Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: How did you end up in investment and funding after a career in technology and publishing?

Mohamed Nanabhay: The best way to describe the journey is one of serendipity. I didn’t set out to become an investor. I didn’t set out to work in the media industry, but growing up, I always had two deep passions: technology and social justice. In the 90s, when I was at university in South Africa, I ended up inventing my own degree, where I majored in computer science and history.

Today, it’s pretty normal for people to do these dual humanities and science degrees. Many journalism schools run degrees, with computer science in them as a selling point, but back then it was quite novel.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time on the internet, working with internet communities, building internet communities, building on the early web, and I landed at Al Jazeera. I didn’t go there to work in media, I went there to work in technology. It was 2004 and when I got there, I’d left South Africa, I went to Qatar.

I quickly realised that while the technology part was interesting, what was really much more interesting was the impact that the internet would have on the media business itself. I started banging on the director general’s door saying, ‘hey, this, media, thing is going to change radically. It’s going to change this broadcast business that we have’. I think I finally annoyed him enough, where he said,’ fine, go and do this thing’.

We invented a title with new media in it. I then put together the most amazing cross-disciplinary team of developers, journalists, and business development people. Everybody was super young and super excited about what the internet would bring to the media industry.

This team went on to pioneer what then we called ‘distributed distribution’, where we’d use emerging platforms to get Al Jazeera content out to new and often younger audiences. Right now, describing this, it seems uncontentious. Everybody does this, but back then it was quite revolutionary. Other media companies were suing YouTube, while we were going full steam ahead, uploading our content.

We were early to thinking about citizen media, using social networks for distribution. We licenced our content under Creative Commons, and really just built a lot of cool stuff. As a small group, working adjacent to the newsroom and the main media platform At Al Jazeera. Lots of people in that team went on to become leaders in the industry themselves. They both AJ Plus and all sorts of really important media outlets that we have today.

I’d done that for a while at Al Jazeera. Then I stepped back into a strategy role across the network, looking at the business and looking at the wider issues that the network was facing. This was a time when the network was growing. Al Jazeera English was just getting started.

They’d started up some support channels, a documentary channel, and about a year after looking at strategy, I was asked to come in and interview to run Al Jazeera English’s online operation. It was quite a different step for me because, while I focused on media products and online, this was really an editorial role.

Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask, that sounds like a much more editorial role, compared to product development and technology?

Yeah, absolutely. The big step at Al Jazeera at the time was that we had done all the stuff in New Media, we had seen the intersection of where the web and where mobile was leading us, thinking about this and at Al Jazeera English at the time, we were really trying to get to audiences. It started off as a satellite television channel, but there was a limit of who could reach it, and how did we get that great content that Al Jazeera English was producing and put it in front of people?

It was at that time, we were people thinking about this. Like I said, that background that I had in history and these sorts of things had me engaged in editorial, but not as a journalist at the time. I had interviewed for this job and got the job. I’d walked into the newsroom.

It was a really fascinating time to walk into a newsroom, because around that time, 2008, 2009 we were a decade into the first generation of internet journalists and people doing news on the web. There were people who certainly had battle scars of fighting those online battles in the organisations of saying we’re going to do stuff on the web.

But a decade in, they were pretty set in their ways of how they did things. And now the internet had brought this next wave of change, where it was all about social media and video and blogging, and so on. We ended up in this bizarre situation where the people who led the change 10 years ago were now the gatekeepers and resistant to change.

Right.

I came in with this mandate to think about how do we take this product into the future and build it up. That’s why I started with saying a lot of this was serendipity. We were at the right place at the right time, while these things were happening around us in the industry. I was able to get involved and really try to drive some change.

This was a couple of years before the Arab Spring. No one knew the Arab Spring was coming, but we started thinking about what we do in this newsroom. We quickly realised, as I’ve come into that role, that we needed to start thinking about: how do we get information off blogs?

How do we get them off YouTube as an emerging platform with people uploading video, and really retooling the newsroom and thinking about how to news-gather in a different way, how to distribute the content in different way, how to think about the audience in a different way.

When the Arab Spring happened, the team that we had not only had the local expertise, the regional knowledge, were world-class journalists, but they also had the tools to go out and really bring this news to the world in a way that we had not seen before. Starting from doing things like live blogs, going on the ground and sourcing video in Cairo, again, things that now we sit back and say, ‘well, this is all normal in newsrooms’. At the time, it wasn’t, it was novel.

It was a super exciting time to be building a news product. After Al Jazeera English, I had done that job for a number of years, I felt like I achieved a lot at Al Jazeera. We had some great teams who could take the work forward and I decided to leave. One of the things that led me to that decision was I started a company, which was really a hobby, like a weekend itch while I was in Qatar.

As the stories go, there was something I was looking for online, I couldn’t find it, so I started a website in the weekend. This website had grown to become the largest website in Qatar, outside of Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook at the time. It touched everybody and it was really a community website, a classified listings website. I thought I need to focus on the subject and, in fact, very quickly, sold it.

Then I decided to return to South Africa, after selling this website. MDIF then approached me and had asked me to come and join the fund. At the time, I was busy with a couple of other projects. One of them was an analytics tool that I started building and we had won the Knight News Challenge for, so I wasn’t quite ready to move on to the next thing. I was sort of funemployed, but I went out to meet MDIF and they asked me to join the board.

MDIF is really this fantastic nonprofit that works on a commercial basis and thinking about media and sustainability. I spent two years on the board, and got to know the team, got to know the mission, got to know the clients. When I was thinking about going back and doing something after taking some time off, our CEO Harlan Mandal said, ‘why don’t you join us?’ Because that’s how we met initially.

Then it was a very quick decision to step off the board and join the team. It’s been five years since then and it’s been brilliant, just working with the clients that we have and trying to support independent media throughout the world.

Yeah. Before we get into the Media Development Investment Fund itself, I know you’re also a board member at Mozilla. I know that they were one of the early ones to take a stance against things like tracking. Obviously, you can’t give us all the board secrets, what do you make of where it all seems to be heading now, which is this really fractured internet with all sorts of conflicts and monopolies? Because Mozilla is really one of the driving forces behind some of that.

I think Mozilla has always had it as its mission to put people at the heart of the internet and to think about how do we have an internet that serves us, as the entire population that’s not only on the internet, but emerging and coming onto the internet. Thinking about this, we really think about the technology and how the technology informs us, but also the issues around this that technology raises: privacy, security, choice, and so on.

In thinking about these issues around data and so on, the teams at Mozilla been working really hard on this over the years. One of the things that has emerged recently is a project called Mozilla Rally, which is a project looking at how individuals can provide data that’s used in an ethical way and for research purposes, rather than for monetisation.

So rather than for tracking you and just trying to make money off the data, but really helping people think about what their data means, helping researchers use that data to build better products, and to build tools for better internet transparency.

I think it’s an exciting time of change. At the moment, I think we’re seeing the moves happening in the industry, I think data is top of mind for many people. It’s up to people like Mozilla and other allies in the industry to think about what the tools are and what the technologies are for the internet that we want.

So tell us about the the Media Development Investment Fund, so for listeners that don’t know, what is it and what do you do?

At the Media Development Investment Fund, it’s actually our 25th anniversary this year. It was founded in the time when the former Yugoslavia was breaking up, in the backdrop of the former Soviet states gaining independence. The founder of MDIF at the time, Saša Vučinić, really had this insight that was quite brilliant for the time.

He realised that, as these countries were democratising, there would be a need for independent media, but that funding was scarce. Often, the funding available would be either tainted by political interests, by oligarchs, big business interest, or the traditional funders, the banks and so on, wouldn’t take the risk on media.

So eventually, MDIF was born as a bank for media companies, to provide loans to people who are putting up printing presses, buying radio studios, and so on. And the model turned out to be successful. There were a group of media companies that were independent doing journalism in the public interest, were financially successful, paid back the loans, MDIF recycled the money.

What struck me when I started learning about MDIF was, it was this organisation that had this marvellous ability to adapt as the media landscape changed. So they started doing loans, but when the business environment started changing, they started moving from just doing loans into doing equity investments into these emerging media companies, taking equity stakes.

As the world went online, they started helping their existing clients transition to digital, started doing investing in online media companies that were starting up. So really being able to, as a funder, adapt with their clients over time and provide solutions to them. We started off very much working in Central and Eastern Europe, our work spread across the world. We have investments in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and still a lot of work in Central and Eastern Europe.

We provide two things, we do debt financing and equity financing for media companies who are independent, working in countries where there’s a threat to freedom of speech, or the independent media. Our thesis is that there are media companies who are commercial, who could be viable, have a strong, independent streak, provide quality journalism.

It’s tough to find them, but they’re real heroes and they’re working on an important mission. Our job is to help them through financing and through expertise and assistance to grow their businesses to become more sustainable, and to continue to serve the audiences in their country.

So the aim for when people are applying is that those businesses can be sustainable? It’s not a philanthropic gesture, they do actually have to return the money?

That’s certainly the thesis of this fund. We’re really an impact investment fund. We’re structured as a nonprofit, but we operate on a for-profit basis, the funds, but that being said, it is concessionary. We’re not trying to get market returns, and so on. Our primary mission is to assist these media companies. We really see ourselves as partners to them. We’re patient capital, we know it takes time, we know it’s tough, and we’ll work with our clients to get them to the point where they can be sustainable, and where they can grow their businesses.

So you actually have quite a lot of involvement with those businesses pre- and post-investment then?

Yeah, absolutely. We like to think and, we design our process, so from the time when we start assessing a client, we hope we’re providing value to them. Even our business assessment is something where, even if we don’t make the investment, it helps them along their journey as a company.

But what’s important about the way we work is, because we’re a nonprofit and we have a mission, we do a programmatic screen upfront. We look at a company and we have a set of eligibility criteria. We’ll say, ‘is this company providing quality news and information? Is it in the public interest? Is it independent of government, larger business interests, and so on?’ We might do a content assessment to look at the journalism.

Once it meets that screen, our board of directors says yes, this passes the eligibility criteria of MDIF, then we’ll get into a business due diligence, and we’ll start looking at the product, the product plans, we’ll start looking at how the business is operating, and what they might need the funding for. And then work with them, eventually, when we do the investment to help them realise their goals and aims.

We’ve got an advisory service internally at MDIF, where we provide consulting to them. We bring our client base together, we offer a lot of peer learning to them, so things that our clients in Indonesia learn can sometimes help a client in India and help a client in South Africa, and so on.

We really try to think about not just being money, but also bringing expertise to bear and bringing assistance in other ways to bear in our clients. One of the things about the way we operate is we try to build up regional expertise. We have regional directors, who focus on each of the major regions we operate in, who are often based in those regions. In India, we’ve got a team with somebody out looking at Malaysia, and so on in Latin America, Africa.

We’ve got people who have that regional expertise, or those regional networks, because, of course, not one person can cover an entire continent, but they know who’s in the market. We’ve got a fantastic investment team as well. Our investment analysts will work with clients on their business plans and in growing those businesses.

There’s really a lot of expertise at the MDIF, both people who might have been at media companies, on the operational side, like myself, the former CEO of the commercial arm of the BBC, has just joined us recently as our chief investment officer. So people who have operated, as well as people who are experts in funding and the investment side, as well as regional and programme experts. We come together as a multi-disciplinary team to help our clients.

Have you got any favourite examples of teams that have done great things with that investment?

There’s a lot of them, maybe too many to choose favourites. I’ll give you a couple of highlights. We’ve invested in a business in Indonesia called Qatar Data. This business was started by three really great investigative journalists in Jakarta. They’ve done great journalism in the past, and they had an insight early on, about the role that data would play in journalism and storytelling.

They took that idea and started building this media company, where they initially focused on the oil and gas industry, and then moved to more general economic news and journalism. They’re really thinking hard about data in the country, and how they use data for storytelling. The business has grown tremendously. They uncover things that are amazing all the time.

They did a piece where, if somebody was to enter the oil and gas market in Indonesia and needed to get all the approvals and permits, it would take them some ridiculous amount of time, years and years and years just to do the paperwork, if everything went smoothly. The government saw this and said, ‘oh, my God, we didn’t even know this was the case’.

So from companies like that, thinking deeply about sort of the intersection of what they do with data, how do they do the journalism, what solutions they provide in their countries, to a new company we recently invested in called #OurStories, where two young entrepreneurs, a couple, had wanted to do something in mobile journalism. We worked with them, initially gave them some seed funding and recently made an investment.

They managed to build a product that’s really taken off on Snapchat, where they run a number of shows on Snapchat. It’s an emerging channel, one that has gained serious traction, they’re building the team. It’s an opportunity that they were unique to see early on. From all the businesses that we spoke to, mobile journalism was an add-on, something to do second. They saw that there’s a market with young people who consume video in a different way. They started building journalism for them, and including them in their stories.

We work across the spectrum of clients who are experimenting, doing really interesting things. We recently launched something called MDIF Ventures. This is an early-stage fund. We’re taking applications for it over the next few weeks. It’s a fund that’s looking at making seed-stage investments. We’re looking at people starting new companies, who might have started their companies and are looking for the first and second round of investment, who have often wild ideas about where journalism is going and where media is going.

We previously ran a fund called Digital News Ventures that was really successful. This was around 2012 and it captured a moment of media on the internet and that was sort of the post Arab Spring moment when journalism became social, things were going viral. We were thinking about those things.

We seeded a number of companies, one of them was Qatar Data, this company called Scrolling India, which is one of the large online media players now. They were seeded out of this fund, so really great companies had come out of it.

We see this moment again happening, where there’s a shift in the market. We’re looking direct to our audience. The monetization tools are very different from what they were 10 years ago. So this fund is really to say, ‘well, what can we learn from what’s going on now? And how do we help this next generation of media entrepreneurs build?

Do you think we’re gonna see a lot more consolidation post-COVID? Or do you think actually it’s provided a bit more of a bed for independent media organisations to thrive?

That’s a great question. It might sound slightly callous, but if we’re looking for an upside in the pandemic, and it’s really hard to grasp one, given what’s been wreaked on the world, but many media companies have finally had to deal with having unsustainable cost bases.

The pandemic forced things to become apparent for everyone involved in the business. I think a lot of people just weren’t seeing it, or didn’t want to see it. We were blaming external factors for this. There’s all sorts of reasons we can assign to why our business models weren’t working. But it forced many people to deal with this now, in one way or the other.

When the pandemic started very early on, we put out a letter to our clients based on what we had seen in the 2008 crash. There was a lot of advice in that letter to them, but two main points were: you need to immediately start cutting costs, and you need to start hoarding cash. We had suggestions of how to try to cut costs without, hurting staff, because it’s a tough time in a pandemic.

But I think what it did was, many organisations quickly looked at the cost base. They had to do the restructuring that maybe they were thinking about doing for a long time, but just couldn’t do or couldn’t get buy-in to do. I think some of them will come out stronger for it. They’ll come out as leaner companies, they’ll come out focused on managing the cost base, making sure that it tracks with revenue.

So I’m optimistic, cautiously. Often out of these sort of situations, people start new things, and as well, that’s why the the timing of our fund is fortuitous in this way.

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