The highs and lows of flying solo as a journalist creator in the Global South
Estimates for the market value of the creator economy, an industry consisting of millions of bloggers, videographers, social media influencers and digital content creators, run as high as $104.2 billion. Investments in start-up companies providing services to these creators, from legal advice to software development, is expected to exceed $5 billion in new funds by the end of 2021.
Journalists running and monetising their own output are part of this industry. While the term creator might suggest fabrication rather than rigorous reporting, what journalists share with their fellow creators are the challenges of going it alone: becoming entrepreneurial, delivering your own product and making the business work.
In recent years, a slew of programmes has focused on signing up journalists and encouraging them to launch products to be monetised. In February, Twitter announced its Super Follows function allowing users to add a subscription option for premium content. Facebook has launched a newsletter tool for independent journalists and creators with paid subscription features. The Google News Initiative offers grants of up to $50,000 to independent journalists who use YouTube. Newsletter service Ghost ran a series of $15,000 grants to support journalists building products on the platform in 2017. Substack has launched multiple schemes to encourage journalists to use its tools.
Super Follows are being rolled out for a select group of US users first. But some funding and training offers from the platforms are deliberately more global: 23 of the 49 GNI grant recipients are based outside of North America and Europe, while the Substack Local programme features writers and journalists from Nigeria, Brazil and Taiwan.
The extent to which Global South journalists working on their own terms can take advantage of these opportunities is, therefore, shaped both by the aims of the platform and by the social, political and economic forces in the regions in which they operate. To understand the realities of going it alone and monetising these platforms, three journalists from Brazil, Nigeria and India who are all currently part of platforms’ support programmes share their experiences of navigating this trend.
A Brazilian covering culture
Gaia Passarelli left her role as editor at Buzzfeed Brazil in March 2021: “I had a moment to consider what I really wanted to do next. I was immersed in the company and dealing with the day-to-day editorial issues, which had made me unhappy. I wanted to get back to writing.” While considering her options, she launched a personal newsletter on Substack, a “literature project” sending short stories about life in São Paulo. Then she applied to Substack Local, a $1 million initiative to help independent writers start sustainable local news enterprises. “I didn’t choose Substack because of the programme, but because it’s so easy to use. I wasn’t expecting an answer,” she says.
One of 12 winners, Passarelli has received money and support from the platform until June 2022 for her second newsletter project, Paulicéia. The programme awards grants of up to $100,000 as a one-off payment. Paulicéia covers stories from São Paulo’s cultural sector with a focus on its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Free to access since its launch in June 2021, Passarelli introduced a subscription model in October: R$15 a month (around $2.70), R$160 a year ($28) or R$200 a year ($35) as a founding member. Non-paying subscribers receive a weekly newsletter featuring a long-form profile piece. Paid-up subscribers receive two additional weekly newsletters, including a weekly events guide to the city.
The community, mentorship, resources and training sessions provided through the Substack Local programme helped Passarelli devise this content strategy and its price points. “It cannot be too expensive because people [in Brazil] are back to being very poor right now,” she says. “It’s more than Amazon video but cheaper than Netflix, and based on how many subscribers I need to make this valuable at some point next year.”
Selling subscriptions in Nigeria
To fund and monetise their products, journalist creators are looking at subscription or audience-funded models. But how much a subscription should cost is a challenge acutely felt by journalists operating in countries in the Global South, especially in regions where average household incomes are much lower than the ones in Europe and the US. Journalist David Hundeydin, who launched the investigative journalism newsletter West Africa Weekly in July 2021 and is the only African writer to be selected for the Substack Local programme, is focusing his subscription strategy on smaller, monthly subscriptions in order to reach a different audience.
“Subscription models for news in [Nigeria and West Africa] exist but are typically geared towards the management class, people in their 40s and up. It’s not for young people and it doesn’t pretend to be for them. It’s for people who can afford it,” he says, adding that two-thirds of his current subscriber base are “normal people” who can pay $7 a month.
“Not all Nigerians can pay $7, but if I can get just 0.1% of those who can, it adds up. It’s a sufficiently small amount to pay that doesn’t raise an eyebrow especially if I’m creating sufficient value for them.”
While he will offer more expensive annual subscriptions and founding member packages (priced at $150 and $250 respectively), Hundeydin thinks the “bulk of the growth” will come from the $7-segment. “West Africa is not yet a wealthy region, so I'm focusing on the lower end of the market. I’m trying to tell the stories that they are interested in with the language and style I’m familiar with. This might help to engineer some sort of cultural shift, which Nigeria needs,” he says.
Subscriptions are “the exception, not the norm” in the Global South and their price may compete against daily essentials, says writer and media analyst David Adeleke, who is based in Nigeria. “In this part of the world, I don’t think providing content is enough to get people to pay,” he says. “There has to be something else that they see value in. If creators want to be able to monetise their content, they have to position it as social commerce, community building or selling tokens, merch or events. I don’t know if journalists want to do that, but they have to consider how to get people who like their content to pay them to produce it”
West Africa Weekly’s tone and style are markedly different from mainstream news coverage in the country, and this appeals to its audiences. “In Nigeria, there’s a perception that journalism is reporting what you are told by those in power. There’s an old-fashioned notion that balance means an equal number of quotes from either side, which I don’t abide by,” says Hundeyin, who was previously a columnist for Business Day and investigative reporter for NewsWireNGR, where his work included reports revealing illegal recruitment and failure to pay Indian workers by Nigeria’s second-largest telecoms company and an investigation into the death of Nigerian billionaire High Chief Olu Benson Lulu-Briggs.
“I started using a different language,” he says. “It was very new and a lot of people loved it, but the establishment hated it. I realised that if I wanted to keep doing these stories in the way I wanted to do them, I would have to have editorial control.”
An Indian broadcaster flying solo
With more than 20 years of experience in legacy newsrooms, Indian broadcast journalist Anubha Bhonsle left her role as executive editor and host of a daily news show on CNN-News18 at the end of 2017. Her frustration with mainstream formats contributed to her decision: “We weren’t doing the kind of journalism we had set out to do anymore. There was more opinion and less on-the-ground work.”
Working as an ICFJ fellow on projects in three Indian newsrooms exposed her to new digital tools and roles, but some familiar operational and process issues from more legacy newsrooms reappeared. “I wanted to set up a product that was modern,” she says. “I saw a different vocabulary appear with digital creators. Many mainstream journalists and legacy newsrooms had no clue about this.”
Bhonsle launched NewsWorthy, an independent news channel focused on India. She started it initially on Instagram before expanding to YouTube. She is currently part of YouTube’s Creator Program for Independent Journalists – a year-long programme offering financial, training and platform-specific support. Bhonsle wants to marry her journalism experience with the accessible language and formats championed by many YouTube creators. But she wants to avoid the trend towards news as commentary and opinion without context that is both visible in India’s mainstream media and common amongst YouTubers, she says.
“I am hoping my journalism experience in legacy and digital newsrooms has given me a better understanding of just where journalism can expand,” says Bhonsle. “I look up to all digital creators far more than legacy newsrooms sometimes. They have a keener sense of experimentation. They marry local and global better. I do not look down on reels or shorts. I want to create both short form and long-form journalism, not content.”
Newsworthy’s team consists of two journalists, an editor/designer and one or two paid interns, with contributors from Bhonsle’s extensive network of journalist colleagues covering every Indian state. The team is selective about the stories it covers and is now focused on “deep dives” into topics over the course of a month, rather than daily news reports.
“It's a space that I feel is slightly untapped in India,” says Bhonsle. “Everyone does explainers, but we want to build a consistent, solid body of reportage that explains an issue, with context and simplicity. Much of legacy media is shying away from big stories.”
Newsworthy doesn’t even have a website but is also working on a WhatsApp-focused product to add to NewsWorthy’s portfolio. With limited resources, expanding to the platform most used for news in India makes more sense than launching a website that might cannibalise her existing channels and audiences, and require additional resources to develop and run.
Creating a network of support
“Journalists operating with the structure of a newsroom have the support of editors and fellow reporters, and they can tap into that structure to give them the best possible inputs,” says media analyst Adeleke. “If they want to go out on their own, this is going to be a problem – how do you account for those things?”
Platform programmes such as Substack Local do offer some help in this regard. Support from the programme allows Hundeyin to pay for a designer for West Africa Weekly and allows Passarelli to pay for an illustrator and an editor for Pauliceia. Training and one-to-one support, with a focus on the business side of things, is part of Substack Local’s offer and YouTube’s programme too. However, this level of staffing support is not standard for every journalist using these platforms and is limited to the duration of the programme.
Despite the support of platforms, technological barriers pose a problem for journalist creators in the Global South. Substack’s payment processor Stripe, for example, isn’t yet available in Nigeria, writes Adeleke, requiring a US bank account as a workaround: “Payment is essentially a regional play, and it’s difficult to build a universal solution because government regulations can be restrictive.”
There are other crucial shortcomings in these programmes, especially in terms of the legal, security and safety support on offer. While going it alone may appeal to journalists operating in countries where mainstream media is state-controlled and media freedoms are restricted, this can increase risks and legal liability. Hundeyin lives in exile and is under asylum protection as a result of previous investigations.
“Reporting in this way has won a huge following but not many friends,” he says. “It comes at a huge personal cost. The amount of research and rigour involved in putting out a story is huge. The lack of structure around me means if I get something accidentally wrong, I’m going to torpedo myself. There’s no margin for error.”
Substack Local launched a legal support programme in July 2020, but applications are currently restricted to those in the US. Its new health insurance programme, available for all Substack newsletter writers making more than $5,000 a year, is also US-only.
These programmes are actively recruiting and appealing to journalists in the Global South in a bid to grow more global audiences for their platforms. But without sufficient support in terms of legal, security and safety protections for non-US journalists, such growth could be unattainable or too high-risk, especially for the individual journalists involved. “These platforms will have to decide whether they want to help their creators solve these problems or leave them to be on their own,” says Adeleke.
Reporting from the ground as an independent journalist in the aftermath of the Indian government’s decision to strip the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy in 2019 forced Bhonsle to confront some of these risks shortly before launching NewsWorthy. Her new product would need safety systems in place. “I was responsible for my safety and for that of anyone else working with me, as well as for the equipment I was using,” she says. “I realised that I needed to set up systems and processes if I wanted to do this. Everything is registered and trademarked.”
Breaking new ground
In many cases, both the platforms looking to attract more Global South journalists to their programmes and the journalists pioneering reader-funded products in their countries are charting new waters in search of more viable business models. Some challenges threaten the success of these experiments, but they are not insurmountable, argues Adeleke, who stresses that the Global South must be brought into these conversations much more often. According to the journalism creators interviewed for this piece, providing more trainers and mentors with knowledge of the region in which a creator operates would be one small step towards this.
“They need to understand the political reality of being an internet user in Africa,” Adeleke says. “I’m living in Nigeria. I wake up and the government has decided to ban Twitter because they can. The second part to consider is the economic reality. A lot of people do not have disposable income. They would like to pay for content, but they just don’t have the means. So how else can we think about [this]?”
A winner-takes-most market
Data on Twitch streams analysed by the Wall Street Journal suggests just the top 1% of all content creators on the platform account for the majority of money earned through Twitch. Research from Axios suggests the top 1% of podcasts account for 99% of downloads, allowing them to command greater ad revenues. Substack just reported it had more than one million paying subscribers – growing from 500,000 in February 2021. Although how this income is distributed between writers across the platform is unclear, its top 10 writers make more than $15 million a year. These stats question the profitability or sustainability of the creator economy for most users.
As an example, a 2021 survey of 5,000 creators in Brazil suggests half make less than $100 a month and 23% are unable to make money despite high daily averages for online content consumption. Analysis from a venture capital fund focused on Latin America suggests the growth in the number of creators in the region has “caused a fragmentation of revenues, shrinking paychecks for any single creator”. Other revenue streams favoured by creators, such as sponsored content, are perhaps less likely to be pursued by journalists.
My conversations with journalists from the Global South suggest commercial goals are another difference from others operating in the creator economy. Hundeyin, Passarelli and Bhonsle want their products to make money to sustain their journalism. It’s not about reaching the commercial potential of the highest-earning influencers. If they did, they’d likely use that money to expand their reporting, hire support staff or launch another editorial product.
The biggest challenge for Bhonsle has been learning the business side of running her own news channel: “I have learned the tricks of the trade, but I’m not a master.” To support and sustain NewsWorthy, she set up a company that also offers narrative storytelling services in the media and development sectors – never for political party clients.
“I want to make money and at this stage any money is good, but I don’t think the ad revenue coming in from the digital space will be enough to sustain this operation or allow me to scale,” she says. “I would rather have a diverse range of revenue sources, including YouTube, but also a membership or subscriptions model, events, a book – meeting the audience where they are and tapping into people who are willing to pay.”
The ability to pursue stories uncompromised by the constraints of a legacy newsroom, the pressures of the news cycle or the censorship of authoritarian governments is an attractive proposition for many journalists entering the creator economy in the Global South. Hundeyin, Passarelli and Bhonsle understand the challenges of building a sustainable business. Failing to do so could threaten their journalism.
“It’s challenging but it’s also good. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Substack Local is paying me to do this until June 2022. It is preparing me to make Pauliceia a full-time job, on my own, after this period,” says Passarelli. “If I look at what I’ve done when the programme ends and it’s what I wanted, that’s okay. But I would really like to keep going and stay independent.”
Laura Oliver is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She has written for the 'Guardian', BBC, 'The Week' and more. She is a visiting lecturer in online journalism at City, University of London, and works as an audience strategy consultant for newsrooms. You can find her work here.