INTERVIEW: All it takes to succeed as online publisher –Oladipo (I)

INTERVIEW: All it takes to succeed as online publisher –Oladipo (II)
Dotun Oladipo

The conventional and online newspapers are two major terrains Mr. Dotun Oladipo has traversed very well and made his mark. Having risen to the post of editor of a national newspaper and now the proud publisher of one of the leading online newspapers in the country, The Eagle Online, he is unarguably an authority on media issues.  In this interview by SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, Oladipo speaks on what it takes to be a successful online newspaper publisher, the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, GOCOP, and plans by the federal government to regulate the social media among other issues.  Excerpts:

How would you describe the conventional newspapers in the country today against the backdrop of the coming of online newspapers?

The coming of online newspapers has put a lot of pressure on the hardcopy to be able to think deeper and be innovative in the handling of news stories.  There is no doubt that the hard copy newspapers will not go out of fashion despite the fact that a lot of what the hard copy newspapers are used for are now being done online.  For instance, people used to think that for you to publish your marriage notice otherwise referred to as Change of Name, you need only the hard copy newspapers. It is no longer so.  Even the embassies now accept online publications for change of names. People used to think that government contracts could only be published in hard copy newspapers.  That has also been dealt with. Even, if it is rare in this regime that we are in Nigeria, it is something that has become acceptable.  What it then means is that the hard copy newspapers must then become very innovative to sell because the stories they want to sell would have been dealt with on the go – per second, per minute – by the online newspapers.  Meaning that the hard copy newspapers must then device the means of serving the audience very fresh contents; not stale news, not things read a day before.  You must then as a team in the hard copy newspapers, put on your thinking cap and be able to say this is where we are going.

How do you mean?

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I had at some point offered a suggestion that if I were the editor of a hardcopy newspaper, I would test waters for the following day with our own online publications because most of those publishing the conventional newspapers today have their own online versions. You can put a two paragraph story online two to three hours before the newspaper goes to bed and see how it works out. You don’t need to put the full story there. With that, you can have an idea of who likes to read the story. Then you can decide whether or not to run with such a story.  It is something that can work. This is because for the online, you get your result immediately.  So, for the hard copy, it means there must be flexibility.  Before now, some newspapers take pride in having political advantage, business advantage, lifestyle advantage and so on.  All of these have collapsed now because the readers are now king. Before, the editors used to decide what readers want. Now the readers decide what the editors should publish. There have been arguments back and forth over if the kind of journalism we are practising today will not take away the power of the media to shape the society.  It is a critical question.  But, my argument is that the media is not just a social service, but a business too.  So, between what readers want and what is good for the society, today’s editors must find a middle point in addressing issues.

By your assessment, would you say the editors of conventional newspapers have been up to the task in addressing the challenges that come with the prevalence of the online newspapers?

It all depends on how the editors view it.  There was a time I was offered a job in a national newspaper, and I told the management to give me a few weeks to study what that particular weekend title needed to get the desired advantage for which they needed my skill.  We did a few back and forth and I discovered that that title  – a Saturday title – was behaving, and in character, like a Sunday newspaper that is expected to be political and business oriented so that you give people an idea of what to expect the next day – like business and in terms of happenings on the political scene. It wasn’t soft in any way.  For women, from what we have discovered, what they want, is to sit down on Saturday and enjoy soft stories – things that will excite them.  Men too, after running up and down throughout the week would want to sit down and enjoy something captivating.  And what I suggested was that we can do all our politicking (I’m a politics person and I have my strength there), but we are going to be useless as a team if we don’t allow those in the entertainment sector to take prominence, especially on the front page. What we simply did was split the newspaper into two. The entertainment sector had half on the front page to display photographs of Nollywood actors and actresses to talk about; and even politicians are not talking politics on that day, but their personal lives, family lives, holiday etc.  I didn’t know what impact my efforts had until when I was leaving and I was told that within three months, that newspaper trippled its circulation figure.

Don’t get lost in the day to day running of your online newspaper such that you are not looking at the figures.  We need to look at the figures and define those things critically.

I also advised that even the daily newspaper, if they didn’t want to lose all their initial outlook, whether it is politics or business, should begin to use that soft part of whatever they were doing, otherwise, they were going to lose readership and that is fast happening. Even they, when they looked at their online edition, they saw that it was not every day readers are interested in the news that somebody has stolen N2 billion.  Readers are likely to ask: “What is my business with that?  If you recover the N2 billion what is my own gain?  Is it coming to my pocket? Is it not going to be re-looted?” Those things are good to write about, but is that what this generation wants to read? Survey has shown that most of those who do the reading now fall into the GenZ age; the age of the Fast and Furious. They want to read soft matters; they want to read about the musicians who fall into their generation – the Davidos, the WizKids etc.  If any one of these people coughs, it is of more interest to them than the president saying that the country had entered into recession. The argument is “When the country was not in recession, was I not in recession?” So, the things that make their lives better are what excite them and those are the things they look forward to reading. Davido snatches Wizkid’s girlfriend, for instance, and they are excited. They want to read such a story.  One of our online publishers said the most read stories on his platform in the last five years or thereabout was Pasuma (Wasiu Alabi) moving from one house to the other in Lagos. Meanwhile, we had had stories of huge corruptions – AGF allegedly stealing about N200 billion. That is something that should give one heart attack…  But they are not looking at that, they are looking at the other side of life.  The good news is that for the online newspaper, your result is immediate.  But for the hard copy newspaper, it is when they bring back the unsold copies that you realise that you have failed in the market. But, must we wait for that to continuously happen to us? No.  It is not wise.  So, we should be getting it right by ensuring that we give people the mix that they want.

Are the conventional newspapers adapting to the changing situation?

Some are adapting. Some are! And permit me to mention some names.  In the Nigerian Tribune for instance, they are taking time to give people some tips, even in their online newspapers, on certain things to do.  For instance: How to prepare for an interview; five places you should not take you girlfriend to for an outing; how to sustain your love life. You find some of those things in the newspapers.  They are making conscious efforts to ensure that those things are on the front page; people can have a link to them.  You go to The Nation; you find all of these Nollywood actors and actresses featuring prominently whether online or in the hard copy. And they are being read. I can tell you that recently, the story that made the rounds, which newspapers like The Nation or Vanguard featured and profitted from was a Nollywood actress, whose vengeful ex-boyfriend sent out her nude videos and photograph.  Ordinarily, some newspapers won’t touch that before.  But it featured prominently because they realised that you can’t run away from what people want.  Tinubu’s campaign in Delta is sitting comfortably with “Why I release the nude video and photograph of my ex-girlfriend.” With the two stories sitting beside each other, you are able to have two at once – one gives you the information needed for the day or week on politics, business etc and with the other one  you can put your legs on the table and enjoy some scandals, so to say.  Those are the news selling. People are reading them more than the one we journalists believe should shape our lives as a country.

What would you say are the major differences between the conventional newspapers, and the online newspapers?

I don’t see any difference because they are supposed to serve the same purpose.  The major difference is that one is spontaneous; it has the capacity for breaking news. Unlike in the days when we were in the print, when you had information and you were guarding it till the following day.  If you have what you consider an exclusive story, before you go to sleep, somebody has already published it.  So, that’s the only difference I see.  In terms of their purposes, they are the same.  Journalism is meant to inform and entertain. If you are to succeed, then you should not just think as a journalist, but as a businessman. I had an interaction with the managing editor of one of the top five newspapers in Nigeria, and he asked if that was how we were going to develop Nigeria by publishing what people wanted to read and not what we wanted them to read. I said unfortunately, the age we are in now, does not give us a choice than to pay attention to both worlds. But at the same time, we must know that if we don’t get the business aspect right, we won’t be able to pay salaries.  That is the bottom-line at the end of the day. You must be able to pay the salaries to be able to sustain those who are supposed to shape the society with the political and business stories among others. So, if those in the entertainment sector are going to be the one to generate the revenue, it is a team work, let them do so and let them keep the company running. Let’s publish all we can, but as businessmen… That is what I keep telling my co online publishers. We have gone past the age of being reporters.  We are now what we have come to term mediapreneurs.  As we are thinking of the exclusive, the big stories, we must be thinking of how we are going to pay salaries at the end of the month.

One of the things that I get very excited about… In the last two to three months, we started a column on relationship, especially this sex part of it.  And the kind of messages I get and the kind of people I get them from show me that those who are pretending to be holier than thou are reading these things.  They are getting tips to build their families and sex life.  So, when we post the column, and in two to three hours, very many people have read it, you see the traffic going up.  We can keep deceiving ourselves that as journalists, we are only supposed to shape the country through political and business stories and close our eyes to the fact that people are not reading those stories but looking at something else.  It means therefore that you are giving the people the food that they don’t want.  You are only putting up an appearance that yes, we are the big boys in town. If you take your time as an online publisher, you go to your comment section, the kind of responses you get there will shock you. Somebody has stolen N200 million and the readers are like: “Wetin come concern me? If dem collect the money na my pocket e dey come?” The journalists are not to blame, but simply because our values have shifted. Then, the economy has now regulated our thinking to see that most people must look for something to calm them down or make them happy.  That is why you see beer parlours increasing in number. That is why you have areas of those things that men do in the dark developing. People are looking for things that will make them less combustive and combative.  That is the reality that we are not looking at as journalists.

Online journalism is said to be the future of journalism.  What would you say about this?

I’m not sure it is the future.  It is the present.  We are into it. If you do a little bit of research, you will find out that people who still have hard copy newspapers, are making more money from their online versions than the hard copies. So, it is not the future; it is the present; it is where we are now.  It is for you to be able to plug in and see the niche you can bring to the market. We may seem to be in the same circle, we may seem to be political websites, but we have different people reading us. There are people who had been following you from your days as a print journalist, and once you establish an online newspaper, most of them move with you.  Hence, no matter what others are offering, if there is a particular niche you have, they stay with you.  Sometimes when I don’t do what we call broadcast (news update) fast enough for people to see that there is a breaking news, either of two things will happen – they will go to the website (the Eagle Online) to look for the story.  And if for any reason, we have not uploaded the story, I’m likely going to get the second one – a whatsapp or text message:  Please, did this happen truly? Despite the fact that others had published, they still want to come to a source they trust.  Not everybody will come to me, there will be people who will come to you or others to ask the same question.  This is because they believe in you.

We are in that present position of online journalism now.

Perhaps, that’s why we have quite a number of online newspapers today?  So many!

We are not yet enough, talking about the number of online newspapers that we have.  If you look at the number of the online newspapers serving over 200 million Nigerians, out of which we have been told that well over 100 million have mobile phones, and we still have may be about 1000 online publications.  We are still few.  What it means is that we are not serving the areas we should be serving. Just like the hard copy newspapers, you can’t be strong everywhere.  The Eagle Online has 80 per cent of its readers in Lagos.  If we narrow it down – This 80 per cent, where are they? What do they want to read? What are they actually reading? Then we find out the age range – 34 to 44 or 55 maximum some time.  There was a time it was 24 to 65.  Lower age had more than 80 per cent, meaning that those between 24 and 35 had more than 80 per cent of that figure.  You begin to ask yourself, what do they want to read? What are they reading?  That is the age range that wants to know: How much is the dollar going for?  Which food will I eat to get enough strength to deal with my wife or my girlfriend, or to deal with my husband or my boyfriend?  Those people fall into that age range.  They are also looking for where they can get entertainment; Who is abusing who? Who is sleeping with whom? Who is fighting who? Who committed a blunder somewhere?  They want funny videos.  They have defined what they want.  They don’t want to be troubled by “government has not done this, government has done that, somebody stole government money.”  Most of them don’t want to be bothered about all that.  Therefore, when you break it down further, you find out how many people are serving that category.  Somebody is in Canada and he wants to read the news about Nigerians in Canada, but he doesn’t have access to those things in the very way he wants it.  For instance, in Canada, a Canadian-Nigerian is caught for doing something.  The Canadian newspaper will not report it as a Nigerian caught; it would simply report: Man caught with so so and so.  It is not definite.  When a journalist in Nigerian sees that and brings it out that it was a Nigerian that was caught, the readership of that story will be higher in Canada because the Nigerians in Canada are looking for such.  Same thing with the U.S., same thing with the U.K., South Africa, France etc.

So, these are the thing people are not looking at; they are not studying the figures to make them add up.  I say to publishers, you are no longer reporters; you are managers.  Don’t get lost in the day to day running of your online newspaper such that you are not looking at the figures.  We need to look at the figures and define those things critically. Being a publisher goes beyond the normal “he did not write this sentence well.”  You are now sitting at the top and looking at the figures.  If the story of the Nollywood actress whose nude pictures and videos were put out could attract about 20, 000 viewers in a few hours, then we have to go back to look at the age grade that read it, where they read it. If it is in Nigeria, we should ask: Where in Nigeria? Is it in Lagos or Ibadan, is it in Akure or Maiduguri?  You ask those questions.  Where we make our mistakes as journalists is that when we publish a story on Kaduna, we assume that it is people in Kaduna State that will read it.  No, often times, it is not so.  You find out that some Kaduna people who are in Lagos are interested in the story.  These will help you to take decisions on the kind of stories to use and at what time. These will be based on the facts and figures behind your publication. You can project and decide on what to do.

What is the future of online journalism like?

Very bright. People have argued that there are too many online newspapers, but I said there aren’t.  The problem is that we are not getting it right yet.  We must sit down and do critical analysis of what we are doing.  I’d had some calls on certain stories from some of those who are seniors in the profession over the choice of certain stories.  Sometimes my reaction to that is… let me use a church for instance.  If the people in a particular church want to see you feature their leader and they are the ones who are bringing you the traffic, I don’t see any reason you must complain because in the first place, we always encourage community newspapers. We had Agege News, we had Oriwu Sun etc.  A lot of us want national newspapers, whereas in those days when I was in the print, especially at some point where I worked with circulation people, you can afford to take a gamble, put a particular story in the front and take 90 per cent of the copies to that area and you would sell them. Till now, no matter what you say or your feeling may be, I don’t judge men and women of God.  A TB Joshua story in some publications will sell out completely, especially when those who are in circulation know where to take the newspaper to. Online, you don’t need to take it anywhere.  It is a matter of just sending it out.  And then, somebody says why are you publishing this man’s story?  The question I ask is: Why can’t I publish his story?  Those who complain are doing so because they are talking from the point of view of a journalist, but I am talking from the point of view of a mediapreneur so that I will be able to pay salary at the end of the month.

Some of us left hard copy newspapers because we were not paid salaries.  If we did then, why must we come and owe salaries.  As you are working and trying to develop your newspapers online, you must as a mediapreneur generate resources to keep the newspaper afloat. If we get our acts right, then we’ll enjoy the good side of online publishing which is assured.

At what point did you decide to leave the conventional newspapers?

I didn’t decide to leave the conventional newspapers, the conventional newspaper left me.


Since I left The Punch and went to the Nigerian Tribune where I worked as Deputy Editor in Saturday Tribune, I had shown interest in two things – One was the actual circulation of newspapers.  How do we position those hardcopy newspapers in a way that they can get the desired sales? It has always been of interest to me. I will back that up with what happened at some point in Nigerian Tribune, for which the MD then, Pastor Segun Olatunji, not only gave me a commendation letter, but gave me a cash award.  Rotimi Amaechi was pronounced the governor Rivers State by the Supreme Court. That was in the days when we had two editions of the newspaper published – first edition, second edition. I was in the office and I asked the circulation people: Which edition are you sending to Port Harcourt tomorrow? I was told that they were already packaging the first edition. I asked: Is the Rotimi Amaech story there? They said no, because they had already finished printing. I asked: Is there a way we can get the second edition (which will have the Rotimi Amaechi story) to Port Harcourt? They said it was impossible because of travelling to Port Harcourt.  I told them: Can one of you in the circulation department, go to the motor park where you are likely going to get some of the drivers who had nothing doing sleeping in their car but would be going to Port Harcourt the next morning. Tell them you want to go this night. They got somebody who was sleeping waiting to go to Port Harcourt the next morning.  They woke him up and he was ready to go.  They told me the number of copies they planned to send and I said they should send more than that.  The report was that that vehicle got to Port Harcourt before 4.00 a.m. which circulation people said was impossible.  And there was not a single copy that left the distribution centre unpaid for. Vendors used to take newspapers and come back to pay, but that paper sold out completely before 5 a.m.

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The second area of interest was the online figures. As at that time in 2006, 2007, I knew that that future had come for online newspaper. Even when I crossed to the Nigerian Compass newspaper, I was also paying attention to the online newspapers. So, when the time came for me to leave the Nigerian Compass in the circumstance I left, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to work for any hard copy. I knew at that point that online was it.

In what circumstance did you leave?

I was forced to leave, but I was not going to take up another job.  I was offered jobs in about two or three newspapers, but I didn’t take them.

Forced to leave in what way?

Some people felt I was a threat to them; they didn’t like my face.  I’m always very blunt. I’ve always told people that I like unionism, but I don’t do it because I’m a one man battalion.  If I want to fight, I do so.  If I want to stay, I do so.  But I don’t mobilise people to protest.  I protest with my legs.  I’d done it in one or two places, even when I had to say that I wanted to go and take care of my father’s business which was non-existent, but I needed to leave.  But because of the kind of relationship we had, I needed to say that.  So, all of the time one needs to be able to take positions on issues, especially when things are going wrong. I saw that things were going wrong and I was always taking my position.  The only reason I did not resign before they came for me was because there was one man who convinced me to join the newspaper that said I should not leave.  And that’s Gabriel Akinadewo. Two or three times I’d written my resignation letter, because I believed that the skills that I had, other people could make use of them. And I could even make use of it better; which is what I’m doing now.  By the time I was leaving I’d made up my mind on what would happen.

What gave you the impression that it was time for online newspaper then?

I was following the figures.

That was in the Nigerian Compass then?

Yes, in Nigerian Compass and some other newspapers. I’m talking about the figures online.  At that point, the hard copy newspapers were losing on so many fronts – the roads have gone bad, the roads have become unsafe; flying was very unpredictable.  So, if you decide that you are going to fly your newspapers to Abuja, sometimes, it won’t even get to the circulation centre until 12 p.m. or 2.00 p.m., by which time venders would have gone.  Therefore, the best way to move newspapers from Lagos to Abuja was to go by road. There were days in the country when travelling by road from Lagos to Abuja was 8 hours.  Now, it is unpredictable.  At that point it was becoming very unclear and to add to that, was the insincerity of the people handling the circulation process.  When I was involved in the circulation process in Nigerian Compass, there were days we would get reports that the newspaper was already selling in Ikeja when it had even not left the office officially.

Meaning some copies were taken out ahead of the circulation?

Basically!  In The Punch, there was hardly any month that people would not be caught having stuffed newspapers under the seats of their cars. So, being truthful is key to circulation.

There was a night, I was at home.  At about 2.00 a.m., and I decided to use a number that the drivers did not have, to call one of them. It was a funny situation.  When I called the driver, he picked the call and at the background, I was hearing him negotiating with those he was picking along the road. The driver’s name was Soji, and it was in the era of the Aafa Sule dance drama series with Soji as one of the lead characters. Remember the Soji, o ti gan pa drama.  I told him that night, Soji, with what you are doing there, o ma gan pa! (you are going to stay glued). As soon as he connected the voice to my name.  He shouted, “oga, I’m already on my way o.  I’m going o!”

Instead of taking the newspapers to the destination, he was picking passengers along the road?

Yes, on the way to Enugu…. Which means he would not get to his destination at the appropriate time. So, what did we do? We sat down and determined – if you are going to Enugu, this is the time; if you are going to Abuja, it is so so number of hours.  Therefore, once you leave, you are timed out.  Then sales went up.  Meaning that if everybody understands that this is business, we are going to get there.  One of the reasons I got into problem in the Nigerian Compass was the fact that we discovered that people were printing extra copies of the newspaper, and taking them out to make money for themselves. We also discovered that they were printing for other companies, collecting money for newsprint and other materials, but using the company’s newsprint and other materials. They were collecting twice what they were disclosing to the company.  On a particular day, we decided to search.  Instead of 2,000 copies, we saw 7,000 copies. That was after some others had left. Meaning that in one or two vehicles that we searched, there were 5,000 extra copies that they printed for themselves, with company’s newsprint, with the company’s machine. Even on the 2,000 that were legally declared, N26.00 was going to the company on a copy, but they were collecting N52.00 from those coming to print.  Meaning that on all fronts, the company was losing.  So, at that point, I knew it could never be profitable again running the hard copy newspaper.

When you started your online newspaper, you must have a vision and what to expect.  Having worked for over 10 years now, what would you say has been the reality?

The reality is that things are not as projected.  My projection was that we should be able to sustain about 100,000 readers every day.  Something also helped me that confirmed that it is possible if… I was drafted to The Sun to help reorganise the online edition of newspaper. I saw that there were things that could be put in place – I had started my own online newspaper then, and that was why I was invited to The Sun – I was not a full time staff I was more or less a consultant to the publisher, but I was being paid by The Sun. I saw that it was possible to, with the right resources, fire into that realm of the vision.  When we started, we had about 15 to 20 staff; most of them full staff.  That is talking about The Eagle Online. That is apart from the people who uploaded and the editors.  We had reporters here and there in the states.  While I would not want to indict any government, or hold anybody responsible for what we are going through, by the time a new administration came in, and the naira began to tumble, hosting and security for the website, which we were doing with our naira account with about N70,000 per month or less than that, jumped to about N230,000.00 the following month.  After a few months, our host said because of the unreliability of the Naira, they were not going to take the Naira Mastercard as a mode of payment; they said we must pay in dollar. We then needed to use the naira that was becoming scarce, to buy the dollar that was leapfrogging in terms of rate to our naira. At every point, hence, we needed to look at our resources and our finances.  We asked who were our reporters that were not resourceful.  We took them out.  And that was how we started downsizing.  As your website becomes older, the more load it is carrying and the more space you need from your host; that means you have to pay more money. As you are becoming more popular, so also will hackers be looking in your direction so that they can get some money from you, by you buying their product to clean up their mess.  We therefore needed more security.  That means incurring more costs in terms of hosting, in terms of security.  That then put pressure on our capacity to sustain your workforce.  We therefore started reducing the work force.  And the more you reduce your workforce, the more you reduce your area of coverage.  The more you reduce your area of coverage, the more you are going to be losing readers. This is because there are some people who are particular about stories from their regions. That, therefore, means that you have to put more pressure on the remaining staff to deliver.

Those who complain are doing so because they are talking from the point of view of a journalist, but I am talking from the point of view of a mediapreneur so that I will be able to pay salary at the end of the month.

But one huge advantage I saw in all of that is those analyses I made earlier on.  We now started looking at the facts and figures. Who is reading us?  We cannot afford not to have somebody in this place.  I started print journalism on the Sports Desk, so I know that there is power in sports.  I couldn’t afford not to have someone there.  I’m a sports person. So, that is covered; but we still need somebody in the National Assembly and somebody to overlook Abuja.  Three people.  We started adding up.  That was why I said the vision was very clear but the road to the vision became bumpy and we needed to stabilize. Like the pilot who is flying in a stormy weather, you must always find something that will give way. One of the options left for the pilot sometimes, is to throw away some of the things he is carrying in order to shed weight at some point. That is not allowing us to reach that vision.  But I believe it is realizable.  It is not a hundred metre dash. It is a long distance race.  We have been in this for about twelve years, but we are going to get there.

I’m sure you know that some years ago, we were only hearing about two online newspapers.  Even for the conventional newspapers, their online presence was almost nil. It was Vanguard that kicked everybody to consciousness.  The Punch followed, then others too.  So, in those days, seven, ten years ago, there was one very prominent online newspaper –Sahara Reporters.  My good friend, Omoyele Sowore, is not a journalist, he was using it to fight the cause of Nigerians in terms of corruption and the rest. Omoyele Sowore was serving a purpose. People were able to get what they needed at that time because there was a focus.  That focus has shifted now to other things. That is why you now hear of others who are serving general news. Sowore focused on anti-corruption crusade, which is perfect, which I also encouraged.  But if you go back to Sahara Reporters, you would see that Sports has crept in,  Entertainment has crept in – because that is now the reality. For you to be able to sustain a website like that, you must move with the time or trend.  You may still stay with what you are known for, but you must serve your readers other things.

*Concluding part to be published on Wednesday.

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