Today, we set out on our own after calling the Mail & Guardian home for more than half a decade.
I remember the moment distinctly, walking into the office of the then Mail & Guardian (M&G) editor, Nic Dawes, on a summer’s morning in 2013.
It was a Thursday — deadline day at the newspaper — just after 10am.
“It’s Bhekisisa,” I announced. “It’s the name that’s won.”
“It sounds a little like a security company, don’t you think?”
I hummed and hawed a little.
The isiZulu word meaning “to scrutinise” came first.
Then Nic briefly looked at a headline he had to sign off on, paused a moment, and said: “It’ll work. As long as you make sure you indeed do scrutinise everything healthwise.”
And we did.
Our team consisted of an editor and two junior reporters. As small as it was, it was already the biggest health journalism desk based at a newspaper in the country, courtesy of funding we’d received from the German government.
Three years later we received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and we were able to launch our own website. We could also register as a non-profit organisation to make it easier to receive donor funds and our budget was large enough to enable us to expand to a staff of 20 — some full-time employees and some freelance.
- Read more: The realities of donor-funded journalism
Bhekisisa received free office space, internet, phone lines and printing facilities from the M&G, but we had to raise our own money for salaries, travel and other costs. In exchange, we published our stories exclusively on the M&G’s platforms.
Six and a half years after our launch, we’re leaving the nest.
Why are these moves happening?
Basically, because the media landscape in South Africa has changed significantly since 2013 and we want to take advantage of that to grow our audience. Small start-ups such as Bhekisisa need to use every opportunity possible to expand — and thus survive.
We’re able to move on because we have been based at a newspaper that has nurtured us throughout, one that was generous enough to allow Bhekisisa to grow its own brand. Few organisations such as ours are as fortunate and privileged.
We are truly grateful, and immensely proud, to have been incubated by a legacy publication that adheres to the highest standards of journalism.
Organisations like Bhekisisa are, at least partly, the result of the collapse of the print media’s business model. In the early 2000s the news media’s main form of income, advertising, began dwindling; the online revolution meant that they no longer had a near-monopoly on the ownership of printing presses: Google and social media companies like Facebook could now also publish information and, as a result, host adverts.
Consequently, independent media publications around the world, including in South Africa, are desperately battling to survive, and donor-funded journalism is one way to try and do just that.
Over the past six years we at Bhekisisa have learned first-hand just how expensive it is to produce quality journalism. It requires organisations to pay for the time of talented journalists and editors who can mentor them, it entails funding their travel to far-flung areas and investing in innovative and new ways of doing journalism that often demands the involvement of costly data analysts or coders.
But we believe quality journalism should be a public good. As the former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, puts it in his latest book Breaking News, trustworthy information is “as necessary to a community as a legal system, an army or a police force”.
To us, a free media is the cornerstone of preserving our country’s democracy.
That is why Bhekisisa provides its copy for free to our publishing partners — on the condition that it’s also made available free to their online users.
We are thankful that, for now, we have donor funds that allow us to produce quality, public service journalism.
However, donor funds alone are not enough. We also need your help.
You can help Bhekisisa to create meaningful stories by investing in us; even if it be through the smallest amount.
One project you can help with is to update South Africa’s first interactive map that gives women access to information on where to find safe, legal abortions in the country. By investing in this map, you will help to curb unsafe abortions and the maternal deaths that happen as a result of them. Your investment will help to pay for the cost of data collectors, phone calls and map coders.
But money is of course not the only form of support we need. You can also subscribe to our newsletter, or, if you have already done so, get a friend to subscribe, you can retweet us, or like our Facebook or Instagram page. Or, you could let us know ([email protected]) if you have feedback on our coverage or ideas for stories.
We want to bring you health analysis you can trust, features that give meaning to your world and investigations that hold the powerful to account. Help us to scrutinise health and social justice policies to foster a healthy democracy.
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.