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How are publishers in the Global South are engaging audiences in times of increased online and political tension

Growing challenges have pushed three publishers to cultivate original engagement strategies 

REUTERS/Rahel Patrasso

By Sahar Amer |  Feb 12, 2020

Findings from the Reuters Institute report, What if Scale Breaks Community? Rebooting Audience Engagement When Journalism is Under Fire, uncovers how three commercial, digital-born publishers The Quint in India, Daily Maverick in South Africa and Rappler in the Philippines deal with significant political pressure within the fast development of the online media environment. 

Relying heavily on social media for audience distribution — with two of the publishers born from Facebook pages (Rappler and The Quint) — all three publishers have been responding to various forms of ‘platform capture’. From the report, ‘platform capture’ comprises three things:

  1. ‘Weaponization’ of platforms and manipulation of mass audiences by political actors
  2. Encouragement of dependency by the platforms themselves which tend to have changing distribution and engagement priorities
  3.  Over-reliance on the use of social media

    As a result, these news publishers now experiment with innovative acts of audience and civic engagement, designed to encourage community action. By seeking “deeper, narrower, and stronger” relationships with audiences, each publisher has shown how open and social journalism can facilitate ‘curated conversations, physical encounters, and investment in niche audiences over empty reach’. 

Innovative engagement responses to crisis

In 2012, Rappler was created by Maria Ressa and three other female journalists as an online news site which sought to report on human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and President Duterte’s war on drugs. Since 2017, the organization and Maria Ressa have faced targeted attacks such as demands for company documents through investigations. Since 2018, a warrant for Maria’s arrest is still ongoing meanwhile she has been receiving rape and murder threats through Facebook.  

Similarly, The Quint have experienced unprecedented tax raids at their head offices which they have labelled as ‘intimidation techniques’, and Daily Maverick’s digital security is under threat especially since their #GuptaLeaks, and Bell-Pottinger disinformation investigations.  

As online and social media platforms have been ‘weaponized’ at scale, reconnecting with audiences at scale proves difficult through the same channels. To combat this, these online native publishers, have now created ways to engage audiences in more controlled environments.

What if Scale Breaks Community? Rebooting Audience Engagement When Journalism is Under Fire, Reuters Institute

Rappler

For Rappler, its main motivation lies in the value of community and in helping to build institutions from the bottom-up to support democracy. Move.PH is Rappler’s ‘civic engagement arm’ – a digital and physical space run by a network of grassroots community organizers who plan and run events; lead digital media literacy training sessions; and contribute to community generated editorial campaigns (#HandoffKule and #MoveBacolod). 

Move.PH has generated high engagement and action from audiences, particularly with political and social issues. For example, Project Agos – an initiative created by Move.PH in 2013 –  brought together citizens, NGOs and government agencies to crowd-map and deliver critical information for communities to use in the case of a typhoon (which occur, on average, 20 times per year in the Philippines). 

“All of this is aligned with our community-building and relationship building, and our hunger for pushing for social good.  But, at the same time, it’s also aligned with our revenue goals and missions.”

— Stacy de Jesus, head of digital communications, Rappler 

The Quint

In 2018, The Quint developed a citizen reporting portal, MyReport, which is mainly youth-oriented and allows the public to report on local issues. The direction of the network sets out two discrete approaches to community engagement, the first is through ‘education’ and the second is through ‘reward’. 

Citizens are given best practices from the community on ‘how to shoot’. They are incentivized to stay by being awarded a certificate after submitting two or more stories and then being paid after submitting ten stories. 

“We want to provide readers with an incentive to stay engaged. And there has been an upswing in the number of people who want to submit stories.”

— Aaqib Raza Khan, product manager, The Quint 

The program is designed to combat disinformation, investigation and active debunking. The Quint have said that MyReport has also led to direct local impact and empowers citizens to create change through their own stories. 

Daily Maverick

The Daily Maverick have found high success in using engaged newsletters for their community building. The publication have used newsletters since its beginning in 2009 but they have now become a vital part of its communication and outreach strategy

Between 10-12 newsletters are in rotation and are sent out daily and monthly, these include: First Thing (Monday – Sunday 6:15am), Afternoon Thing (Monday – Friday 3pm), special events and offers, business, lifestyle, and sports. Due to the amount of effort, tailoring and consideration that is put into each newsletter, their audience has grown at least eleven-fold in 5 years. 

“One afternoon’s worth of newsletter traffic will get a whole week of Facebook traffic”. 

— John Stupart, Newsletters Editor, Daily Maverick 

As of September 2019, subscriber numbers were at 115,024 in comparison to 10,000 5 years ago. Open rates are generally between 26% – 30%, surmounting the global average for media newsletters by around 6% – 10%. 

The power of audience collaboration and interaction 

“If our case organisations, with their limited resources and extreme external pressures, can experiment, so can many other news organisations.” 

— Julie Posetti, Felix Simon, and Nabeelah Shabbir, Authors, What if Scale Breaks Community? 

Rappler, The Quint and Daily Maverick demonstrate how creating safer online spaces and building a closer, collaborative audience is becoming important for news publishers experiencing political demonization and forms of ‘platform capture’. Although this is happening in places like the Philippines, India and South Africa, online disinformation campaigns that aim to disrupt democracy are also growing in the West. 

These three publishers show strength in continuing to experiment with and evaluate their audience engagement strategies while keeping in mind the importance of creating ‘deeper, narrower, and stronger’ relationships with their audience. 

Want to learn more about alternative and diverse news strategies? Read the Reuters Institute’s full report here.