Two seasoned journalists hailing from Ghana and Jamaica have launched online news outlets to fill a huge void in mainstream media.
What do you get when you cross an entrepreneurial journalist with an enormous, untapped readership?
Ask Zandile Blay.
Earlier this year, the Ghanaian-born, American-raised journalist unleashed Africa Daily Groupe, a network of 12 niche websites covering everything from technology to food — all within the scope of the world’s fastest growing region.
“There’s an exciting and vibrant movement that’s happening right now in media on the continent,” Blay told BET.com in a recent phone call from Nigeria. “It’s just amazing for me to be able to connect with people who are very cosmopolitan, who’ve traveled the world, are Ivy League educated, but still understand the rules to a village.”
An upbringing steeped in a medley of cultures allowed her to notice a gaping void of African stories as she furthered her fashion journalism career at places like Paper, Essence and Seventeen magazine. But it was not until Blay started her personal website Africa Style Daily — Africa Daily Groupe’s predecessor — in 2009 that she discovered an eager audience waiting for this void to be filled.
Having recently launched additional verticals like Africa Food Daily and Africa Biz Daily, the ambitious editor-in-chief and her fluctuating team of freelance writers cater to a growing readership of well-traveled individuals with a discerning eye for fashion, good reporting and storytelling.
“What do they like everyone else in the world want? They want an outlet that understands them, that truly speaks their language and that talks to them and not at them,” said Blay. “That talks with them and celebrates with them and not necessarily gawks at them.”
Today, Blay represents a number of professional journalists risking their money, efforts and pride to launch niche multimedia news websites targeting underserved Black communities abroad. With the news industry undergoing vast industry shake-ups thanks to pioneering elements like social media and online video, many go-getters have found the allure of experimentation hard to ignore.
And because no publication has seemed to figure out how to best monetize their digital content, the online news environment is fair game to both fledgling startup and esteemed titans. Yet, that same conundrum that levels the playing field for these newcomers often proves to be their biggest obstacle.
“I was always a journalist. I never thought that I’d be any good at generating sales,” Zahra Burton told BET.com. “But I had to learn to become good at generating sales, because at the end of the day, I’m not just a journalist, I’m a CEO.”
The Jamaican native and former Bloomberg TV news reporter launched 18 Degrees North TV, a television news magazine show, in 2012 to uncover Caribbean stories that resonated with viewers worldwide. Through an engaged online presence on the show's website and Facebook page, the brand invites viewers to pitch stories and view extra footage.
The first season of 18 Degrees North TV is set to air on August 11 on free-to-air and cable stations in about 20 countries, including Aruba, Grenada, Haiti and St. Lucia. The half-hour show will also reach U.S. markets.
Burton admits that she initially fussed about drafting a perfect business plan, but eventually learned to become more adaptable and creative upon not reaching initial revenue and expense goals. Successful bouts of networking provided her with two funders, but the rest of Burton’s support came from family, friends and her own pockets. Like Burton, Blay self-funded Africa Daily Groupe and is facing the ubiquitous challenge of generating revenue.
“They were sites that were developed to tell the African story, because there’s so much passion behind it, which is a beautiful thing,” she said. “But sometimes that doesn’t lend itself to the most profit-worthy model.”
Both founders have decided to test out a mix of traditional and contemporary business models, with Burton’s scouting sponsors for spots and product placement on the primetime show and Blay’s hosting a series of sponsored events in 2014, including a recurrent African house party and a global dinner series honoring influential Africans.
While the revenue model might be uncertain, the market for content targeting African and Caribbean consumers is undoubtedly present. With an exponential growth rate predicted to at least double the continent’s current population to 2.3 billion by 2050, Africa boasts the world’s fastest growing population. And that staggering number excludes the African immigrant population in the U.S., which was roughly estimated at 1.6 million in 2010, and the millions of Africans living in France, the U.K., Italy and other European countries.
As for the 28 countries in the Caribbean, approximately 42 million call the area home. A comparatively small size, yet the region’s ethnic melting pot, which includes descendants of Africans, French, Dutch, Indians and Chinese who practice a variety of religions and speak at least six languages, receives little to no international news coverage outside of tropical storms and drug lords.
“It’s not just the Diaspora that we’re focused on,” Burton says about 18 Degrees North TV. “We want to know that somebody in Africa, who is watching our programs, can still identify with it, just because they can identify with just being a regular girl, or regular man or a regular woman.”
As both journalists-turned-entrepreneurs embark on their respective paths, they aim to shed a professional and multidimensional light on events, cultures and individuals often discounted. Larger outlets like BBC News and CNN's Inside Africa currently outweigh the smaller startups, thanks to an extensive arsenal of international reporters, advertising dollars and ripened prestige.
However, the innate connection that founders like Burton and Blay have with their targeted readers and subject matter may prove to grant them a much-needed advantage over their Goliath-esque competition.
“No matter what the challenge is, what start-ups like myself or others in the Caribbean are going through, it’s going to be well-worth it because when we do reach our individual goals as businesses, we won’t have just found our own personal success,” said Blay. “We will have found the success that has huge positive implications for our home country.”
“And that is so fulfilling, and so powerful and so worth the effort.”
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