Lessons on Teaching Mobile Reporting from the Voices of Africa Media Foundation

In 2009, we wrote this case study about the Voices of Africa Media Foundation. Since then, the organization has taken a new approach. We hear from Pim de Wit, director of the foundation, about lessons learned along the way in teaching mobile reporting. The key is coaching after training and ensuring greater sustainability by showing reporters how to make an income from the skills they have learned.

Voices of Africa Media Foundation and Mobile Reporting

Voices of Africa Media Foundation, a Netherlands-based non-profit, trains young journalists in Africa to create news videos for the web using mobiles. When we spoke to VOAMF last, they were doing it all in terms of mobile reporting training: selecting the trainees, hosting the workshops, conducting the training, and working with local coordinators supporting the reporters.

After training is complete, the mobile reporters return home to create and upload their own stories. For every report uploaded, a coach provides comments via email and Skype so that trainees can “learn by doing.” After 6 to 7 months, reporters who have completed set goals are given a certificate and invited to join a VOAMF alumni network, meaning that the organization tries to get paid assignments for them. “It’s important that once they have concluded the basic training they can continue to practice,” de Wit said.

“The goal of our foundation is to train people and keep them active in the media sector,” de Wit said. Africa needs a strong media sector to contribute to better governance and less corruption and we try to demonstrate to people that is possible to make a living as a reporter, he said.

This was one of the biggest challenges after the training. Reporters were often not able to convert skills into income.

A new approach: Less is more

But now, VOAMF is taking a new approach. Chiefly, it is not doing everything on it’s own. Instead, the organization partners with media and other local organizations that are active in Africa and see the benefit of adding the mobile reporting philosophy into their own curriculum.

Right now, for example, VOAMF is working with Free Press Unlimited. Free Press Unlimited supports an organization in Zimbabwe to train community radio reporters, and they approached VOAMF to add mobile reporting to the work they are already doing. VOAMF has expertise in mobile reporting training — they have been doing this for six years — and they can combine forces with other organizations on the ground. VOAMF is also working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with IWPR to train ten Congolese reporters.

This new approach contributes to sustainability. In Zimbabwe, many of the trainees are on the payroll of the local organization, or have longer relationships with it, and thus can convert reporting skills to income. As a general rule, VOAMF does not embark on trainings unless it has an idea on how it can make it sustainable by also addressing income. “In Africa, if you don’t have an income, it doesn’t work,” de Wit said.

What does mobile reporting training entail?

Typical VOAMF mobile reporting training starts with a 5-day workshop. Senior trainers visit on-site and invite an alumni student to assist the trainer. In Zimbabwe, a senior trainer from Holland was supported by an alumnus student from Ghana. In Congo, another senior trainer from Holland was assisted by an alumnus from Tanzania.

“We try to work with the people we have trained, who have demonstrated skills, to become trainers,” de Wit said. “They know exactly what the trainees had to go through.”

For training, it is important that participants understand the functionality of the mobile phone, in terms of how it can be used to capture content, edit content, and add elements like voice-overs. Workshops include practical assignments where trainees go out, capture stories, and discuss the work in class. Training also focuses on other important technical tips, such as how to successfully upload videos.

On top of this, teaching the basics of objective journalism is important. Lessons on how to make a story compelling is equally key. In Zimbabwe, participants were already active as community reporters, so they had skills and experience in interviewing and checking sources. VOAMF has a general framework for mobile reporting training, but the emphasis of a given workshop depends on the local situation and the participants.

VOAMF supplies phones to trainees, usually Noka E52 devices. “It’s an old model, but we like it very much,” de Wit said. Later phones are increasingly sophisticated to the point they almost become an obstacle. “We use the mobile phone as a filming and reporting tool, so the simpler the better for us,” he said.

After training, reporters upload mobile video stories, and receive feedback from trainers by Skype or email, until they have concluded the program. VOAMF finds that this coaching is key to success and sustainability of the training.

A lesson: Coaching is key

“We have been doing this for 6 years,” de Wit said, “and we reached the conclusion that the major variable that contributes most to success is the coaching.” Despite excellent training material, the key is to help trainees learn to do it properly through practice and feedback. (Here is alink to a video by a mobile reporter in Zimbabwe.)

“We sometimes have people making reports and violating some rules,” de Wit said. Sometimes mistakes are technical, such as filming against the sunlight or recording an interview in a noisy environment. Other mistakes include presenting only one side of the story, or not being critical enough in reports. One of the biggest challenges is teaching reporters how to tell a compelling story. There are many opportunities for news consumption, de Wit said, so we have to create content that is compelling to the viewer.

Many times, reporters attend training but do not continue to work on the skills gained. The unique factor in VOAMF training is the coaching, to provide feedback to students. Tailor-made guidance and support is key to ensure continued learning and mastery. It is very important to reiterate lessons and allow mistakes and focus on repetition, de Wit said, and to learn from each other.

“We could never conclude this coaching in a 6-month basic training, which is why the alumni network, paid assignments, and practice, practice, practice, is key,” de Wit said.

Future work for VOAMF: Opportunities for income

VOAMF stresses the importance of translating reporting skills into income. This is one of the reasons why it has taken a new approach to partner with media organizations already working in Africa. They are also developing Community Media Houses, which are commercial enterprises for media production. At a Community Media House in Nairobi, VOAMF owns half of the shares, the other half is owned by local management and reporters.

“We try to teach people not only how to create content, but also how to make a living,” de Wit said. At the Community Media House in Nairobi, reporters use small flip cams and video cameras to create content. But reporters also learn how to explore their skill sets and get paid assignments form local organizations and media companies. The group teaches reporters how to make formats they can sell to local Kenyan television, as there is not much original African content on local networks, de Wit said. In this way, reporters can insure income and there is greater sustainability for the work.

VOAMF also just launched the African Slum Journal, an online documentary channel where young residents of African slums create short and compelling documentaries. By broadcasting the stories online, the world gets authentic insight about life in the slums. Subscribers to the African Slum Journal have access to 2 episodes every 2 weeks, made by the reporters. The reporters are trained by VOAMF professionals from Holland and are offered a chance to generate income and give their communities a voice.

A similar project, Music from the Slums, will launch in a few weeks. Musicians who sing about relevant social issues are provided a platform and income to share their stories.

“It’s another way to cope with the discontinuity after the training,” de Wit said. “If you have sustainability, people can make money from the skills they have been taught. Otherwise, it evaporates.”

Photos coutesy of Voices of Africa Media Foundation.

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