Amid a backdrop of government oppression, this Zimbabwe startup is working on the future of news
When the Zimbabwean government shut down WhatsApp across all mobile networks last summer amid anti-government protests, The Source had trouble getting its headlines to readers.
Editor-in-Chief Alfonce Mbizwo said it was just another effort by the regime to limit free press.
"We think it was an experiment to see just how effective that could get, because we were heading toward elections,” he said. “Because we are internet-based, there is a real fear that we could be shut down.”
The financial news startup regularly juggles breaking business news, dishing up headlines on WhatsApp and experimenting with chatbots to grow its audience. Located in shared offices with the the Reuters and BBC bureaus in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe — which Freedom House has classified as a "partly free" state with no freedom of the press — The Source's five-person staff regularly uses technology to navigate a difficult media environment.
"There's sort of a limit to what the media can do [in Zimbabwe] ... it is a bit complicated in that you have the situation where there is so much political polarization," Mbizwo said. "People want to be sure that you’re not just some other political mouthpiece."
From the startup's beginning as a trust in 2011 and launch as a media outlet in 2013, digital innovation has been a core focus. A collaborative project supported by the European Journalism Centre, Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Dutch government, The Source is run by a team of Zimbabwean journalists who aim to publish unbiased, relevant business news.
Josh LaPorte, media development adviser at the European Journalism Centre, came up with the idea for the startup when he was working with Reuters in London one summer. There, he met several expatriate journalists who wanted to return to Zimbabwe and work on high-quality, independent journalism.
"One toehold was through business news ... there was a lack of transparency in the economy," LaPorte said. "This made sense on a business level and also an information level."
And with general elections slated for next summer — in a country whose cash shortage and floundering economy have been described as a "death spiral" — transparent business journalism is more important now than ever.
"The economy is not part of the debate in this election, something which we try to rectify by making the economy part of the conversation," Mbizwo said.
The Source publishes stories about everything from reports on United Nations statistics to investigations about corruption in the local business community. While there are several big daily newspapers in Zimbabwe that regularly cover business and the economy, Mbizwo said the startup — which lives entirely online and has nearly 20,000 subscribers for its free daily news digest and WhatsApp group — is one of the only organizations whose journalism remains apolitical.
"In terms of economic and financial business news, we are on our own," he said.
"Most are so scared that self-censorship basically rules the day," LaPorte added.
Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said while self-censorship is a common issue among local news outlets, it’s not exclusive to Zimbabwe. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya and even South Africa, regularly deal with interference from the government and big businesses, often in the form of advertising.
“The issue of whether government is putting pressure on journalists is something that you’ll see just in terms of government advertising spent,” she said. “What you’re actually seeing is editorial interference by media bosses to try and ensure that certain stories aren’t used.”
The Source is different from other Zimbabwean media organizations in that it’s completely supported by foreign funders. In a way, the startup’s goals are similar to those of publishers in the United States and Western Europe: Disseminate independent journalism, grow audience and innovate online. But unlike news outlets in healthy democracies — and despite its independent source of funding — The Source’s ambition to hold the powerful accountable is still regularly interrupted by the powerful.
In spring 2015, local police and lawyers for Zimbabwe's largest mobile phone operator raided The Source's offices. Reuters reported the authorities and lawyers retrieved emails and documents in a dispute over stories about the phone company's questionable financial relationship with a large bank in the country.
The raid was authorized by a Zimbabwean court, which ruled the phone company had the right to seize information that was "based on internal company documents and had been used without permission," The Center for International Media Assistance reported.
"It didn’t make sense for the big bank to come around and say we had bad information. It came from their own office," Mbizwo said. "It involved the fact that the bank had given large amounts of loans to certain politically connected people."
The Source has received threats before, but that was the only time the publisher has been raided. In places like Zimbabwe, judiciaries and private businesses collaborating to oppress the media isn't exactly uncommon.
"You’re not always safe when you do business news in these tough environments," LaPorte said.
That's part of the reason why Czech Republic-based Sourcefabric decided to get involved with The Source. Last year, the open-source software development company teamed up with the European Journalism Centre to provide the startup with digital tools to streamline its production and communication systems.
In the past, Sourcefabric has worked with investigative outfits in Serbia and organized projects in authoritarian countries in the Caucasus region. At the heart of the company's mission is to help small-scale news publishers achieve their innovation goals.
"We are trying to make the best possible software for journalism,"said Sava Tatić, co-founder and managing director of Sourcefabric. "By working with news organizations in different parts of the world, we realized there has to be a way to create once and publish everywhere."
Among the tools given to The Source is a multi-channel content management system called Superdesk, which allows publishers to post to their websites, social media channels and apps — as well as communicate with other team members — all from the same place. Sourcefabric made a WordPress plugin specifically for the startup to use with its existing CMS, which went live in June.
"The idea is that you get them on a platform, you configure and simplify it enough so they can get their basic workflows," Tatić said. "It’s something that can help them if they have a business vision or strategy to expand ... at least we can provide the technological part of the solution."
If The Source has anything, it's a strategy to expand. Mbizwo and Douglas Arellanes, co-founder and director of innovation at Sourcefabric, said the news outlet is exploring ways to reach new audiences in a country where cell phone data networks cost a fortune. Among them include the creation of a Facebook Messenger chatbot that can communicate in local dialects and a pan-African financial news syndication network.
"We think engagement to our readers is quite important," Mbizwo said. "In a way, we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve."
It's not yet clear whether The Source's investment in innovative distribution strategies will pay off. But Arellanes is embracing the uncertainty.
"We don’t know if WhatsApp … will be the thing that really takes off," he said. "What we do know though is that these things need to be tried. They need to tried quickly and cheaply, and implement the strategy of failing fast."
Under oppressive governments, that's not always easy to do. Mbizwo said the Zimbabwean regime has experimented with interrupting internet services in the past as a way of silencing critics, such as with the shutdown of WhatsApp last summer. Arellanes said the tactic is common in other countries that lack freedom of the press, such as Turkey and Cameroon.
But while The Source's digital-only approach can be a liability, he said it could also serve as an effective way to combat governments that haven't caught up to changing media consumption patterns.
"Something that I’ve seen in many different countries is that the more repressive the regime, the less innovation there is — especially in the digital space,"Arellanes said. "Oftentimes, the regime hasn’t caught up to a lot of the various digital innovations that have occurred ... in this way, independent media can be like a mouse running among dinosaurs."
With a full-time staff of five, a network of stringers and a government that's unfavorable to the media at best, The Source has its work cut out. But Tatić said a news organization's ability to innovate does not depend on where they're located in the world.
"Innovation is not reserved for the so-called 'First World' countries," he said. "In these places, it’s really more a question of whether they can afford something or not. There are plenty of people with great ideas."