The African Media Initiative Seeks to Improve Journalism

A journalist with the BBC World Trust works with aspiring reporters at a workshop in East Africa in 2010.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

With so much attention being given to the dark side of digital media (think censorship, privacy concerns), it’s easy to become pessimistic about new communication technologies. Africa has a chance to highlight the good that information and communication technologies (what some academics and others like to label ICTs) can do for journalism. This month the African Media Initiative (AMI) launched the African News Innovation Challenge.  The pan-African contest seeks ideas for using technology to improve the quality of journalism on the continent.

Residents of any country can enter as long as they have an African media partner. Winners will receive grants from $12,000 to $100,000 to develop their projects, as well as professional startup advice and technical support.

Justin Arenstein, media entrepreneur and leader of the project, said the timing is perfect for diving into digital media innovation in Africa.   Internet penetration across the continent is still low, but mobile technologies are a fast-growing industry. Arenstein reminds us that it isn’t journalism that’s going out of style, just the old business models.

AMI’s partners include Google, the U.S. State Department, and the Knight Foundation. In fact, the contest is modeled after the international Knight News Challenge, whose past winners include the Kenyan crowd-sourcing service Ushahidi.

The contest also harnesses the grass-roots philosophy behind the State Department’s Apps for Africa contest, which turns to civil society to identify and solve regional problems.  This is the sort of glocal (a combination of “global” and “local” used by academics and technocrats) collaboration that should be a model for future news media and public diplomacy efforts.

One of the key advantages, according to the independent South African newspaper Daily Maverick, is the contest’s rapid turnaround. The contest began on May 10, the submission deadline is July 10, and winners will be announced in November. The point is to take advantage of a pressing need for news innovation. The news waits for no one, and neither should innovation.

The African News Innovation Challenge is an opportunity to build African media from the ground up. Ideally this contest will yield tools that not only help Africans receive reliable news, but also serve to put more African stories on the global news media’s agenda.

(The photo is by Nelson Wachira for the BBC World Service via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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