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

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:

Going by the number of online newspapers and the fact that they all go to the same market for adverts or patronage in general, what would you say about the chances of survival of the average online newspaper in Nigeria?

There are two issues I’m going to discuss here. Number one is that the economy of Nigeria is the reason I’m going to adduce for the decision of the government of Nigeria to reduce its patronage of the media.  If you recall, at some points in this country, major conventional newspapers – we can count up to 20 or 25 – would always, on a quarterly basis, get adverts from the Federal Ministry of Finance vis-à-vis Federal Accounts Allocation Committee, FAAC, releases every month to the federal government, states and local governments. Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, will always make its account known.  Even at that time, the conventional newspapers were being highly patronized generally. Talking about award of contracts, bid for this or bid for that were always in the newspapers.  All these ones have dwindled and I agree it has to do with the economy. But one thing is certain: The economy cannot continue to be like this. That also affected the online newspapers.  When the online newspapers started, I can say, that we benefitted from those adverts.  But all of them are gone now. Not even the conventional newspapers are publishing them.  That was why at some point in time, conventional newspapers had to start downsizing.  At some point, the government said we could give some grants to ensure that they were sustained.  But at that time, virtually everything had been lost because downsizing had been done. You would recollect that The Guardian, The Nation, Vanguard, and The Punch (that does annual evaluation of performance) even had to do more than annual evaluation of performance because things did not work according to the forecast any more.  Money was not coming in.  The private sector in the country was also very much affected, so the dwindling patronage was also seen from the private sector. So, everything has gone down.

To the general public, I would say everybody should look for professional journalists who are working online and follow their publications. Don’t just go for any information you see on the internet.

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The second one, which is like it is that this good company that we call Google, also assists with Google Adsense.  At some point, when I was the president of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, GOCOP, we had series of meetings with the Google team in Nigeria, led by Taiwo Kola Ogunlade. Fantastic team he has.  They told us in one of the meetings that the problem was not about the money to spend on advertising in Nigeria, the problem was finding quality websites to advertise in.  Initially when we started, those of us who started early, Google was not asking us to fill any form.  It was giving us Adsense straight.  Once you start and they see that you have some good qualities they give you. Now you have to go through a process to get it.  Sometimes people spend one year, two years to get it. So, what it means is that all combined now – the government, the private sector and for Google – it means you must have a product to sell. How many of us have products to sell.  I haven’t seen up to 50 per cent. Most people who claim to be online publishers are not actually online publishers. They are just looking for either who to blackmail or get one off thing – let me eat. They are not passionate, they are not professionals.  That is why I keep telling professionals, when you are coming into the online space now, don’t think you have a competition with anyone.  You are your own competitor. In that wise, you must push out quality materials, quality service.  You must be able to sit down and work more than you used to.  Before you were being paid, you didn’t care what the management was thinking. Even when you were part of the management, yours was to go to the meeting and give them your facts and figures and go. Now, you are the one who is looking at the facts and figures, you are the one who is studying them.  You are the one who is looking at the number of stories being uploaded and so on.   There are times when some persons or organisations will send stories to me and say, publisher, you haven’t used my stories.  I tell them, I will use your story, but I have some stories that will give me more readership than your own jejune stories. So, I tell them, just hold on, your stories will go.  At every point, what you should be looking for are quality stories.  Yes, we have friends… That’s why I like the admonitions of some of our senior colleagues who are working with President Muhammadu Buhari now.  I’m talking about Chief Femi Adesina and Mallam Garba Shehu. They will always tell you: We are not saying that you should not write negative stories about the president or abuse him outrightly, but give us a hearing.  Let us also be able to talk about this thing.  That is why I like people who understand how things work.  They will always tell you: Do your stories, be professional to the core.  And one of the responsibilities of a professional journalist is to balance his or her story. But what some do is, one company is bringing one PR story, just quickly use it, do some shoddy job and collect some pittance.

An online publisher once called me and asked for my opinion. He said he hoped if he published six stories in a day on his website, they would not be too many.  I said yes, they were not too many, but in The Eagle Online, we do between 80 and 120 stories in a day.  He was shocked.  The online newspaper is like the conventional newspapers. When you hold the conventional newspapers, you have the briefs; you have the news stories… When you count the number of stories in a 48-page newspaper for example, you can have up to 200 stories.  So, how would you as an online publisher publish six stories and you think somebody is going to take you serious. Publishing an online newspaper is hard work.  Just like every other product that comes into the market, it is a process.  You don’t expect that because you were an editor of a newspaper, the moment you go into the online space, everybody is shivering, bringing you adverts.  It doesn’t work like that because people want to get value for money. If they want to get value for money, you should be prepared to offer that value.  Some people miss it by believing that when you publish PR stories, the companies will give you advert.  No.  Do your job professionally.  Their PR stories will always come in, no doubt about that, but do your job professionally.  If you decide that because your friend occupies a position somewhere you now completely look in the other direction, that friend is going to take you for granted because he knows that you are an harmless and toothless lion.  So, he has kept you on one side.  But when you do your job professionally, they will also know that when they bring their products, there are readers. Nobody wants to give you money just to say keep quiet, don’t say anything about us.  They want to come and put money so that readers can see them.  But a lot of our people forget it. They forget that all of these things are about eyeballs.

Before, what Google used to do was to insist that before you got a kobo out of them readers must click the advert (Google Adsense). Now it’s eyeball:  Who has seen it? Every page that they open matters. When you go to your back end, you see the details: the average length of time people stay on your website. We used to think, erroneously, that online newspaper is just for fleeting stories and that you must tell your readers what they want to read in 500 words.  But now, Google is saying as an online publisher, don’t give me less than 1900 words so that you can keep readers on your page.  That’s why, atimes, when you open some websites, they will write “3 minutes read”, “5 minutes read” and so on.  The longer people stay, the better for you.  It means you are encouraged to do Investigative reporting, it means you are encouraged to do Features; it means you are encouraged to do lengthy interviews to keep people glued to your website.  You can’t do some shoddy, lazy job and say you can’t get adverts.  You have to work. It has been established that a lot of businesses don’t get that needed breakthrough until the 10th year.

How do you mean?

It’s common knowledge of how businesses run that breakthrough don’t usually come until the 10th year.  You can get lucky… some of us started the business before others. We were already in the market place. So, those who are going to come and say I want to displace Premium Times, Realnews, The Cable, the Eagle Online have a lot of work to do.  Go and check all those who have been in the business up to about seven years and are paying attention to the necessary details; they remain there, you will find out that they remain there.  So, when you are compiling the first ten online newspapers without hardcopy edition, you will always find them there.

Before I moved into this office, I had an office on College Road in Ogba.  Somebody said he wanted to see me.  He spoke with me on a Friday and I said he should come to the office on Monday by 8.00 a.m. He came early.  He was agitated that his website was not making money.  I told him to sit down and let’s talk. I asked him a question that threw him off balance: How many stories have you posted this morning? He said because he was coming to see me, he didn’t do anything.  I said that was fine.  I said you spoke with me on Friday.  Between Friday and today (Monday), how many stories have you posted? He said he had actually not worked since Friday. I said to him, while you were walking to this place, adverts were passing you by and going to meet other people. I told him, sit down and do the work.  I always share this experience with people. The first advert we got was from United Bank of Africa, UBA. The person who called me to give me that advert had never met me before then.  When I got that call, he said: My name is Ramon from UBA. I asked, What have we done o? He said it was just to appreciate us; that we were fantastic.  We had never met before.  What I set out to do was to work until the work got noticed. Not to move from office to office looking for adverts. Access Bank, through our man, Abdul Imoyo. I’d never met him before. I’ve been a politics person. He sent somebody to me, that he didn’t have my number. The person came to me and said he wanted to find out if he could release my number to him. I said, what was the number doing if not for people to call me through. That day, immediately, I got another advert.  I never met him before then.  Some of these people that give us adverts, if I see them in a large crowd, I may not be able to identify them, except when they are in the crowd of we professionals and I can spot them. So, we need to understand that just like any other business, this online publishing is just a matter of how much work and dedication you put into it.  It doesn’t go outside of that.  That is why I always encourage people: Don’t give up! The only place where prayer comes before work is in the dictionary.  Whether it is the Quran or the Bible, it is work and pray.  Sit down, let your impact be felt so that while those who I earlier classified as blackmailers are getting the usual peanut, you are constantly, no matter how small, being fed with adverts and your Google Adsense will also be going on. Google Adsense is completely dependent on how much work you do.

I’d shared this experience with a number of people.  There was a day our friends in Shell – Gbenga Odugbesan and Tony Ogedengbe – called me.  They said I should come over.  I was then the president of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, GOCOP.  They said I should come and defend a particular list they had for adverts. Gallantly, I marched in. I looked at the list and spoke well of the online newspapers on the list. But, surprisingly, they pointed to one of them and said, this one published last three days ago. Meaning that the advertisers are also looking at what you are doing. There was one, I didn’t even know. They said the site had been down for over two weeks. So, as we are encouraging them, they should also know that advertisers are watching. Nobody wants to come and throw money in a pit.  They want value for their money. As business owners, you should know that you should have a product that you can sell.  It is only when we have a product that people will begin to look at your side. I had had a few guys who said they were giving up; I told them, don’t give up. Push more. And in some months after, they came back to say that “it is like this thing is working out o.”  It is gradual. I have someone who said he was not going to do anything online when he was leaving the conventional newspapers. I asked why, and he said there was no future in it.  Today, he has one of the best YouTube channels in Nigeria.  I thinks it’s over two months now, Google celebrated him for having over 100,000 subscribers. It is the future that has started from the present. If it is only on that Youtube channel that he concentrates, that alone should be enough to ensure that his passion is fulfilled. He can pay staff and take care of his family. He can then add a website to it.  There are so many things you can juggle with. But it is a gradual process. You can enter into a business and believe that you are the next thing to happen there.

Emilokan, you mean?

(Laughs) Yes, Emilokan.

You are the immediate past president of GOCOP. What is GOCOP really all about?

GOCOP is an association of former editors who have taken their trade solely online.  When you look at the pedigree of those who are there, one of the standards we set is that nobody who has less than ten years experience in the print (conventional newspapers) can be a member.  If you did not rise to, at least, the position of an assistant editor, you cannot be a member of GOCOP.  Automatically, what it means is that for you to qualify to be a member, you also have the same qualifications to belong to the Nigerian Guild of Editors.  And what we did was not that we just looked at NGE and copied. At some point, NGE also followed suit. When they saw that we were serious, at the meeting in Port Harcourt, a decision was taken.  Apart from the fact that you must have had ten years, you must have risen to the post of an Assistant Editor, which they have now changed; they upped the ante. For you to be an online publisher and join NGE, you must have published not less than three years. Meaning that they want to see a sustainable business like we want to see. It is because we have seen people who have run online platforms and have shut it down.  I recollect one vividly.  Somebody contacted me and said he wanted to give an advert. I called someone and said take.  He collected the advert and the website did not survive that month. Meanwhile, he had collected the money. So, for you to run a business for three years on a consistent basis, shows that you are serious about it and not just there for the fun of it. GOCOP brings us together to serve as a review mechanism.  It is a peer review body. Sometimes, some people want to reach out to online publishers and they don’t know how to go about it. They ask: Can you do this and that for me? Everybody benefits.  But that’s not the purpose.

Who are the founders of GOCOP?

We grew quickly from about three or five of us into about 10.  Malachy Agbo who publishes The Citizen mooted their idea. I joined him. Segun Adeleye who publishes World Stage was also part of the initial three.  It was only three of us who met on the first day.  Then we decided to look at other publishers who are serious about online publishing. Maureen Chigbo, who is now the president of GOCOP and publisher of Realnews was part of the team.  Collins Edumaruse who is now the general secretary of GOCOP and publisher of MetroWatch was also part of the team.  We had Horatius Egua.  He wasn’t publishing The Bridge at the time. He was in partnership with somebody else. The person unfortunately died and he continued with the publication and there were some disputes here and there, so he had to move on. We had him from Abuja.  Then we had also from Abuja, Danlami Nmodu, who is now the deputy president of GOCOP. Akeem Oyetunji of Prompt News also joined us.  Gabriel Akinadewo of Freedom Online too joined us. But the initial team was Malachy Agbo, Dotun Oladipo, Marueen Chigbo, Segun Adeleye and Collins Edumaruse. The first year, we went up to 15 because people’s expectations were different from the vision we had. And that vision was to be a peer review body:  This thing you are doing, can you do it better? We don’t shy away from teaching ourselves what we use to achieve our goals.  This is because if you keep it to yourself, you will die with the knowledge and the knowledge will go into the grave with you.

I’ve told several people that we professional journalists are not occupying the online space enough.  That’s why we still have charlatans who are masquerading as online journalists.  We are not saying that there wouldn’t be the so called citizen journalists, but the moment people are sure that if they see something somewhere they can check, then a lot of these fake news will stop. That is what GOCOP is all about.  We can sit down and talk, agree that we are doing some things well, so, we can occupy this or that space.  We have some of us who have now even established desk-specific publications like Sports, Business, Education… they don’t report any other thing.  There are about two or three who report only Aviation.  They are delving into other issues affecting aviation, but which is not their forte.  If Super Eagles fly through the airport, an Aviation newspaper online will report it.  It has become their forte at that point.  If Tony Elumelu or any of the top businessmen passes through the airport and grants an interview, it has become an Aviation issue at that point.  That keeps people moving in different directions.  However, the bottomline is that we want professionals who are responsible to occupy the media space.

And how well have you achieved that?

We have achieved it and we keep talking to ourselves from time to time.  The incumbent president of GOCOP, Maureen Chigbo, has established a body – The Ombudsman – that looks at infractions.  In the last few months, we’ve gotten complaints that we have dealt with.  Nobody feels too big to be cautioned or to apologise in these instances.  We the members are working together to ensure that people don’t feel aggrieved about what we do. And like I always tell people, if there is a problem with any news published by a member of GOCOP, I can be 99.9 per cent certain that the intention was not malicious; it must have been a slip or an error somewhere.  And that’s what we have seen with the cases that we have dealt with.

How big is GOCOP now in terms of membership?

We are over 80 now.

And when did you start?

About seven or eight years ago.  We started with five members, then, 15, we rose to 22 and when people saw that it was a good body with good intention, they started joining. We also encourage more people to join us because at some point we were able to graciously, through the collaborative efforts of one of our respected seniors in the profession, Mr. Bayo Onanuga, have a deal with the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, when he was the head of the organisation.  When I started, even those of us who publish online were not insulated from paying N1.5 million per year for NAN subscription.  But at some point when the dollar began to chase us around, and the adverts were not coming, and more people wanted to join that platform, we needed to have a meeting and make some presentations that “see, if you have 20 people with lesser amount, it is better than having just three paying you the full amount.” We did the calculation and made the plea through our senior colleagues in government.  That was, in the main, Mr. Bayo Onanuga.  He listened to us.  Eventually, an agreement was reached and we were given the grace to pay a lower amount.

We know that NAN has need for more money now, and which we concede quite rightly.  So, we are talking about little raise now in terms of subscription. We are however hoping that in the next few months, based on what government has assured us will happen, things will get better.

How relevant is GOCOP to the campaign against fake news and the need to regulate the social media?

We have said that it (GOCOP) is not for the kind of regulation which some people are calling for.  It is so unfortunate that when laws are made in Nigeria, some people use it to their advantage to punish those that they are against. There are enough laws in Nigeria to curtail libel and other such cases.  We still have the 2015 cyber-crime law. Two bloggers have spent time in Ikoyi Prison over infractions. It took intervention for them to be left out of detention. We have the sedition law, libel is there. So, what are we looking for again? What we want is for government to enforce those laws and not to bring in other laws that will create an impression that government wants to clamp down on the media. At some point, there was the fear that the Nigeria Press Organisation was a tool by the government to clamp down on the media.  Can the media regulate itself? Yes, it can.  But in doing that regulation, we are going to be like another arm of government that can prosecute.  So, what we want is, instead of this general clampdown that some people want to achieve, once you see a person who has committed an infraction, go for the person.  We know there is technology in this country to track every originating post on social media. Can we do that without creating the impression that we want to muscle the press!  That is what we are asking for.

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Some weeks back, the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, the NPO, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Nigerian Union of Journalists, and GOCOP met and a resolution was taken: Allow ombudsmen along these organisations to regulate.  You cannot classify a man who owns a phone as a journalist when he posts something on the social media.  Deal with him in his own realm. Don’t bring another law that will join ordinary social media users who call themselves, sometime, citizen journalists, with the media.  There must be that demarcation.  That is why sometimes, people who have 20, 30 or more years experience in journalism, when they go somewhere as publishers, they are introduced as “bloggers”. They can’t even understand that these things are different! I’m a professional journalist, full time work started at Newswatch magazine in 1994. Before then I’d done IT (industrial training) in television and radio stations before coming to magazine. If I even take it that my full time employment with a letter was ’95 till now, we are close to 30 years.  If I push it back to ’87 when I did my first Industrial Training… Then, you now put me in the same place with somebody who just woke up from somewhere and says “I’m a blogger”.  I feel offended.  We should be able to separate those things.  If a blogger has done something, you don’t associate it with the media.  It is a different ball game.  I’m not disparaging anybody or those who claim run blogs.  There are professional journalists among them that we can pick out, but it is just their own choice not to run a full blown website.  At least, nobody would say he doesn’t know Femi Davies as experienced.  He has huge experience in journalism, yet because of the way and manner he has decided to operate, he says he’s a blogger.  He’s a journalist.  Just that he has decided not to run a full blown website. And there are people in that category who just want to deploy journalism in a limited way. Are you talking about Dayo Asaju who had edited so many soft sell magazines and serious newspapers before. You just classify everybody as blogger.  That is why everybody wants to run to the National Assembly to say there must be a new law.  Please, those you want to go after, you can trace their IP addresses; you can see where they publish from.  You know them, so go after them.  Don’t create more laws that will give people the power of lawlessness.

What would be your advice to people just coming into publishing online newspapers, and the general public.

To the general public, I would say everybody should look for professional journalists who are working online and follow their publications. Don’t just go for any information you see on the internet.  Sometimes I say to people who seem not to know me, when they start talking, I say, not as a result of pride, before we go ahead with this conversation, do me a favour, go to Google and type Dotun Oladipo and call me back. There is no serious journalist in this country with a news website that you will put his name in Google and his profile will not be brought up. But our people don’t look for information. It is good for you not to get unnecessarily excited about information you find online and begin to share.  Check the source.  Who is the person behind it? Does this person have any background? Does he have, like they always say, a surname? What is his antecedent?  That’s my advice to the public.  Look for people who are professionals, you will find them easily.  Bring the name of the publication to Google and it will tell you who is the publisher and the background. That is what you need.

For those of us who publish online, we need to be conscious of the fact that online publishing is a business and like every other business, there is no magic to it.  It must follow due process.  If you want to spiritualise it, you will fail because the market place does not answer to only prayers.  It answers to a process.  If you want to force it through blackmail, you will fail.  This is because if you succeed once, that can be the last.  You may end up in prison, and people will know you for what you are –a blackmailer- and treat you as such. So, we should sit down, and do the work the way it should be done.  It holds a very bright future for everybody.  Like I said, we have a population of 200 million.  Some people don’t even know that there is a website which offers, year in year out, things on Education: JAMB has started sale of form; WAEC is selling forms now…  And people are going to the website because they know that that is its focus. Nobody is going to struggle, once you understand that any business is a process.  It is not something you can force to happen.  Be professional, be hard-working but know that there is a gestation period; you can’t run away from it.  More people should come online.  There was a time in this country when we had children magazines. They are gone now. But the children that we have now are holding phones, though controlled by their parents.  How many people who run the segments for children in the hard copy newspapers are online?  Few people have come to me to say, we do Entertainment, how do we survive? But entertainment is the in-thing now.  Even those of us who are writing politics are envious of them.  Somebody came, Mr. Kunle Solaja of Village Sports, and I told him, can you run a few things along this thing –sports?  There are times people are talking business in sports – The Nikes of this world; sometimes, issues are discussed in the National Assembly and so on. We had a very lengthy talk that day.  Then he said he was going to do strictly sports, he would not add any other thing.  But what it means is that just like anybody doing general newspaper online, he must also sit down and do the work.  That his newspaper is blossoming now and it is just sports.  So, it shows that like every other newspaper, it has its own gestation period.  I do sports also, but I go to his website to get ideas.  So, everything is a process.  People should not be too much in a hurry. You have done something for three months, you are already complaining!  The hard copy newspapers where you worked before, did it take three months to get to where they are?  There was a time The Punch was almost going to die before the military invaded the place.  It didn’t take three months to rescue it.  Nigerian Tribune went through a process at some point – the oldest newspaper.  It was almost going to die at some point.  A new management came, looked for some ways to raise resources, bought a new press, did this and that and today the newspaper is still standing. That was not done in one day. There are newspapers that are still standing today that their workers went for three years without salaries.  We are always in a hurry. We don’t want to manage resources the way they should be managed.  We don’t want to sit down and work. That is very important for the success of any business.  We saw it in The Punch when it was relaunching. The management spent hours debating, thinking for the company. When at some point you are invited to the meetings and you see the quality of decisions or the debate process, you will be shocked.  They are sitting down to think. In the morning, 10.00 a.m., there is a meeting; at 2.00 p.m. you are likely to have a review; by 4.00 you look at what has come in and by 6.00 p.m., a final decision is taken. So, people were sitting down in those places where you were earning money before you decided to become a mediapreneur.  So, you also must sit down and do some work.  You must understand the business that you are doing.

And like I always tell people, if there is a problem with any news published by a member of GOCOP, I can be 99.9 per cent certain that the intention was not malicious; it must have been a slip or an error somewhere.  And that’s what we have seen with the cases that we have dealt with.

But many would want to make money fast to move on

It is not just about looking for money, but it is also about sitting down to work.  Yes, some people will argue that they need money, but the question is what comes first? Is it the egg or the chicken?  And like the businessman will say, including the Dangotes and Femi Otedolas of this world, the moment money becomes the factor or your decision making, that business has collapsed because the first thing for you is to have an idea and for you to take a step into it.  Nobody now wants to invest in an idea that they can’t see on paper being practicalised.  Let my colleagues who are publishers know that there will be a gestation period when they have to keep working, eat little, work more until that recognition comes and they can begin to say, okay… I was doing the work of a “four-man”, let me reduce it to three; reduce it to two and to one. But you cannot afford to completely stay aloof, otherwise it will collapse.  Like I said, the person at the top is the engine room; he must be looking at all the factors and comparing them to ensure that they are working.  Some people don’t even know how to go to the backend of their website.  They don’t know what to check.  You also require investment in training.  There was a time, every year, I was going to Europe for conferences. That was where I met the top guys in BBC, Radio France International and some other people, even in New York Times. They have a strong website.  After the conferences, I interacted with them on a personal basis. It was an investment.  Sometimes my wife would ask me, “Are you sure this thing is profitable?” and I would tell her, “It is not profitable now, but it will be profitable later.”  The ideas from those conferences are the ones I have brought into it and it is working.  Like they always say, if you have somebody who is running ahead of you, your chances of success are very high because somebody has charted that path, you are only running behind him. So, why don’t you follow and see how quickly you can move.  If somebody before you or the one you take as your mentor spent ten years to be there, you should be able to shorten it and get there by seven years, and the person coming behind you, by five years etc.  You won’t work and wait too long for the gestation period to end.


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