The future of journalism: ‘the usual issues told in unusual ways’

Johannesburg-based journalist, Pontsho Pilane, is one of three winners in the fourth round of Code for Africa’s impactAFRICA competition. This round called for high impact stories on women and health in Africa. Ponstho’s story, #FreeToBleed won her a U.S newsroom study tour organised by the International Center for Journalists.

Pontsho Pilane

Pontsho is a health journalist at Bhekisisa, the center for health journalism, at the Mail & Guardian. She’s also a TEDx Johannesburg 1830 Fellow and the winner of two Vodacom Journalism Awards.

We spoke to Pontsho about creating impact and the future of journalism in South Africa.

The start of #FreeToBleed

So before my story became a story, I was a student at Wits University where Liberty Africa was running a challenge asking students what issues they’d raise if they were in Parliament. And at that time I had started thinking about menstrual hygiene in South Africa, so that’s what I entered into the competition, and I won.

I was a reporter at The Daily Vox at the time when I was drafting the policy to government.

It really started from a personal interest in the topic, but then I realised this issue, which at the time was very underreported in the media, deserves to be covered. And it evolved into more than what I expected. People were questioning why, in a country like ours, free sanitary pads are not an option. Before writing the feature, I wrote a few opinion pieces and short pieces on alternatives to using disposable pads and tampons.

At the time I was growing as a journalist and I realised I had the influence to make a change.

I joined Bhekisisa as a health journalist and had the opportunity to cover this in my work and I started doing more research. So that is how it started. And through my research, the teacher I interviewed for the story, sent an email to Bhekisisa asking us if we could help her find somebody to donate sanitary pads to her school.

At the time I was growing as a journalist and I realised I had the influence to make a change. It’s a hard thing to do because we live in a very personality driven country, people want to put a face to a campaign.

And because we do journalism and not donations I went to see her as a journalist. I went to Lemontville high school in Kwazulu Natal where I interviewed maybe about 15 learners. The strongest story I got was from a 21-year-old Matric (grade 12) student I profiled about her experiences when she was 13.

Policy documents and online petitions

I started doing independent research into what other countries were doing, particularly other African countries where government is providing pads or there are talks around that. So the biggest issue I had was that there is not enough published research on this in South Africa. I didn’t look at Europe because that’s a different economic climate. For example, the menstrual cup (moon cup) works in Europe because they don’t have water and sanitation issues, almost every household in those countries have running water. That is not necessarily the case when we look at South Africa. So in thinking of solutions and drafting the policy to government, I had to think about these things.

We wanted to reverse the top down effect of media.

Partnering with was not a first option. It only became an option when Parliament kept postponing the date for when I would present my proposal. Initially I was meant to present in October/November 2015, but it was postponed many times. So it was only some time in 2016 when I said to Liberty, who was helping me organize everything, that we need to do something, we need to show them that this is something Parliament needs to take seriously.

If people are signing up for the petition it shows that this is not an issue that a girl who was at Wits two years ago is concerned about, but this is an issue that the citizens of South Africa are also concerned about and want government to be held accountable for. And that’s maybe where the journalism and the campaign merged. Part of journalism is keeping the government accountable. And I think using the public discourse and public debate around the issue fed into both.

The partnership with removed me from being the champion of the campaign. More than 3000 people signed the online petition. So it wasn’t only me doing the work it, was dipping into the Amandla network.

Where is journalism going?

I’m doing my masters at the moment and the question I’m asking is, Where is journalism going?

I’m a reporter at Bhekisisa, we are an NGO and we run on donor funds. I think that is a big part of the future of journalism. Especially when we’re looking at writing stories that will have an impact on people.

Research has shown that it’s very expensive to do what the U.S will call developmental stories and issues. So that’s covering stories on maternal health, HIV, which is still a big issue, and all these niche issues.

Lamontville High School teacher, Nontokozo Buthelezi uses her own money to buy pads for her learners so that they don’t have to miss school when they menstruate. (John Wessels)

I think with the way society is changing, what matters to people are the issues they want to see covered in news, the more, for lack of a better term, human interest stories. The issues that affect, what Thuli Madonsela would call Gogo Dlaminis, ordinary citizens. And I see that as a thing that has been lacking in South Africa and is slowly becoming a focus.

I started my journalism at the startup, The Daily Vox, where the vision and mandate was to cover the issues that affect the youth in a way young people want to read about politics, gender, and race. We wanted to reverse the top down effect of media.

So that was my entry point into journalism. I know nothing else but what people would call, activism journalism or activist journalism.

Until Julius Malema stood up there and explained what junk status means in Sepedi, I didn’t see that in any news media.

That’s why I ended up at Bhekisisa. It’s not following the political heads, it’s not following what’s trending on Twitter. It’s taking what the political heads in the country and on the continent are making and reflecting how that is affecting ordinary citizens, particularly marginalized citizens.

It would have been very easy for me, with the pad thing, to just go to a school in Johannesburg, but there is this over representation of urban areas, particularly in Gauteng. I think the future of journalism is to exhume and reflect on the stories of ordinary people. And to look at life from a bigger landscape than we usually do.

What happens when there is stock outs in clinics in areas where there are high prevalence of HIV? How do we cover that? How do we take that story to the public in a way that it becomes impactful? I think the future of journalism is the usual issues told in unusual ways.

Democratizing how information gets disseminated

Until a few weeks ago, when all the political parties marched against President Jacob Zuma, until Julius Malema stood up there and explained what junk status means in Sepedi, I didn’t see that in any news media. I remember speaking to colleagues who are business journalists and asking them to please explain what this junk status means to a person who just took a loan for a car or for the people who earn minimum wage — will they be able to afford food in two years?

I went onto social media and people were Tweeting saying they’ve been waiting for someone to explain junk status the way he did. Imagine if Julius hadn’t gone up there and explained it? Where was that explained? As journalists we are meant to disseminate information to the public. Are we disseminating the information in a way that communities understand how this affects them?

I want my mother to read my work and to have an opinion.

As a health journalists I’ll be looking at what junk status means for people with medical aid. Does this mean medical aid becomes more unaffordable and does it means there will be a higher burden on the public health system?

It’s about taking the issues that make front page stories and translating them in ways that enable citizens to be actively involved in these issues, making sure they understand these issues, and they understand their place in the ecosystem of it and their place in democracy.

(Not) free for all: Learners from Lamontville High School were delighted when the campaign for free sanitary pads was launched. (John Wessels)

The Daily Vox is an online newspaper, and my mother would ask colleagues to print the pages for her to read. So being online only is not enough. Because somebody like my mother, who is in a better circumstance than many other people, still wanted to read her news on paper. And I’d written a column on street harassment and she asked me what is patriarchy? What is misogyny? And for the very first time I started questioning my own inaccessibility to the people who I think matter and particularly in this case my mother. I want my mother to read my work and to have an opinion.

I think it’s important for stories to be written in as many languages as possible. We don’t have newspapers published in indigenous languages. So, when we understand that stories are still being published in English, we make it as simple as possible. And make it as accessible as it can be while still maintaining the quality.

I would love to see a print newspaper in my home language, Setswana. However in South Africa that’s where that gap is filled by the radio stations. Radio is still the most accessible media form. So instead of trying to convert a newspaper into Setswana, we need to converge media systems.

Newspaper journalists need to have a working relationship with community radio stations. The stories that we write in the English newspapers get discussed and translated on different shows on community radio stations in indigenous languages.

As journalists, what are we doing to make sure that we democratize how information gets disseminated? Are we thinking beyond just meeting deadlines and responsibilities to the publications we work for?

I often email different radio stations. I did that last year with a story around the closing of Thuthuzela Care Centres. That’s where you go after you’ve been raped — you get a rape kit and trauma counselling and you’re put on PEP and all that.

The Thuthuzela Care Centres that were closing were in KwaZulu-Natal and I happen to know a producer who was at Khosi fm who was also interested in the story. She had the people in from that care centre to discuss what it means when these centres close down due to lack of funding.

See, that’s what it takes to create impactful journalism, going beyond the traditional roles you play as a journalist. It’s having a keen interest in your stories changing the lives of people, it’s you picking up the call to contact a local radio station.

With the pad story, we had people writing in wanting to donate and help. It’s not always that you’ll get policy change, when you go beyond just writing a story, the community you profile will benefit.

Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the custodian of impactAFRICA and is the continent’s largest independent open data and civic technology initiative. It operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in five countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds innovation fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens. In addition to fellowships and CitizenLabs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year innovateAFRICA fund and the $500,000 per year impactAFRICA fund, which both award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs. CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDING portal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICA data portal, the sourceAFRICAdocument repository and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics. CfAfrica is an initiative of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is at the forefront of the news revolution. Its programmes empower journalists and engage citizens with new technologies and best practices. ICFJ’s networks of reporters and media entrepreneurs are transforming the field. ICFJ believes that better journalism leads to better lives. Over the past 30 years, ICFJ has worked with more than 92,000 professional and citizen journalists and media managers from 180 countries. ICFJ work through strong local partners, such as Code for Africa, and a network of dedicated alumni. For more information, go to