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African News Organizations Get Boost From InnovateAfrica But Still Face Many Challenges

Variety logo Variety 2/4/2017 Christopher Vourlias
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Winners were announced on Feb. 2 for the first innovateAfrica Fund, a $1 million initiative to support digital innovations and leapfrog technologies in newsrooms across Africa.

The first edition selected 22 projects out of more than 700 submissions from across the continent. The winners will receive grants ranging from $12,500 to $100,000, as well as support and mentorship from tech labs across Africa and media experts from around the globe.

The proposals collectively highlighted the innovative ways in which emerging technologies are helping to transform African news media as it performs its vital role as civic watchdog.

“There was a lot of focus on empowering journalists and newsrooms to be better at their jobs,” says Justin Arenstein of Code for Africa, an umbrella federation of civic technology and data journalism labs across the continent, which manages the fund.

Collectively, the projects reflected a conscious effort, he says, to “help newsrooms improve and strengthen the way they actually produce the news — gather it, craft it into a narrative, and then check that before it goes out publicly.”

The team behind innovateAfrica also runs a $500,000 companion fund, impactAfrica, which launched in February 2016 and offers grants of up to $20,000 for journalists utilizing pioneering digital reporting methods in their work. Both are part of the International Center for Journalists’ wider data journalism initiative in Africa.

innovateAfrica’s partners include the Omidyar Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the CFI, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Media Development Investment Fund, the Global Editors’ Network, and the World Bank.

As the new digital economy transforms newsrooms around the world, African media companies face distinct challenges. Along with the universal question of how to monetize social-media clicks and shares and offset declining advertising spend, Arenstein notes they often struggle to find and engage their audiences, and frequently lack adequate technological tools for data gathering and analysis.

While digital innovations can help address those challenges, Arenstein says that in a corporate environment subject to market pressures, risk isn’t necessarily rewarded, making the support of innovateAfrica all the more important.

“We celebrate failures,” he says, while noting that he often tells media partners, “You can and you should fail, because we’re going to learn from the failures.”

While submissions came from 49 African nations, a number of common themes emerged. InfoFinder, by AfricaCheck (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal), and Overlay, by Paul Watson (pan-Africa), were among the projects looking to combat the challenge of “fake news” in Africa, where “traditional, factual, evidence-driven reporting” isn’t always the norm, according to Arenstein.

New technologies like drones, sensors, and satellites were singled out in winners such as africanDRONE, by WeRobotics and UnequalScenes (pan-Africa), and Frontline, by African Defence Review (South Africa), as a way to produce real-time reporting in hard-to-reach places.

AfriBOT, by the European Journalism Centre and The Source (Namibia, Zimbabwe), and NewsBot, by Atchai, Star and Punch (Kenya, Nigeria), were among the proposals that utilized bots to better gather and analyze data, or explored how chatbots can help deliver news through smartphone apps like WeChat and WhatsApp — a way to reach mass audiences and help turn news “into more of a conversation that can be personalized by the recipient,” says Arenstein.

Together the winning projects paint a portrait of a rapidly evolving media landscape.

“When we first ventured into this in 2012, there was no pan-African data journalism community or ecosystem,” says Arenstein, pointing to a continent-wide network of some 35,000 members across groups like Code for Africa and Hacks/Hackers Africa.

He adds, “It’s the industry itself that’s now setting the pace.”

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