This story is part of IPI’s Local Journalism Project. Read more here.

Scrolling through the news on a mobile phone might be taken for granted in some parts of the world, but in many parts of Africa, it’s a luxury. South Africa’s mobile data rates are among the most expensive in the world, and without widespread Wi-Fi, low-income South Africans aren’t as well catered to by the news media market as wealthier South Africans.

Scrolla Africa CEO Mungo Soggot and his fellow co-founders decided to reimagine how journalism could serve broader South African society with the launch of Scrolla in 2019. With an innovative and affordable data-lite and mobile-first format, Scrolla delivers a blend of punchy news and deep investigations in both English and isiZulu to a traditionally underserved audience.

“There are some phenomenal, really important publications, which cater for richer people”, Soggot said. “That’s a really well catered-for market, but people who don’t have the luxury of tertiary education, don’t have lots of time — they aren’t catered for, and that’s the underserved that we are referring to.”

About 40 percent of Scrolla’s readers are between the ages of 25 to 35, and their target audience is people with “relatively few resources and who don’t have fancy phones”.

Scrolla’s newsroom consists of six full-time and six part-time team members, with many veteran reporters, editors, and business people with experience at the Mail & Guardian, a South African weekly newspaper in Johannesburg. Scrolla has a full-time isiZulu translation team and has plans to bring on full-time isiZulu reporters, which is crucial as isiZulu is the most widely spoken language in South African homes.

They found early early on that one of the big impediments to distribution is the very high cost of data.

“People just don’t want to spend time on their phone and guzzle valuable data”, Soggot said.

Scrolla distributes its content through different mobile messaging channels — including South African MTN’s Ayoba data-free mobile platform and Moya, the popular data-free messaging and payments platform — and its website, Scrolla.Africa. Recently, Scrolla launched a Data Lite edition, where readers can access a version of Scrolla that’s both light on data and cost-free thanks to sponsorship from a mobile company.

Scrolla uses a traditional tabloid-style format to engage readers.

“So we will do big investigative stories about crime and corruption, but we will always try and complement it with some sport, with a bit of celebrity, maybe a bit of sex and religion, so that you have a kind of mix”, Soggot said. “You’re not just hitting readers with doomsday stories.”

The best way to serve and reflect local communities, Soggot believes, is to get reporters who are already on the ground and engaged in local communities. A lot of care goes into finding the right people. Using freelancer networks, Soggot tapped local journalists across the country to report stories from beyond city centers. This coverage is combined with relevant national and international coverage to keep communities informed.

“So while the heartbeat of the publication is all those kinds of community stories, we’re very anxious to complement it with national coverage when appropriate, but also really importantly, the rest of the continent”, Soggot said.

Scrolla is pursuing a diversified revenue stream, allowing content to remain free for all. Next, Soggot aims to expand Scrolla’s model across the continent. “Our next port of call is Nigeria and Ghana”, Soggot said.

Jacqui Park talked to Mungo Soggot at length about the journey of building Scrolla, their journalism mission, and the products and business model that is helping them deliver it.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Park: How did you get to where you are? What was the gap and what was the need that you saw?

Soggot: I watched the development of mobile phones in the many countries that I traveled to. And decided that the future of media was going to be very much anchored around these gadgets for obvious reasons. Everyone’s leapfrogged into these amazing machines.

And so the holy grail really became popular journalism which doesn’t distort, doesn’t patronize, but presents things in a really simple, punchy, engaging, and varied way.

Park: I get the sense that it’s a sort of tabloid in that good old-fashioned way, where you can get a lot of different news quickly.

Soggot: That’s exactly it. I think the (tabloid-style) format is often fantastic and engaging, and entertaining and quick, but the format lends itself to distortion very easily and to weird politicalization and all the horrors that we’ve seen. But you can do things with that format if you really work at it which are really effective. It can be informative, it can be engaging.

And just in terms of the market, you’ve got these amazing mobile phones but not that much content for them. I mean the thing we’re obsessed about is the mix. We (in the team) all have highly political investigative, anti-corruption instincts and roots, but I think our feeling is that you don’t get that material out to a wide audience unless you mix it with other things. We will do big investigative stories about crime and corruption, but we will always try and complement it with some sport, with a bit of celebrity, maybe a bit of sex and religion, so that you have a mix.

At the moment, South Africa is a very violent place and incredibly unequal. You have the most unequal society in the world going through a very difficult political transition. And your gravitational pull towards horror is very strong, but the reality of South Africa is that in the middle of that challenge and suffering there’s great joy and humor, and you’ve got to try and find that. You’ve got to try and reflect people’s lives. You want to make a publication that people want to read, as opposed to feeling that they’re getting bombarded with synthesized punchy pieces of corruption and crime. We’re very keen to try and do that and borrow from the original tabloid ethos to do that.

Park: What are some of the challenges you face building new media in South Africa?

Soggot: The particular challenge in South Africa is incredibly high data costs. It’s part of our business model that we’ve accelerated quite quickly this year, because the big thing we discovered was that one of the major impediments to growth is data costs, because people just don’t have the money to spend. It’s pretty obscene what people have to spend on data because the plans are mainly pay-as-you-go and some of the most expensive in the world.

For most people in rich countries, most of us have contracts and data, but if you’re using pay-as-you-go, you have to be incredibly careful about how you use your data. So you’re very reluctant to surf and to play around because it just eats up your data. What we do is give people the comfort that when they’re on our site, it’s reversed-billed. There’s a fantastic company working with us who will do the reverse billing. In other words, we and a sponsor will pay for the data.

We’ve designed a new data light site, which is incredibly lean. We’ve got a big mobile company, which is going to be sponsoring that, and it will be free to be on that site for anyone. That’s quite a big deal in a country where there’s tricky data costs. And I think that will obviously be very important for our growth and for distribution, but we also believe that will open up additional ways to monetize by focusing on that particular data free market.

It’s an additional cost for us, but we built something which is so lean that it’s actually not that expensive.

Park: How do you make it work in a financial sense? If you’re serving a lower socioeconomic segment, how do you monetize that?

Soggot: It’s a very challenging revenue environment. The short answer is we’ve got multiple revenue streams appropriate for our data lite platform. We’re not relying on classic advertising. I think sponsorship is in the short-term more appropriate, and we will also be seeking sponsors for specific sections.

The design of everything has to be for phones which aren’t that posh. So we will have fancy phones where the screens are big and flashy and have amazing graphics, but we design everything for a lower spec phone, so that it looks good and it doesn’t stutter too much.

Park: When you started, did you feel like you had the right team in place? How important was it to bring the skill set together that you did and what’s in that mix?

Soggot: We have six full-time and six part-time as well as freelancer networks. The original team was, I suppose, very Mail & Guardian-oriented. We got a grant from the MDIF to work on our COVID coverage, but also to build an IsiZulu team, because we wanted to be bilingual as soon as possible.

And this allowed us to accelerate that. We brought on two Zulu translators. We’ve been pretty cautious and we’re very happy with the team now. And we’re still very much in the startup phase. We’re still incredibly lean.

Park: You’ve said that your coverage is rooted in communities. What did you mean by that? 

Soggot: There are huge parts of the country that are uncovered, that are more remote. And the model we’ve used is — which others have used as well — is that a lot of our hard costs are on editing, and sub-editing in a central hub, and then we have a network of reporters as far and wide as possible.

And we use that mechanism to find talent. Particularly in (the province of) KwaZulu-Natal, it’s been successful. We found a couple of reporters who we’ve brought closer and closer, and basically they will become permanent hires. But you use the freelancer process to get to know them and decide who you want to be working with. This set-up allows you to get into much more remote parts of the country and do those stories.

It’s combining that access to parts of the country that aren’t usually covered with a broader national coverage. So while the heartbeat of the publication are all those kinds of community stories, we’re very anxious to complement it with national coverage when appropriate.

One of the things we’ve been doing is working with other centers to find the right people in other similar areas in the country where we can do the same thing. Sometimes it’ll be established talent, but often it’s going to be younger, less experienced reporters who’ve got real talent. We used the phrase early on, which I don’t want to use now, but what can be summed up as “the breadth of social media with the depth of professional journalism”. It’s about combining experience and community intimacy. There’s also a training aspect, as there’s a natural, built-in training programme that takes place with some of the reporters.

Park: What’s next for you in Africa? And how are you thinking about the opportunities to innovate and serve local communities?

Soggot: We actually were going to start in Ghana. And then we decided to start in South Africa mainly for team reasons. But our next port of call is Nigeria and Ghana. And I think this is one of the things that one keeps having to remind oneself, that everyone’s been talking about mobile phones in Africa for many years, but it’s still exceptionally early. We’re only beginning to see the really interesting innovative stuff. Kenya has probably the most sophisticated and advanced and interesting media companies on the continent. It’s moving very quickly. And I think Nigeria will catch up very, very quickly.

Park: And as you expand Scrolla will you continue to put together networks of freelance journalists to serve underserved communities?

Soggot: Exactly. That’s the idea — that you use the technology to get access to the reporters who have intimate knowledge of remote communities and you package it in a way that is gripping to both those communities themselves, but also to a broader national audience. There are various things we’d like to do which specifically serve certain communities, which we’ll do later. I think the point is that the flexibility that technology gives you is infinite flexibility.

This story is part of IPI’s Local Journalism Project. IPI’s work mapping, networking and supporting quality innovative media serving local communities is supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropies.