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Publishing for WhatsApp? Here are three great ways to do it

With 90% of internet users active on its app, WhatsApp is the biggest social networking app in South Africa. It’s bigger than Twitter, Instagram, and even Facebook. So it’s no wonder that publishers have turned to WhatsApp as a way to reach audiences.

The South African Media and Innovation Program (SAMIP) recently hosted a webinar on using WhatsApp for publishing, where three innovative WhatsApp projects showcased their work.

  • Gustav Praekelt, founder of Turn, presented on the COVID-19 HealthAlert service, a WhatsApp-based information helpline that was piloted by South Africa’s Department of Health in March 2020. The platform is now used by the World Health Organisation and several other national governments, with over 20 million users worldwide.
  • Paul McNally of Volume and Africa Check’s Kate Wilkinson presented on the distribution of What’s Crap on WhatsApp, a fact-checking podcast that’s packaged for mass distribution on WhatsApp. (Each episode is a 5-minute voice note, broadcast to nearly 5000 users over WhatsApp.)
  • Simon Allison and Kiri Rupiah of the Mail & Guardian showcased their experimental publishing of The Continent, a new weekly newspaper that packages high-quality reporting from across Africa into a format that is easy to read and share over mobile phones. (Inspired by Zimbabwe’s 263Chat, it’s designed to look like a high-quality broadsheet, but laid out on a PDF the size of a folded postcard. Every article is trimmed to about 250 words.)

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion.

It doesn’t have to cost you (but you get what you pay for)

Gustav unveiled two main options for most businesses – WhatsApp SMB (WhatsApp for Business), a free option that is limited to businesses with fewer than 5000 users, and WhatsApp Business API, a premium option with a starting cost of about $200 per month – with potentially unlimited audience sizes.

In just a few short weeks, Turn’s HealthAlert app – built on the premium WhatsApp Business Api – garnered over 7 million users in South Africa.

By contrast, the What’s Crap team maintains a community of nearly 5000 subscribers using the free WhatsApp for Business app. Every subscriber is added manually to a set of broadcast lists (with a built-in limit of 256 members per list); each subscriber must also add the What’s Crap account number to their contacts in order to receive messages sent via broadcast list.

Screenshot of HealthAlert app

Automation isn’t for everyone

The principal benefit of WhatsApp Business API, other than its unlimited audience size, is automation. Turn’s HealthAlert service is being used by the World Health Organisation with 10 million users – Gustav estimates that this audience is being supported by about 10 people. However,  bots can’t do everything.  “If you have a model where you really need to support people, you should have one human operator for at least 1000 of your end users,” he says.

Certainly, the manual option requires some manual labour.

Kate says Africa Check had to hire extra help to maintain What’s Crap’s subscriber database during lockdown. Every time a broadcast message goes out, a human operator needs to scroll through the list of contacts to look for the classic ‘single tick’ sign of non-delivery – and engage that user to ask them to add What’s Crap’s number to their contact list.

Though What’s Crap is reaching the 5000-user limit for its WhatsApp for Business account, Kate says they are unlikely to migrate to the WhatsApp Business API: the main limit of the platform, aside from cost, is that it does not allow for broadcast – which is the very purpose of the project.

Make it personal

“WhatsApp is a very personal communication mechanism,” says Gustav. “Broadcast can be conceived of as being spamming, whereas one-on-one interactions can work very well.”

The personal touch is one reason why the small M&G team behind the Continent team has opted for an even more manual form of distribution. Every edition is sent out to WhatsApp users individually, one at a time. (Users can also subscribe via email or download the edition from mg.co.za/thecontinent, and Kiri also sends editions to a few discerning users over Signal.)

This is in part to avoid WhatsApp’s very sensitive block rates (“Not even 1%; 0.01% blockrates can get you flagged,” says Gustav).

The What’s Crap team also relies on personalised interactions with their users as a basic part of their project. Users are encouraged to submit dodgy messages and media that are circulating on WhatsApp, giving Africa Check’s fact-checkers a unique insight into what kind of disinformation is circulating in private, encrypted networks.

“Lots of people discuss WhatsApp as a distribution mechanism, where you’re sending content out, but we also use it as a way to gather information,” says Kate.

Get creative to measure engagement

While the hefty pricetag of a WhatsApp Business API platform comes with detailed analytics and audience insights, users of the no-cost options have to make do without. What’s more, WhatsApp’s content encryption means that publishers have very little insight to what happens to their message once it’s out in the wild: there is little way of knowing how many people share it, and with whom.

The What’s Crap team tries to get audience feedback by sending simple questions out to users. Users were asked to rate the latest episode on a simple emoji scale: thumbs up, thumbs down, heart, or poop. It was mainly thumbs ups and hearts, says Kate.

For The Continent, Kiri says they have built one sneaky engagement feature into the newspaper itself: a news quiz, buried on page 19 of the paper.

“The quiz is not just a brain teaser. The quiz is to see how far into the content people are going,” she says. You won’t find the answers to this week’s quiz in next week’s edition – the only way to get the answers is to send a request, via WhatsApp, to The Continent’s account.

Clearly, whatever they’re doing is working. In just four weeks the mobile-first newspaper has garnered thousands of subscribers across Africa.

Subscribe to each of these innovative projects on WhatsApp:

As the Covid-19 lockdown eases SAMIP participants break news

On Monday 27 April celebrated Freedom Day a commemoration of the country’s transition to democracy that was heralded by the first democratic elections on that day in 1994. This year was different though, while the country is free democratically, the country is under lockdown as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

From the start of the short work week to the end of it the country saw increase in the number COVID-19 cases: South Africa as of today 01 May 2020 enters into level 4 of lockdown restrictions. Media Hack Collective COVID-19 dashboard continues to provide updated Coronavirus cases, recoveries, and deaths.

The pandemic and the South African government’s response to it have raised questions amongst citizens and in news media. Like many newsrooms that are operating under the restrictions of the lockdown (that was eased into level 4 this morning) the South Africa Media Innovation Program’s (SAMIP) participants continue to put out stellar work on the pandemic, the lockdown and the state of the world.

Youth news site The Daily Vox and investigative journalism start-up Viewfinder both reported on the ongoing abuses by the country’s police that have been perpetrated on the most vulnerable members of society.

Viewfinder broke an important story on the number of people who have been killed since the lockdown was enforced at the end of March. Two of the people reported as being killed had not been reported on by other media in South Africa: one of the victims was a man who was shot and killed in Groblershoop, Northern Cape, and a man was allegedly beaten to death in Lenasia in Gauteng Province.

South Africa enters level 4

As the country transitions into Level 4 (of a 5-level lockdown process) a lot of confusion was at display. Health-e News reported on how the different levels of the lockdown that the government had enacted. Of importance was the government’s decision on the opening of schools and items that South African’s could purchase in each of the levels.

Minister of agriculture, land reform, and rural development Thoko Didiza announced that most of the agriculture sector and its supporting industries will open during the level 4 of the lockdown. Despite the government’s U-turn to continue the ban on sales of cigarettes, Food for Mzansi reported that the minister’s statement is good news for the agricultural industry and that wine industry insiders are optimistic that level 4 might allow for the online selling of wine.

Progress and innovation continues

SAMIP’s participants also continue to innovate and progress with their projects. In this past week The Daily Vox, Media Hack Collective and Viefinder saw major increases in the number of subscriptions to their respective newsletters. You can subscribe to them on their respective sites.

New entrant Stokvel Talk and legacy publication Mail & Guardian both launched WhatsApp news products in the form digital publications that subscribers can receive in their inboxes.

In times like these the ability of news media to adapt and continue to report on society is a welcome sight. We will keep highlighting our participants’ work which is an important commodity during the pandemic we are all experiencing.

COVID-19 lockdown levels explained by SAMIP participants

This week, as South Africa hit week four of its national lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled a plan to start easing some of the restrictions imposed to combat the spread of the coronavirus, as well as details of a massive R500-billion stimulus package.

The plan itself is a staged easing of the restrictions that were imposed on the country from the last month.

Health e-News reported on different COVID-19 lockdown levels and explained level 4 which will be effective as of 01 May 2020 and reported on the rise in COVID-19. The goal of the lockdown levels is to kickstart South Africa’s economy which has been failing since the lockdown measures were implemented.

At the same time, the country is still battling the rising number of Covid-19 cases that Media Hack Collective has been monitoring through their interactive dashboard.

Life after lockdown

One of the most asked questions in South Africa has been “what will life look like after the lockdown?”. The latest episode of Volume’s podcast series ‘Media Diaries’ probed that question from the perspectives of youth news platform #SMWX,  and media academic Dinesh Balliah.

The answer to the question of life after lockdown has ramifications for everyone and all industries from media to education.

Universities in South Africa will carry on with teachings online however the solution might not work for all the campus students. The Daily Vox continues to report campus news and this week the youth media house reported that due to COVID-19 nation lockdown university medical students might not be able to complete clinical teaching and this raises a concern about graduating this year

Food for Mzansi continues to report on agricultural stories that help the sector to cope with COVID-19  by interviewing experts in the agricultural sector. This week FFM interviewed Dr Sifiso Ntombela, chief economist of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) who shared guidelines on how the agriculture sector can navigate COVID-19.

 Holding the security forces accountable

Over the past couple of weeks, South Africa’s security services have been a wide range of powers in order to help the health sector manage the lockdown and pandemic relief efforts. Investigative journalism start-up Viewfinder and mobile news platform Scrolla have been reporting diligently on how our police and soldiers have acted wrongly and with impunity using these powers.

Viewfinder recently started an initiative asking members of the public to get in touch with them should they have stories about police and military wrong-doing during the lockdown. If you have a story to tell you can contact them via this link.

Love and marriage under lockdown

Another area of life in South Africa that has been exacerbated by the lockdown has been domestic and gender-based violence which has forced vulnerable members of society to shelter in place with their abusers.

Mail & Guardian’s latest edition features a harrowing story on this topic.

‘No skop, skiet and donder’ but police act with impunity during lockdown

Things are heating up in South Africa as the country enters its first week of a national lockdown during which the government announced the first five deaths as a result of the Coronavirus. The memes have slowed down to a trickle as people begin to grasp the full extent of the damage to the country’s economy, health sector and civil society as a result of the Coronavirus.

Throughout all of this the South Africa Media Innovation Program’s (SAMIP) participants have been hard at work reporting on all of the happenings in the country.

Police brutality comes into the spotlight

With the country going into lockdown the police and army were called up to help manage citizens and their movements. But incidents of abuse of power, by the police, are starting to proliferate on social media.

Investigative journalism start-up ViewFinder published a data story documenting incidents of police brutality that have been an issue even before the lockdown was announced and are now on the rise as members of the police act with impunity.

Mail & Guardian Africa editor Simon Allison and Amabhungane investigative reporter Micah Reddy reported on plain clothes police officers beating up members of the public with shamboks (whips) in order to compel them to observe the rule to stay indoors.

Coronavirus fake news spreads

One of the biggest challenges facing the country in terms of managing the outbreak has been the spread of fake news about the novel Coronavirus on social media platforms and chat apps like WhatsApp.

Online publication Daily Maverick reported on the growing number of fake news stories that are being shared online.

Volume, in collaboration with Africa Check, has been hard at work dispelling myths around Covid-19 such as rumors of Interferon alpha-2b, an antiviral drug used in the treatment of HIV/Aids, being a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus.

According to Volume’s latest ‘Whats Crap on WhatsApp’ podcast WhatsApp voice notes are easy to produce and share, and have become the go-to format that people are using to spread misinformation and disinformation around Covid-19.

Testing on the rise but it is difficult for some

The South African government has been praised for its efforts, especially on the testing front, in fighting the spread Covid-19. But on the ground testing hasn’t gone as smoothly for everyone.

The Children’s Radio Foundation produced a story that was broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) about a South African who came back from the United Kingdom and struggled with getting a test for Covid-19 even after showing symptoms of the virus.

Mobile news platform Scrolla reported on the first patient from Alexandra (a Johannesburg township) to be diagnosed with Covid-19. Scrolla has partnered with local radio stations and mobile operators in order to share their ground-level reporting on Covid-19 in South Africa.

Innovating around Covid-19

Agri-business publication Food for Mzansi used the opportunity presented by the national lockdown to increase their daily news reporting whilst also looking for new angles to present to their audiences. Some of the pieces they published included a list of 21 recipes that people could try out during the 21-day lockdown.

On an international scale, mobile video producers Hashtag our Stories used virtual reality to host a discussion between Italian teenagers who talked about life under quarantine in their country.

In the world of women’s sports, gsport for girls featured an interview with Bosnian American basketballer Indira Kaljo. Gsport discussed with Kaljo on how she is keeping a healthy mind and body during lockdown.


And continuing the podcast series that was launched last week, Volume has released the second episode of Media Diaries. In this week’s episode the story focuses on Media Hack Collective who developed a data dashboard on Covid-19.

August winds bring growth and opportunity for SAMIP

August is Women’s Month in South Africa and the country takes the time to commit to uplifting women in our society. At the South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP) we strive to do our part through our mission in transforming the local media industry by empowering more female entrepreneurs and media leaders.

GSport4Girls honors the women’s sporting community

On Saturday 31 August, the women’s sporting community gathered at the Deck @ Wanderers for the annual GSport Awards and Hall of Fame that have now been renamed to the Momentum gsport Awards. The renaming came after GSport, a SAMIP participant since March, secured a naming rights deal with the financial institution.

The awards featured more than 50 finalists, with the youngest being eight-year-old chess whiz Minentle Miya, and for the first time in the awards’ six-year history the organizers were able to present cash prizes (ranging from R5,000 to R20,000) to the winners of the categories.

Gsport co-founder and board member Kass Naidoo says that with SAMIP’s assistance they were able to appoint more resources to run the digital platforms. This freed up the founders to work on commercializing the events side of the business.

“This led to gsport securing leading insurer, Momentum as the Naming Rights partner. Alongside this, the initiative secured encouraging support from the Sports Ministry, Brand SA, Gauteng Sport, Vision View, Estee Lauder, Big Five Duty Free, Worldwide Sports, Circa, and Red Bull.”

The SAMIP family continues to grow

August also saw SAMIP adding two more new participants to our growing cohort:

Health-e News

Health-e News has a 20-year history as a news agency in South Africa that reports on public health issues to empower South Africans. Their current focus is on HIV/Aids, communicable diseases and reproductive health. They have 14 full-time staff of which 60% of them are young black women.

The organization is headed up by its CEO Sibongile Nkosi who is leading them as they work on finding innovative revenue streams, exploring memberships and growing their audience through their user generated content platform OurHealth.

Mail & Guardian

The weekly publication started out as The Weekly Mail in mid-1985. Over the years it has published major investigations such as “Oilgate” and articles on the corrupt relationship between the former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi and gangster Glenn Agliotti.

The publication has as its editor-in-chief Khadija Patel who also co-founded The Daily Vox. Patel is also the vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, an honorary member of the Golden Key Society and one of the first recipients of the Ford Foundation’s #NoFilter Fellowship.

Mail & Guardian will be working with SAMIP in re-developing its online platforms as it transitions into a digital-first publication.

Becoming more “memberful”

August was also Membership Month for SAMIP and throughout the period we hosted Membership Puzzle Project (MPP) fund director Ariel Zirulnick who worked with our cohort in exploring membership plans as well audience engagement strategies.

Ariel’s visit to South Africa was capped off with a workshop hosted by MPP and, SAMIP participant, Daily Maverick in Cape Town. As a grantee of Membership Puzzle Project, Daily Maverick presented its findings acquired during its first year of running its Maverick Insider membership program.

Daily Maverick also celebrated the first year of Maverick Insider with a party that was held at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Africa Art. At the event were Maverick Insider members who came on-board the program to promote and support the good journalism done by the organization.

New Advisory Committee member Vincent Maher

And lastly the SAMIP advisory committee has added Vincent Maher as its newest member. Vincent took up the seat  after the untimely passing of committee member and MDIF entrepreneur-in-residence Matthew Buckland.

Vincent is currently the head of digital enablement at Multichoice and brings with him more than a decade’s worth of experience as a digital strategist and technology entrepreneur.

With August behind us and an enlarged cohort of participants, we look forward to what the rest of 2019 brings. There are more events coming up and opportunities to join us as we continue along our path of accelerating innovation and transformation in the South African media space.