Comic strips, real-time dashboards, WhatsApp podcasts: South African newsrooms’ COVID-19 offerings

This year, WAN-IFRA introduced a Members’ Choice Award in the category of “Best COVID-19 Special Project” as part of its Digital Media Africa Awards competition.

Thandi and Captain Stay Safe - Food For Mzansi's COVID-19 comic strip.

by Neha Gupta | September 17, 2020

The three finalists showcased their successful initiatives during the virtual Digital Media Africaconference last week.

Alet Law (Engagement Editor, News24), Viasen Soobramoney (Editor, Coronavirus, and Ivor Price and Kobus Louwrens (Co-Founders, joined us to make a case for why their brand’s strategy was the best.

Coronavirus Hub, News24

News24, the largest digital news publication in South Africa, launched Coronavirus Hub to provide in-depth coverage of the virus without overwhelming its readers. The portal was intended to be a one-stop shop for the latest COVID-19 related information and data from South Africa and around the world, linked to the main website and the smartphone app. “Our aim was to make the page, which is updated daily, as easy to navigate as possible. The pandemic has several aspects to it, and we were faced with the challenge of finding real estate for that while also covering the general news,” said Alet Law.

News24’s offerings

  • News section: The Coronavirus Hub hosts a news section, linked to the main website and a section called “Coronavirus 101,” run by a team of health journalists who have been combating misinformation around the origin of the virus, the symptoms and treatment. This section features basic information about the virus, precautions and emergency contact numbers.
  • Newsletter: The company revamped its health newsletter and saw its subscriptions triple.
  • Real-time dashboard: The hub houses a mini dashboard that has the latest Coronavirus statistics, updated in real-time, and is plugged into the Johns Hopkins University dashboard to give readers a global overview of the virus. “Acquiring statistics in South Africa has been controversial from the get go with the government not being very forthcoming with information,” Law said. News24 has since partnered with the Truth First Initiative, a non-profit organisation that supports investigative journalism. Together, they have created a dashboard with extensive statistics on the pandemic in South Africa.
  • Lifestyle: As the country went into lockdown on 27 March, it also started to look at ways to better people’s “stay-at-home” lives, by launching a dedicated section that houses stories around lifestyle, health, exercise and recipes.
  • Results

    Law said their initial coverage was focused on daily problems inflicted by the virus and not much on how readers could look forward and come out of the crisis. The News24 Opinion team, therefore, commissioned 30 articles from thought leaders across South Africa who wrote about focusing on leadership, inequality, the economy, and how to recover. The articles were a hit and were soon turned into an ebook.

    “This project has been a great exercise in creativity and a learning opportunity in presenting the news in a myriad of ways,” Law said. “This creativity spilled onto other sections too; Our business team created a hub for financial advice for readers, especially in the face of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.”

    Thandi and Captain Stay Safe,, an agriculture news and lifestyle brand, was faced with a dilemma and an opportunity in that their readers were adamant that the pandemic didn’t exist. “They wanted to know nothing about it, telling us it was a rich man’s disease, a white man’s disease,” Price said.

    Food For Mzansi typically represents people with lower literacy levels who have limited access to mainstream media, limited internet connectivity and a few who have never purchased newspapers. “We realised that ignorance could literally kill them, and we needed to do something to keep our readers safe,” Price said.

    Food For Mzansi’s offerings

    • Comic strip: The company collaborated with 11-year-old Jan Louwrens, who has been running his business designing robots, and selling merchandise for three years, to create “Thandi and Captain Stay Safe.” “Even during the pandemic, it was rare to have COVID related information available in all South African languages. With the exception of one South African newspaper, all other media in the country is only in English and Afrikaans,” said Price. The “Thandi and Captain Stay Safe” comic strip is now available in all 11 South African languages.
    • WhatsApp podcast: Food For Mzansi launched a WhatsApp voice note-based podcast based on the adventures of Thandi and Captain Stay Safe through South Africa, urging kids to stay safe during the pandemic. The podcast was shared more than 5,000 times on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
    • COVID-19 support page: The brand created an active COVID-19 support page, which was based on letting their readers know the best thing to fight the pandemic was to stay at home, follow health guidelines, and spread facts, not fiction. This was in direct response to the increasing fake news doing the rounds. The page also featured a real-time COVID tracker, safety and mental health tips. “We also wanted to empower our readers, so we gave them ways to apply for emergency funding,” said Kobus Louwrens.
    • Hand sanitiser range: Food For Mzansi and Jan Louwrens released a hand sanitiser range in collaboration with ViroGOLD, a South African hand sanitiser manufacturer. The sanitiser range, that flaunted Captain Stay Safe, was distributed in South African schools.


    The brand’s website and social media channels managed to reach 1.5 million people during a 3.5 month period, a 60 percent increase in readership. According to Newsclip, an independent brand tracking company that monitors media channels, Food For Mzansi’s “Thandi and Captain Stay Safe” series generated a PR value of close to R2 million (€1,03,716). The series was also distributed via the Eastern Cape Farmers’ Network WhatsApp database comprising 4,000 small scale farm workers.


    Like other news organisations, Coronavirus was created to filter the noise, fake news and jargon and bring its consumers rusted viewpoints, resources and important notices from newsrooms across South Africa, without bombarding them with information.

    The team was faced with numerous challenges such as the need for verified information, fighting fake news, myths, promoting hygiene and navigating a new normal. The response was to focus on solutions driven content. The focus areas were broken down into news (breaking news, general coronavirus related content, exclusive interviews with ministers, psychologists), data (statistics, visualisations and third party data), safety (self test, precautions, directives from the government), how to’s, myth busters, treatment and quarantine (tips, assistance, mental health, financial health) and resources.

    The team had a two-week turnaround time to create a dedicated web and social media platform, decide on a content and social media strategy, and look up a design, UX and build of the website. “Special features and third party plugins were also onboarded and our team of five people embarked on a content creation training,” Soobramoney said. “We established our content sharing and distribution partner network, which included IOL and the African News Agency.”

    Coronavirus Monitor’s offerings

    Coronavirus Monitor’s content offering ranged from multimedia storytelling, live broadcasts, user generated content, infographics, third party resources and video. The brand created almost 500 videos across various disciplines. The homepage housed breaking news, real time statistics, live threat levels, videos, data sets from Reuters and Johns Hopkins, and third party plugins such as a COVID-19 self test and interactive data visualisation.

    Coronavirus Monitor real time statistics dashboard

    Coronavirus Monitor real time statistics dashboard


    The company saw more than 1,700 unique pieces of content, more than 426,000 page views, and had about 27,900 website users. The Coronavirus Monitor content was also distributed to at least 42 publishers across the African continent, with a potential reach of 68 million people, thanks to the African News Agency. The brand managed to reach IOL’s 8.6 million monthly users, and around 3 million readers through newspaper titles across the country.

    Food For Mzansi won WAN-IFRA’s Special COVID-19 project entry, after being elected by Digital Media Africa 2020 attendees.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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