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How local publishers are using innovative formats and distribution strategies to serve readers

A new report from the International Press Institute (IPI) takes an in-depth look into how local news publishers outside the US and Western Europe are innovating to serve their readers, overcome challenges and thrive. “Local media has been the most disrupted sector of the news media,” writes Jacqui Park, author of the report, Local Media Survival Guide 2022. “It had to rethink all aspects of the business model.”

“The ability of local media to simply adapt the subscriber-based model of national media is constrained both by the size of their audience and, often, by the disadvantaged nature of their communities,” she adds.

The report is based on discussions with more than 35 journalists, editors, media leaders, and entrepreneurs from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. They include both new digital start-ups and traditional media in transition. It also shares many case studies showcasing innovative ideas that can potentially serve other publishers as well. 

“There is no single model that works for all local news media,” notes Park. “Instead, we’re seeing lots of experiments. It’s critical that these ideas – and the lessons that can be drawn from them – are able to be shared so that they can be adapted (not simply copied) by others.” 

Each experiment (successful or not) lays another brick in the foundation of local news sustainability.

Jacqui Park, Head, Network Strategy and Innovation, International Press Institute

“Be really creative about what type of products we create”

Zimbabwe’s 263Chat, for example, is leveraging Whatsapp to distribute its journalism. It publishes a Monday to Friday e-paper in PDF format across about 200 WhatsApp groups that collectively reach 50,000 Zimbabweans. The publisher also distributes news via its web page and on social media, especially Twitter. It is driven by the goal of making fact-based journalism easily accessible to all Zimbabweans, especially those living in rural areas. 

Using Whatsapp allows the publisher to easily get direct feedback from readers, as well as identify issues that need to be covered. 263Chat also seeks to go beyond news content and serve community information needs. For example, it has six WhatsApp groups for farmers where they can connect, share information, and problem-solve together. 

We have six WhatsApp groups for farmers, right. And we sit in those groups and farmers share information, ‘Hey, my chickens died. Here’s a picture of them. Can someone tell me what this is and how I can solve it?’ Right. That’s got nothing to do with journalism, right. But we’re serving a community need.

Nigel Mugamu, Founder, 263Chat

The publisher generates revenue via advertisements, documentary work, and offering multimedia services like live streaming to other businesses. It is currently developing an SMS platform for news distribution and as a new revenue stream. 

“I look at the market in Zimbabwe and Africa,” says Mugamu. “We’re not there yet…the disposable income is not there yet for you to pay a monthly subscription amount. So we’ve gotta be really creative about what type of products we create and how we serve the community that we serve.” 

“So how do we get the subscriber to pay, you know, a small amount to receive the news every day via SMS for someone who isn’t on the internet?” he adds. “Because we mustn’t forget about that person, you know? So that’s literally what the SMS product is about.”

Product design calls for a willingness to pivot to hold onto existing audiences or to extend the range to reach new audiences. Previously, media organizations required significant capital expenditure (in, say, new presses) to launch a new product line. Now, there’s a freedom to experiment, to prototype at low cost, to see what works. Successful media need to be open to adapt and change

Local Media Survival Guide 2022, IPI

“Whatever it takes to reach more (people)”

While 263Chat was launched in 2012 as a Twitter handle and hashtag, Paraguay’s El Surtidor (also called El Surti) was founded as a Facebook page in 2016. The publisher bets on the power of visual journalism and primarily uses poster-style pieces which present information graphically. “Visual storytelling is a very powerful way to mitigate the infodemic, enhance the impact of journalistic work, and deepen interaction with new audiences and community management,” says Co-founder Alejandro Vazquez.

Source: Local Media Survival Guide 2022, IPI

Other formats used by the publisher include vertical scroll storytelling, animated videos, longer reports, data journalism, timelines, magazines, fanzines, exhibitions in public spaces, and exhibitions in museums. 

El Surti distributes content through its website and Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The latter is currently its main distribution channel. It reaches 200,000 people every week. Additionally, 10,000 subscribers listen to its podcast distributed through Whatsapp and a network of local radios weekly. 

“I am optimistic in the sense that good journalism has more channels than ever to get through,” says Vazquez. “If there is good journalism, if that journalism serves a community, without a doubt it will find the TikTok, the tweet, the web, the fanzine, the play, whatever it takes to reach more (people).”

The full report can be downloaded from IPI:
Local Media Survival Guide 2022