Making a difference: Bongani Ngcobo.
Making a difference: Bongani Ngcobo.

With a new donor on board, Bhekisisa will be covering the continent’s health issues at source – their new website launches today!


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In 2012 the Mail & Guardian covered few health issues. The health stories that did make the publication’s pages appeared in a sponsored pull-out supplement, hidden inside a newspaper filled with “more worthy” political and investigative articles.

With fewer than 3 500 monthly online hits, the M&G’s online health section was barely read and buried on the site as a sub-subsection of the news subsection.

But this scenario has since changed drastically.

Today the health unit is the newspaper’s largest specialist editorial desk. It has six staff members, including a health editor, health news editor, senior multimedia producer, project manager and two health writers. The health desk is also acquiring a rapidly expanding network of correspondents across Africa, who will be filing health stories for the M&G from their home countries.

The newspaper also has two weekly health pages; until the beginning of this year the health pages appeared at the back of the newspaper, after the Comment & Analysis section. But they’ve recently been moved to the first half of the newspaper. The online health section is displayed much more prominently and its monthly readership had increased more than twentyfold to 92 000 in December 2015.

How did this transformation come about?

For a start, it happened because the health unit had access to donor funding at a time when the finances of newspapers worldwide are deteriorating.

With support from the German government, the M&G launched a health journalism centre, Bhekisisa, in 2013. This enabled the publication to appoint a health editor and two reporters and also to offer reporters from other publications fellowships so they could be mentored when writing health stories.

But more than that, it gave Bhekisisa access to something most other editorial departments are short of: money to travel. Health reporters could trek to far-flung rural areas to interview those who matter the most: the people on the ground affected by health crises. Reporters could visit patients and health workers at their homes, talk to their families and experience the lives of the people they were writing about.

Donations poured in for a rape counselling centre in Diepsloot after Bhekisisa’s exposé of the prevalence of child rape in the informal settlement north of Johannesburg.

Real storytelling
Because of this, Bhekisisa reporters were able to engage in “real” storytelling in the form of narrative journalism: they were able to interview their case studies in person, describe what they looked like and portray how they felt.

This descriptive, in-depth writing resulted in significantly higher readership figures for health stories. Where well-read health stories had received fewer than a thousand hits in 2012, the most-read health story in 2014 –  about the impact of new complementary medicine regulations on the selling of natural sex enhancers – received close to 100 000 hits. Other narrative articles, such as a story that focused on the  prevalence of and reasons for child rape in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, has received close to 20 000 hits. A 2015 article about  the science behind the controversial low-carb, high-fat Banting diet attracted almost 19 000 hits.

With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bhekisisa will be expanding its health coverage to the rest of the African continent in March and will also launch its own website. Our Johannesburg-based reporters will travel to African countries, but, more importantly, Bhekisisa staff will be mentoring reporters across Africa to empower them to file solutions-based health features for our website.

Increasing numbers of donors regard investing in journalism as a vehicle to further social change. And more news organisations across the globe are relying on philanthropic funding to support their operations. In fact, this trend is expanding so quickly that it has become a field of academic study, because these unusual partnerships – between media organisations and donors that don’t typically fund journalism – have emerged with new challenges for media.

Donor-funded journalism 
The most significant of these is the need to find credible ways to track the effects of donor-supported journalism. In the 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman from Columbia University write: “All around the world, media outlets are learning that some funders are uncomfortable with supporting journalism merely as a ‘public good’. They want to see proof of impact.”

Bhekisisa has therefore engaged in monitoring and evaluation since 2013, a complex and costly process of scientifically measuring the impact of our stories. But this process, which is being carried out by Media Monitoring Africa on our behalf, has also given us access to information we use to improve our reporting.

It has told us, for example, that HIV stories, which many claim people no longer want to read, continue to be some of our most-read reports, particularly when they include the results of new studies.

We learned that we should tell more, and not fewer, HIV stories, as long as they’re the right ones. In 2012 the coverage of HIV in the M&G was so rare that the subject didn’t make the top 10 of health issues reported on in the newspaper; in 2013, HIV was the most regularly reported health subject in the paper.

Also bucking the supposed worldwide demand for much shorter stories, we’ve learned that our readers enjoy quality long-form journalism. If the article has a strong storyline, focuses on characters and is interesting and informative, they will read it to the end. We’re therefore publishing more such stories. Almost all our stories that have had a direct impact on the lives of those who we’ve interviewed have been 2 500 words or longer.

Making an impact
One such 2 500-word story, which exposed a  doctor’s refusal to approve the disability grant of a patient with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis because he didn’t think the patient “looked poor enough”, led to government officials intervening within two weeks of the article’s publication. The patient now has a grant.

Within a fortnight of the publication of Bhekisisa’s 4 000-word investigation into the dismal state of Dihlabeng Regional Hospital in the Free State in March 2015, four different government teams visited the hospital. The national health department then allocated R25-million to the hospital for new equipment and all vacant posts highlighted in the article were advertised within three months of the story appearing, and filled soon thereafter.

Bhekisisa has a lot left to learn, particularly about health issues beyond South Africa. But we’ve also got a lot to be grateful for. We’re based at a newspaper where management has supported our endeavours.

The M&G has carried us financially during funding gaps and the editor(s)-in-chief over the past three years have provided us with the one factor without which no editorial desk is able to make its mark: space to publish our stories.

We now hope to share that space with health reporters from across Africa to tell solutions-based health stories, for Africa from Africa.

View Bhekisisa’s new website at www.bhekisisa.org


Mia Malan is the founding director and editor of the M&G’s health journalism centre