The off-label use of WhatsApp as a news distributor has created an opportunity for readers to redefine what it means to have a digital experience, but there’s no clear business model just yet, by Pontsho Pilane.

Together with the widespread of misinformation and disinformation, plagiarised digital copies of some of South Africa’s leading weekly newspapers started making the rounds the first weekend after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa will be going into a strict lockdown at the end of March. While it’s still not clear where or how the breach in the production process happened, being forwarded PDF version of South Africa’s Sunday Times on WhatsApp got Mail & Guardian journalists Simon Allison and Sipho Kings thinking. Additionally, there was a “particularly pronounced” amount of fake news circulating on WhatsApp at the start of the pandemic in South Africa.

That is how The Continent—a Pan African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the M&G—came to life. The PDF publication features news from across the African continent and is easily read and shared on mobile phone screens. The articles are short, on average about 250 words and a news edition is distributed mainly on WhatsApp every Saturday.

“WhatsApp was almost always the source of fake news and that’s when we realised that we had to start thinking very seriously about how we can get our news onto WhatsApp. Sipho and I started asking ourselves what product can we make that can showcase the news that we’re doing in a way that works on that particular medium,” explains Allison who is M&G’s Africa editor and co-founder of The Continent. Allison has become the de facto editor of this new publication and says there hasn’t been any time to set up formal structures because the idea executed within two weeks.

While Allison liked the idea of reading a newspaper on his mobile phone, the pinching in and out to better read was not a great user experienced. “Reading an online article is not like reading a newspaper,” he adds. “It’s a very different experience because a newspaper is curated that stories are intentionally put where they are. We wanted to create the feeling of a newspaper without leaving your house to get it.”

WhatsApp as the perfect medium

WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in most English-speaking countries in Africa and it’s sometimes the first app most people download when they get a new smartphone. The platform has garnered interest from various media entrepreneurs looking for ways to reach readers and audience in the most intimate ways. For instance, Zimbabwean publisher Nigel Mugamu started 263Chatan ad-based free news service that distributes articles via WhatsApp groups to thousand of its subscribers— in 2012.

WhatsApp’s drawing card is its ability to reach people in an intimate way. Users are able to control who and how they interact on the app. Media scholars argue that the platform allows large numbers of people to communicate in group discussions like other social media platforms such as Twitter, but in a more private manner where users have more control over who sees their content.  The publication’s cross-border nature also circumvents the power repressive African states may exert over their citizens as compared to other traditional forms of media such as newspapers and television.

According to media researchers, WhatsApp’s encryption means it cannot be monitored and censored in the same ways as newspapers, Twitter or Facebook. “WhatsApp has strengthened the hand of opposition parties and civil society groups that have historically faced repression, and this disrupts the status quo.”

A digital copy is almost entirely uncensorable by authoritarian governments, which has been one of the publication’s unexpected strengths.

“A PDF newspaper can slip past borders and can be shared by people without governments being able to see. Ultimately, that might be the most powerful aspect of this way of publishing,”  Allison says.

A booming business model?

As print media organisations try to find new revenue models for the digital era, monetising these products has been an uphill battle. The Continent is yet to explore any revenue-generating models, at this state the weekly publication doesn’t even carry any advertisements. It’s mostly self-funded with some financial support from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the National Endowment for Democracy. Advertisements are not completely off the table for the publication, but it’s difficult to track the publication’s reach when it’s shared through WhatsApp.

“We aren’t able to track how many people are reading the publication that in the way that you can with websites. But we’re able to find out how people engage with the content through getting feedback from readers,” Allison says.

The Continent has published 15 editions since launching in April and sends a new edition to close to 8 000 of its subscribers (equally split between email and WhatsApp subscriptions) What who are based in about 48 African countries—with most readers in Nigeria, Kenya and the Southern African region, says Kiri Rupiah who is the M&G’s online editor and in charge of The Continent’s digital and distribution unit.

While it’s not yet clear how they plan to monetise the publication, Allion says it’s still early days. “We do believe that this is a model that can generate revenue, but the key stumbling block is knowing how many people we are reaching and finding a way to measure the exponential sharing of The Continent has because of the nature of WhatsApp medium. Those are numbers that we can take to advertisers and get real money.”

The distribution costs on WhatsApp are very low, even when switching from a free-to-use WhatsApp Business account limited to businesses with 5 000 users to WhatsApp API which with an unlimited number using and costing from about $200 per month.

Rupiah’s says manually distributing each edition is time-consuming work, however, it works for them. At the time of the launch, The Continent didn’t have money to register for the WhatsApp, but the apprehension to bots also influenced this choice. “There always needs to be a human in the loop. It’s important to talk to readers so we can gauge how they feel about our product,” she explains.

But relying too much on WhatsApp can be disastrous. In September, Business Insider South Africa was forced to end its daily morning WhatsApp newsletter after the messaging app decided to enforce its terms of service, specifically keeping the platform purely for personal communication instead of bulk messaging.

Whether they like it or not, The Continent will have to switch to bot soon as they creep closer to the 5000-limit on WhatsApp Business. “We’re a boutique service. Not an expensive hotel but rather a mom and pop store where you always go because you know you can trust the quality because you know the people.”

With more revenue, The Continent plan to expand into other languages such as elves KiSwahili or French edition to serve more African reader. It experimented with publishing a story about the current unrest in Zimbabwe in Shona.

Pontsho is a freelance writer and former news editor at Health-e News and the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she wrote primarily about gender, race and how they intersect.

She was a TEDx Johannesburg 1830 Fellow, one of 20 young South Africans (between the ages of 18 and 30) that were identified to have “ideas worth sharing”.

In 2014, she put forward a policy proposal to Parliament for the provision of free sanitary pads to disadvantaged people who menstruate. She presented it in Parliament in November 2016 and continues to advocate for menstrual health issues.