How journalists can use social media to build an audience

Whether it’s Facebook’s News Feed, the local community WhatsApp group, YouTube, Twitter or mobile games, online journalists are competing for readers’ attention against an unprecedented amount of easy to access distractions on the same screen as their news. How can they stand out without compromising their editorial values? That’s what Hacks/Hackers Dar set out to discuss in its second event, held on Friday 28th July.

How do journalists understand their audience, and create stories that will win them over?

Esther Maina, Head of Strategy from , gave the keynote address. Aim is a Dar-es-Salaam-based digital marketing firm, and Maina shared insights from her world that are just as relevant to journalists as they are to brands.

Maina drew on two key examples: the South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, and CNN TV anchor Christiane Amanpour. Two very different shows which often cover similar stories (especially in relationship to US president Donald Trump) but with very different styles which their audience loves. Maina urges content developers to identify their niche.

One simple thing journalists often miss, Maina said, is that the modern content consumer is mobile, and that publishers need to design content that fits the platform and the mindset of a constantly-moving audience. It’s not good enough to make sure a story looks OK in a desktop window any more.

Design is important

When thinking mobile, she urged the journalists and techies gathered at to “think about the hook because people are mobile on mobile devices,” she said. “You are competing with multiple things. You have to always look at the back end on your platform. Look at why people are dropping off at a certain point in your video. You need to use that data to make changes. This is a privilege in the digital platform. You can always refine it, update, edit to meet your audience.”

Publishers need to think about what she called the 3Ps: People, Papers and Platform. You have to directly interact with people, Maina explained, you can’t simply write and hope they’ll read it. That means undertaking observations or focus group discussions or using data (like comments or in-page analytics) from the platforms that you already use to understand your customers reactions.

Social appetite

Tanzanians are increasingly becoming voracious social media consumers. With nearly half a million monthly users on Instagram, 10 million users on WhatsApp, the audience is moving online. To put that in perspective, Maina explained, Tanzanian YouTube viewers often out-numbered Nigerians, despite the latter having a larger population with — on the whole — better internet access.

One journalist lamented that even so, much of the popular content online is celebrity or tabloid journalism. Hard news struggles to attract significant audiences.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Code for Tanzania’s showed an example of a piece of “hard news” from the news-site Vox.com about the Syrian civil war. The story had attracted 100 million views.

Mohammed argued that, if the content is packaged in the right way, it will find an audience. This point was echoed by , founder of and .

Others at the gathering worried about publishers turning to “clickbait” headlines to drive traffic. Or were curious about the best tricks for crafting headlines that get high views.

“Are misleading thumbnails the best way to attract people to your videos?” asked one Hacks/Hackers members.

“Only if you don’t care about your reputation and credibility,” responded of the BBC. Clickbait might be okay for smaller publishers that only want to attract high number of clicks but don’t care about retaining their audience long-term, she said, but serious news organisations need to think about their long-term relationship with readers.

Merging online and off

Journalists working in traditional media have the opportunity to remain a trusted and popular source for their audience as that audience moves online, said , content producer for nationally syndicated radio show .

Mdee said that the Niambie team typically have meetings with their community of listeners every five months, which in turn gives them insights for creating the kind of content the audience wants, that will still have an impact.

Mdee also explained how experimenting with different social platforms can be useful in determine which one works well for your audience. Niambie’saudience is most engaged on Instagram, for example, which influenced the show to invest more in content for that channel.

After a spirited conversation, the evening ended with the Hacks/Hackers Dar community voting for next month’s topic of discussion: How news outlets are grappling with going digital.


The worlds of hackers and journalists are coming together, as reporting goes digital and Internet companies become media empires.

Journalists call themselves “hacks,” someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code.

Hacker-journalists try and bridge the two worlds. aims to bring all these people together — those who are working to help people make sense of our world. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories. In the age of information overload and collapse of traditional business models for legacy media, their work has become even more crucial.


The brings face-to-face training into partner newsrooms across Africa, and hosts public workshops at monthly Hacks/Hackers meet-ups. The Academy offers online courses and webinars, designed to teach just one tool or technique at a time, so participants can upgrade their skills at their own pace. The training is spearheaded by the continent’s largest digital journalism network, , with support from the and .

uses data to give citizens hyper-local and hyper-personal information to make better informed decisions about bread & butter issues. Code for Tanzania also builds technology tools to amplify citizen voices

, the continent’s largest #OpenData and civic technology

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Journalism x Technology. The umbrella group for African chapters of Hacks/Hackers, where civic tech pioneers play with ways to rewire the media.

Mwegelo Kapinga

Written by

Development. Policy. Researcher. Writer. PesaCheck fellow.

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Journalism x Technology. The umbrella group for African chapters of Hacks/Hackers, where civic tech pioneers play with ways to rewire the media.