How a Kenyan reality TV show about journalism became a social media phenomenon

Groundbreaking approach to media literacy that entertains as it informs

Josh LaPorte
Mar 22, 2018 · 5 min read
Photos by Josh LaPorte and Sami Khan

The European Journalism Centre’s work extends far beyond the borders of Europe. From its infancy in 1992, EJC has collaborated with partners across the globe focused on the ever-evolving environments of media development and press freedom.

One of our critical partnerships is in Kenya with Joseph Warungu, former BBC Africa and now director of Nairobi-based AfricaonAir. He and his team have come up with a formula that combines the two strands driving our media development efforts: innovative approaches to mentoring and new ways of harnessing the power of the internet in tough media climates.

Together we created Top Story Africa, a weekly broadcast investigative journalism reality show that pits 60 university journalism students in head-to-head competition toward the ultimate goal: to write the “Top Story”. Along the way, we also discovered that young Kenyans love their smartphones. Before we knew it, a full blown social media sensation was born.

Elvis Maramba

Elvis Maramba works as a key link between contestants, crew, judges and the project’s busy Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp groups. He’s AfricaonAir’s in-house producer, and much of the creative force behind #TopStorySn2’s engagement strategy. We asked him to let us into the secret behind Top Story’s success.

What is Top Story about and who is the target audience?

Top Story is a national mentorship programme for young Kenyan journalists. It was founded by Joseph Warungu as a way of giving back to the young generation of Kenyan journalists. Participant’s are final-year university students and the target audience of the TV show is Kenyans between 17–30 yrs. Top Story has mentored over 150 students during our first two seasons.

As a former contestant of Top Story, it has been amazing to watch the show transforming from “just a show on KBC” (the state broadcaster) to a household name with a large following on KTN (the private Kenya Television Network). Our viewers hit a peak of five million on two occasions. The social media presence of the show has increased significantly and will only get better in future seasons.

Why did you make social media a core part of Top Story Season 2?

Our young target audience relies heavily on social media for information and updates. We therefore decided to integrate digital awareness into our boot camp training curriculum. We then created a social media strategy that would increase our presence online, which in turn made it easier to assess reactions to the programme as well as enabling us to engage with our target group directly and instantly. We also noticed that the strong social media presence increases the reach of our intended audience and in turn directs traffic (audience) towards our TV show.

What were your initial expectations/goals for social media strategy?

Educate the public through our weekly chats, which pivot around the weekly episode. We usually focus on a specific theme each week. For instance if on the TV show the contestants are investigating a story about electronic waste, then the online conversation on Top Story’s social media pages will tease out issues around e-waste a well as inform our intended target audience about the existence of this mentorship programme.

What then happened during Season 2?

There was a sudden increase in our social media following, with an increase of 800% on Twitter. In total, our tweets reached more than 3.000.000 impressions. A rise in feedback on our social media platforms especially with the introduction of a WhatsApp group increased the feedback process towards the show. We were able to gather great “ambassadors’ (people with large social media followers) who believe in the programme. We were able to target these ambassadors to lead the discussions and always provide meaningful input during the discussions.

The thematic show approach worked really well for us here too. Most of them ended up trending on Twitter every Thursday night across Kenya because of the competition element and well-told stories from our young investigative journalists. We had limited time to tell our story, 24 minutes on TV. The extended Twitter conversations eventually made trending a weekly occurrence for #TopStorySN2 as the target audience frequently joined in the discussions.

screenshots from user activity on Twitter

What were your main challenges?

The low engagement on some thematic stories sometimes made it difficult to adjust the scheduling of the Twitter chats. Sometimes other topics took precedence and directly clashed with our Twitter discussions, and this led to low engagement on the “social media streets”.

It also becomes a challenge to come up with current topics of discussions when the social media is focused on a certain trending topic. We did not want to jump on trends to try to push our agenda. But this approach also meant our messages tended to disappear on some occasions. “Social media on the go” — These discussions sometimes command full attention, which becomes a challenge especially in areas with no wi-fi. “Twisting of our intended message” — Sometimes people misunderstood our themes, which led to a clash of ideas and conversations.

What are your plans for next season?

We will have an even stronger presence on social media in Top Story Africa Season 3. Digital will be an integral part of the mentorship project and will be deliberately built into the planning:

On WhatsApp, we aim to increase the number of short videos and posters circulated through this platform.

We also plan to increase the thematic Twitter chats — they built the conversation towards the show. Most people tuned in to try and understand the theme better.

On Instagram, we’ll try to embrace the use of pictures and videos without pre-emptying the TV show. Other ideas include using more online polls and quizzes to build the conversations, giveaways and rewards. And finally we expect to increase involvement with our dedicated mentors, trainers and judges during our online discussions.

The second season of Top Story Africa comes to its conclusion on Sunday, March 25th when Season 2’s winning team is announced. Make sure to check out the #TopStorySn2 to join the conversation or follow @topstoryafrica, @joshlaportejc, @elvoeh and @Warungu!

You can also watch the entire show here!

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

Josh LaPorte

Written by

Media Development Lead @ejcnet European Journalism Centre // @USCAnnenberg @TheLBJschool

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

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