Why We Launched An E-paper During A Pandemic

We celebrate the one-year anniversary of our e-paper, The Bulletin

BY DIVINE DUBE | @village_scribe | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | AUG 21, 2021

The growth of our digital publication is dependent on you—our readers—through your networks, connections, expertise or financial support.

BULAWAYO (The Citizen Bulletin) — In August 2019, I arrived at the Ivy League Stanford University in the United States of America to study models for sustainable hyperlocal journalism. My goal was to learn as fast as I could and as much as I can, how I could best revitalize local journalism in Zimbabwe. In particular, I wanted to rebuild The Citizen Bulletin, a publication I co-founded in 2017 at a time local journalism was acutely struggling to meet news and information needs of underserved communities from the dark corners of Matabeleland, southwestern Zimbabwe.

From September 2019 to around February 2020, I maintained remote communication with my small team at The Citizen Bulletin although I was officially on a study vacation. I consistently reiterated plans to relaunch our then niche newsroom. One of the most urgent ideas I wanted our newsroom to experiment with was long-form, rigorous reporting, as opposed to daily, breaking news. I felt—and still feel the same—that our local reporting is not only monotonous but lacks rigor and nuance. In light of this, I felt that there was an opportunity to fill the gap, especially in hyperlocal reporting. I knew weekly publications such as Sunday News—which primarily serves the southwestern region that includes Matabeleland—sought to be different with its feature-style reporting, but still, like most daily news outlets—lacked a hyperlocal thrust, a gap which The Citizen Bulletin would immediately rise to fill.

In March 2020, I was prompted to pause my studies at Stanford because of the emergency of the coronavirus which quickly swept through many countries across the world, including Zimbabwe which recorded its first positive case in March 2020. Meanwhile at Stanford, as the Palo Alto County imposed the stay-at-home order, the farm university was also forced to immediately turn to a virtual format for learning. The emergency of the coronavirus forced my team and I to abandon plans to relaunch The Citizen Bulletin which we had initially slated for August 2020, following the end of my studies at Stanford where I was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. Instead, just like other newsrooms, we quickly pivoted and turned our focus towards covering the coronavirus—the biggest story of the century—as the demand for information rose exponentially—especially in news desert communities like Matabeleland.

From March to July 2020, we produced web stories, and tried to ensure that while most legacy and niche news outlets focused on bigger national issues such as what the central government was doing to halt the spread of the coronavirus, we focused on hyperlocal stories, in particular how ordinary citizens in Matabeleland navigated challenges ushered in by the novel coronavirus. Our stories seemed to very much resonate with the masses, especially low-income communities who rely on WhatsApp to access news and their daily information needs. However, sending one story per day became less effective as we seemed to be competing with bigger newsrooms, especially the breaking news type. As a result, we figured out that we needed to quickly cut through this noise by launching a product that will bring together all our important reporting in one place. This product, we thought, should be accessible not just through our website and native social media pages, and be easy to deliver to our primary audiences at a low cost via WhatsApp—where most of them are already found.

This birthed The Bulletin, a bi-weekly newspaper which we launched in August last year. Today the e-paper, which started off as a mere newsletter idea, has grown faster than any local publication and has become our flagship news product reaching at least one person in every three people across Matabeleland. Since August 2020, the publication has covered a wide range of topics including public health, education, local government, social and economic justice.  Over a year since we launched The Bulletin, we’ve produced impactful reporting that has brought tangible positive change in our communities. Below are some of our top stories we wish to reshare with you as we celebrate our one year anniversary:

●    Illegal Truck Stops Fuel 'Child Prostitution' in Hwange
●    Devolution Funds in Bulawayo: Water or Roads?
●    Children Born During Lockdown Are Undocumented
●   Hwange Women Advocate For Transparent Distribution of Sanitary Wear
●    Matabeleland Massacre: Theft of Bhalagwe Plague Reopens Old Wounds
●   Congested Schools: A Health Time Bomb Amid COVID-19

Twelve months and twenty-one publications, so what does this mean to you, our readers? While we celebrate this milestone with you, we would like you to know that while producing this e-paper is an important part of our work that we will continue to do, it’s never easy. In our Issue 21 we, for the first time, introduce our ten-member team behind our award-winning journalism. They, alongside a network of reporters dotted across Matabeleland, work tirelessly, and sometimes with little to no resources, to ensure that you, and many readers we don’t know, have access to hard-hitting reporting, that no other newsroom in Zimbabwe produces. We are so proud of this team, and would like to invite you to celebrate them with us.

However, without you, our readers, this publication will not have grown to be the best of Zimbabwean journalism. From the first day we issued our specimen edition, you gave us important feedback, and made sure that everyone who doesn’t have direct access to us like you receives a copy of the publication through WhatsApp. Today, we boast of over 3000 superfans because you’ve been part of our exciting journey. Because of our audience growth, we’ve been inspired to initiate a membership program, which is now in its pre-launch stage. Our membership program will help you expand your understanding of local challenges by giving you rare opportunities to co-produce hyperlocal stories with our reporters, and a platform to share and use information you need to become a champion of good governance and social progress. If you’re not our subscriber yet, please consider joining us today.

Over the past several months, many of you have suggested to us exciting ideas about how to best serve our communities. Unfortunately, some of the ideas we got are beyond our capacity, yet some are low hanging fruits within our reach. For example, some of you have suggested that we print a newspaper, to complement the e-paper. While we fell in love with the idea, we’re sad to announce that due to financial constraints, we are unable to implement it. Although we do not have enough financial resources to print the newspaper, we believe we have the human capacity to get the job done, and as such, we will continue to explore ways to get financial backing for this noble idea. If you’ve business ideas to share or are willing to invest in our work, please feel free to get in touch with us.

From March 2020 to date we have been able to raise grant funding from a stellar list of donors who have financed our work, and ensured that we are able to produce The Bulletin, your favourite publication. However, we have realized that donor funding alone isn’t enough. In addition to our membership program whose pilot we will soon launch, we are considering native advertising, paid events and merchandise sales which we plan to launch in the coming months. As a member-driven newsroom, we believe these revenue strategies can only work effectively if we have the support of our audiences. In this vein, I’d like to invite you to support us as we rejuvenate our sustainability strategies.

As we embark on our second year, we’d like to invite you to get actively involved in our work. Good and quality journalism is public service. But without you this kind of journalism will not thrive. As such, we ask that you let us know when you think we should be doing something good or bad—and volunteer your services or resources if you can. Most importantly, whenever you receive a copy of The Bulletin, please click share after reading—but only send a copy to those who need it. The growth of our e-paper is dependent on readers like you through your networks, connections, expertise or money. We count on you!

Sustainable journalism, Newsletter , Low-income communities, The Bulletin@One, Hyperlocal reporting, WhatsApp

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