Collaboration, disruption & innovation

  Jamlab has worked to connect like-minded media innovators, journalists and social entrepreneurs in order to give them the opportunity to engage with one another on subjects that typically do not get the exposure they deserve.  

Tshepo Tshabalala is the Director of the Journalism and Media Lab (Jamlab) in Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The saying ‘Amid every crisis lies opportunity’ couldn’t have rung more true for many innovators across the African continent when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and left many scrapping for a living. One such innovator was Nash TV’s programmes manager, DJ Butterphly Phunk. 

Often when journalism is a topic of discussion, it seems current affairs, general news, politics and sports are the beats that have become known to many audiences. Niche beats such as entertainment rarely come to the fore, or receive similar attention. A total ban on larger gatherings in Zimbabwe left many musicians destitute and without the means to take care of their families. It was at this juncture that Nash TV, a solely visual entertainment media organisation, was born. 

According to Phunk, the main purpose for this platform was to entertain audiences. Although their idea was not the first of its kind, in Zimbabwe it’s the only one still standing, and one that goes the extra mile in not only entertaining audiences, but also establishing relationships with the musicians who appear on the show. 

Nash TV’s unique selling proposition is that it treats these artists like a project of their own, nurturing them and aggressively marketing their work. In a short space of time, Nash TV has garnered a large following, and even funding that will aid the growth of their work. 

My colleagues and I at Jamlab (short for the Journalism and Media Lab) know that there are many other stories like Nash TV across the African continent. At Jamlab we believe in the ‘classical’ approach to innovation, which often takes the form of ‘disruptive innovation’. 

Some of the most important innovation work that needs to be done relates rather to repair – to trying to fix parts of the media system that just aren’t working for people. And we believe that by raising awareness of this type of work, others throughout the continent could be equally inspired.

Since 2017, Jamlab has worked to connect like-minded media innovators, journalists and social entrepreneurs in order to give them the opportunity to engage with one another on subjects that typically do not get the exposure they deserve. 

We have done this through three programmes, which were designed to be mutually reinforcing. These are the knowledge programme (online magazine, newsletter and other digital platforms), where we’ve provided reviews of new research and reporting technologies, and many other resources for working African journalists; a six-month accelerator programme; and the Community of Practice (an event series). We used the magazine to report and publicise the other programmes, and as an important source of content on innovation practices and ideas.

In the same year we hosted our first journalism and media accelerator programme, which sets out to bring new media services to South Africa with the aim of addressing some of the broken parts of the media ecosystem. Kathy Magrobi, for example, joined the second iteration of the programme with just a concept, an idea on paper. By the end of her six-month journey on the Jamlab Accelerator, she had developed Quote This Woman+, a new platform listing credible experts on issues relating to women and under-represented voices that newsrooms can easily access and rely on. 

During her initial research, which guided the evolution of her platform, she found that the representation of women and other marginalised voices was far more absent than present in South Africa’s popular media. Magrobi is one of six entrepreneurs in the programme who have succeeded in garnering investment in order to continue to develop her venture. 

For the fourth iteration of the accelerator programme we scaled the project into the rest of the continent. We found eight start-ups, from Madagascar, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, eSwatini and Angola, who will potentially transform information, conversations and the public sphere in their respective countries. 

We look forward to incoming cohorts with great ideas who are ready to repair and disrupt the media ecosystem across the African continent. To date we’ve accelerated 24 teams, of which 13 are women-led start-ups; and six of these received external funding during or after the accelerator. 

Over the past three and a half years we’ve convened gatherings of journalists and media makers from around the continent to share knowledge and build a community of practice. We’ve learnt that there are many opportunities to innovate, to deliver new services, to reach new audiences, and for media to play more roles in building informed societies.

Since 2017 we’ve been collaborating with the Civic Tech Innovation Network, where more often than not our work has many overlaps, linking civil society with journalists in order to share impactful communication methods. This partnership has allowed both organisations to tap into and reach audiences from each other’s worlds. 

After not even four years since its inception, Jamlab’s story is just taking off. Building a knowledge hub for innovations such as DJ Butterphly Phunk’s Nash TV and Magrobi’s Quote This Woman+, sharing newsroom tools and skills, and collaborating with media start-ups is not easy – but it is needed. African journalists and media houses face many of the same problems so familiar to the rest of the world: shrinking newsrooms, failing business models, threats from governments and wide internet shutdowns. 

Following a tumultuous year marred by a global pandemic that decimated human life and many industries, including journalism and media, the next few months and years are likely to be just as turbulent. At Jamlab, we will continue to think about and work on how to build resilience, through building networks across borders that can provide better support and solidarity for independent media.

1 March 2021