can forget that there is a human person who writes these things and sits down and crafts articles, you know, and they get edited, sometimes they don't get to choose the headline or they have to share a byline or whatever.
But like we've been very, very lucky in the sense that because we are transparent about our processes. We were approached by one of the biggest banks on the African continent about advertising with us. And we weren't sure about if we wanted to use advertising, but also we have to think about the costs of putting this newspaper together, putting a newspaper together, whether you put it out digitally or you're going to put it in print, it is a financially draining process.
There's no two ways about it. You need a consistent supply of money to make it right every time and for it to look great and all that. We didn't close ranks and make decisions amongst the nine of us. There’s only nine of us on our team. We decided we have been talking to you guys [the audience] since the beginning and just because we are in a position now, where we get to make this wonderful decision about “should we take money from these people?” It doesn't mean that we stop talking to you.
I want to know what you think. Right? I'm not I'm not always going to please everybody. There were some people that were like, “no, this is not good. This is how you end up having editorial decisions being messed with, because now these people feel the need, they can tell you what to do with your money.” But we also try to give people almost like the back end, the sausage-making aspect of things.
So this is how it looks in the newsroom. By the time you get the ‘pretty’ Continent, this is what happens in the background. These are the things that we have to consider. These are the things that we have to not so much sacrifice, but we have to think about. And you [the audience] might not know this, but this is what happens in a newsroom. For some people, I think because [of] pop culture, there's this idea that, you know, you just type away and then you put up the newspaper and then it's great. It's out in the world and then people buy it and great. Yay. But there are things, there are commercial interests to think of, there are editorial aspects you need to think of, and we want our readers to be aware of each step and we've been quite lucky that they are 1) interested and 2) they trust us to make good decisions.
So far we've been lucky in the sense that we have multiple donors. And then in addition to donors who have been quite consistent in their support of us, we also have people who donate to us. Quite frequently and quite consistently. And I think that that is, in its own way, as you mentioned, a path to sustainability, that openness. Right? We tell you the truth. Okay? Especially when we take the long breaks. We take long breaks [for] mental health and financial (fiscal) health. We let you know, listen, there are only nine of us here. And this comes at this kind of cost to us. So we're going to take a month off. And in that month, we're going to try to get more donors. And if you want to donate to us, please do. And this is what we use the money for. And we've always been open about who is giving us money.
This is very important because in, I hate to say this, but like the post-truth world, people want to know who is behind everything, where are you getting your last cent? Why are you getting money from this particular person, and not this particular person? And how can they as readers also, you know, uphold your newsroom? So that's what we've been working towards. And so far it's been working and we're hoping it continues to work. But as always, as I mentioned, we are always constantly talking to people and trying to understand what do you need from us, for us to be transparent and open to you, for you to give us support, be it financial or through your readership?