By Nelisa Ngqulana

I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with many young South Africans across the country by collecting their stories, involved in running or supporting citizen journalism programmes or devising strategies/ways to partner with media to distribute many of these stories. The idea behind Media Factory grew out of the many frustrations and lessons that came out of these experiences. One of those frustrations was seeing content creators return home and finding themselves unable to connect to opportunities that would help them grow their craft. The big question this experience has always left me is, why do some stories get told and others not? Who decides this and why?

It was with this in mind that I thought of creating a mobile news agency made up of journalists/content creators outside the main media centres (Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg) in South Africa. There’s a nuance that’s often missed when a story isn’t told by someone who understands a place intimately. The richness that comes with such perspective should be obvious and much-needed in South Africa, at least this was my assumption going into the JAMLAB accelerator programme.

The last months has been a process of unpacking these ‘ideals’: extending the practice of journalism beyond the traditional newsroom and opening up the space for diverse voices. I call them ‘ideals’ because they are quite big and very wide in scope. One can get lost in a philosophical conversation/debate about what we mean. As Tebelelo Lentosane, my team member, puts it, ‘being part of the JAMLAB accelerator programme has been a great opportunity to work on the complexities of not only what we are building but more imperatively the tools with which we are boosting Media Factory”. A process of literally building something where there was nothing.

Our initial idea was focused on generating content and hoping that it will be picked by larger media organisations. As part of the process of stripping apart the idea and ideals behind Media Factory, we have arrived at the conclusion that we won’t be able to address (right from the start) the issue of diversity of voices in the way we thought. Rather, we have had to really figure out the simplest connection point and narrow it down. We are now focusing on breaking news stories. From there, figuring out what is it about breaking news stories in areas outside metros that is a challenge for newsrooms and how do the different media deal with the issue. We have found, for example that the needs of broadcasters are very different to print and digital.

Fortunately, some of the research we have done so far does support some of the assumptions we made going in. The theories, models and experiences coming out of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, as shared by associate professor Asmaa Malik, have helped us in shaping our offering. I connected this to a real-life validation of the idea when I managed to capture footage during the amaBhungane event that was disrupted by the political party, Black First Land First (BLF) with eNCA contacting me to use my footage for their news bulletins. The many conversations and interviews I have had with news editors have confirmed that there is indeed a need for verified and reliable contacts.

A very valuable lesson I am learning is to learn to let go of assumptions which I can’t verify through research or testing. If it’s not working, I must let it go and carry on refining. This has been tough and freeing at the same time because it means we can concentrate on working on what we know for sure can be packaged. Through the JAMLAB accelerator programme, I have had the opportunity to tap into experienced minds such as that of Professor Anton Harber. It’s through these insights that I have uncovered potential areas where Media Factory can provide value when it comes to breaking news in areas where many news agencies don’t have contacts or experienced journalists to cover stories.

Our next hurdle is creating the platform that will connect news editors and freelancers across SA for the purpose of breaking news stories from where they are. We truly believe that there are possibilities to extend the traditional newsroom and the practice of journalism in ways that will allow young people to work independently while generating consistent incomes from where they are. If we can achieve that we will have found sweet spots where our ideals and our idea are validated.

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