Covid-19: Scaling Hyper-local News Reporting in Rural Matabeleland
by Divine Dube, Editorial Director
EDITORIAL ( March, 28, 2020) — On March 23, 2020, Zimbabwe recorded its first Coronavirus case. A few days later, young journalist Zororo Makamba succumbed to Covid-19, a disease caused by the new virus.
The story of Makamba’s death sent a majority of Zimbabweans into panic mode, prompting government authorities to announce a series of measures to contain the deadly virus. Following this tragedy, local newsrooms went into overdrive to get the latest scoop on the pandemic which has turned the world upside down. This is despite the fact that stories about Covid-19 have dominated news and information worldwide for more than three months since the first cases were detected in China’s Wuhan city.
Like many newsrooms across the country we at The Citizen Bulletin were equally dislocated as we struggled to get into the right mode to cover the biggest story of the century, prompting us to veer from our editorial strategy. As a mission-driven hyper-local news outlet, we’ve always sought to differentiate ourselves from other local newsrooms, focusing more on community stories often ignored by most traditional, mainstream newsrooms. Now as the Covid-19 outbreak unfolds, most traditional newsrooms are focusing on big cities and densely populated urban areas, where the virus is likely to hit hard and where all press conferences occur.
For us this is an opportune time to do what we exist for: serving grassroots communities. Before the story of the novel Coronavirus broke out, we were focusing on the two Matabeleland provinces, South and North, and Zimbabwe’s second largest city Bulawayo, where we’re based. We were primarily covering local government issues in these areas, and zeroing in stories related to service delivery and community development. Now, we find ourselves chasing the same stories as everyone else, to make sure that we keep our audiences informed, especially those that do not have access to traditional news.
We know there are dozens of stories to tell, and we know everyone wants to be relevant at this time, pursuing all things related to Covid-2019. But we’ve resolved to be different. Instead of following everything, and attempting to cover the entire Matabeleland region including the city of Bulawayo, we plan to dedicate our resources to covering only one province — Matabeleland South. We want to report effectively and simultaneously ensure that others dedicated to informing communities like us cover other areas. The future of our work is informed by doing small experiments, and collaborating with others, and during this unprecedented period, we’re convinced that the only way we can live true to our mission is serving our communities through journalism that empowers them to make informed decisions about their lives.
While it is easier to follow breaking news updates during this harrowing period, we’ve decided to stick with our model of journalism—focusing on rigorous and in-depth accountability reporting as opposed to breaking news. Although we’re aware that citizens need more information at this time, we don’t measure our impact through the number of stories we produce. While our audiences are overwhelmed with content, making it hard to differentiate between fake and genuine stories, we want to produce quality journalism that cuts through this noise, generating meaningful conversations during this difficult time.
Over the next coming weeks, we plan to tell stories using an accountability lens, focusing more on vulnerable populations in rural Matabeleland (South), and how they are coping with the effects of Covid-19. We will also hold government authorities, and all other local leaders accountable for their duties at this critical time, and report on their shortcomings. We will also objectively report positive stories where authorities are doing well because we believe in solution-based journalism, as opposed to stories that only report negatives.
Although the concept of social distancing makes it more challenging for us to deepen our engagement with communities and listen to their needs, we will try to use social media —WhatsApp in particular — to deliver important stories and updates to our audiences. We know social media has limitations in rural Matabeleland because of poor network signals and lack of access to internet data, among other reasons, but we will ensure that our stories reach more people in our networks. We invite local community groups, non-government organizations and other relevant stakeholders to partner with us in delivering important stories to our communities. We believe that local news, especially at this critical time, can thrive when news organizations, us included, and other relevant stakeholders work collaboratively as an ecosystem, supporting each other to become more effective.
Prior to the Covid-19 disruption, we were redesigning our website as part of a long-term strategy of remodelling our work—and we were planning to launch in the coming month. Given the importance of hyperlocal news and information at this time, we’ve decided to continue using our old site, and we’ve added a landing page for our Covid-19 coverage. Our readers will get all our content from this page. We’ve also added a map which visualizes Covid-19 data across the world. Our content is free for republication by other news organizations, under a Creative Commons License. Though we don’t expect users to contact us whenever they use our stories, we'll be happy if they do as this helps us track our impact.
Like several other local news outlets, we’re hamstrung by resources to effectively cover all our communities, especially in rural Matabeleland, but we hope our work, at this critical time, will help surface important stories that could otherwise go unreported if we sit back and wait for our next grant or donation. We hope that when (not if) this is over, our communities will appreciate the need to support materially or otherwise, local journalism, as the most important kind of journalism needed to help communities thrive.
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