What difference can a newsletter make?

May 12008

What difference can a newsletter make? Quite a bit, judging from the launch of a modest new publication in Uganda. Designed to serve health journalists, the “Uganda Health Reporter” is making a bid to help spearhead diverse training programs and become a rallying point for professional development.

“The first step is always the hardest.”

With those words, Gayawa Tegulle, a Ugandan newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host, tried to calm my nerves as we awaited the first of a series of workshops we are organizing to help health journalists in this sub-Saharan country sharpen their skills. I was ricocheting between dread that nobody would show up to fear that the conference room we booked would be so flooded that the event would collapse in chaos. But Tegulle, who began laboring for the cause of improved health journalism well before I did, took a longer view: whatever happens, he reassured me, we’d learn from the experience and move ahead.

Tegulle is one of the founders of the Uganda Health Communication Alliance, a group of journalists and non-government organization members who came together in 2007 in hopes of improving the quality of health information available to Ugandans. The group managed to register with the Ugandan government, but then found itself stuck in neutral. Members had great ambitions: they would host high-profile monthly dialogues that would put health issues before the Ugandan public, establish a resource center that would amass high-quality information for journalists and citizens, conduct original research on health issues, and more. But the group had no money and no backing. So the plans lay idle, and the alliance remained an empty shell.

Unfortunately, it was not alone. A flock of other entities – at least 10 of them by one count – exist on paper, though their motives appear to be less pure than the alliance’s. Many, if not all, are really just fronts for self-serving entrepreneurs: they have no real interest in journalism, but exist largely to attract funds from international donors who periodically descend into Uganda with plans to train journalists. These donors are understandably wary about being cheated. So not much has happened.

How could the Uganda Health Communication Alliance prove that it is different? First, it expanded its own network, forming an alliance with the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University, the largest university in east Africa. Together, the two entities started planning a series of public workshops, beginning with one that would examine the nature of epidemics and the role of the press when they happen. And finally, it produced a newsletter, which it called the Uganda Health Reporter.

I saw the newsletter as mainly a teaching tool; it would provide news, tips, and other information that would help journalists cover health. What I learned is that it can do all this – and more. It can raise the flag for an association, showing that it is not just a tool to enrich its founders, but rather a genuine attempt to make a difference. It can give people inexperienced in the way of associations a sense of the possible, a confidence that they can move toward their goals even before donor support starts flowing. And it can be a rallying point around which its members can start to develop a sense of professional identity.

At least that’s the feeling one gets one newsletter and one workshop into the process. Based largely on publicity from the newsletter and one press release, the workshop attracted 26 people, including the dean of a Ugandan medical school dean; the discussion was lively. A European non-government organization contacted the alliance in search of its mailing list (the response: we’d be happy to talk with you about collaborating on capacity-building efforts, but we’re not giving away anything until we know your bona fides). More encouragingly, a university public health program said it wants to discuss possible collaborative projects.

Perhaps the best news, though, is that new, more realistic plans are churning inside the association. Viewing the power (and low cost) of the newsletter, the alliance now wants to build a web site before worrying about bricks-and-mortar. A Ugandan representative of another European NGO has expressed interest in providing technical manpower to help run this “virtual resource center.” And there is buzz about future issues of the newsletter. Besides carrying more workshop news and offering reporters practical tips on covering health issues, it will examine what media houses can do to make health journalism a more viable career in a country where many view journalism in general as a dubious long-term career. The university’s Department of Mass Communication has agreed to assign students to study media coverage of certain health issues – and present their findings in the newsletter and in a future workshop. These same students could become reporters for the newsletter and the virtual resource center. And the alliance is thinking about convening a panel of experts to review health coverage in the Ugandan media, single out noteworthy work and set the record straight when reporters get things wrong.

All this will take continued – indeed, even heightened – commitment from alliance members. One newsletter and one workshop don’t prove the alliance has lasting power. But the flag has been raised, and it’s flapping in the wind.

And, as Gayawa Tegulle would say, the next step doesn’t seem quite so hard.

Editors Note: The potential of both the Ugandan Health Communication Alliance and the newsletter have to make a difference in Uganda.