In Nigerian journalism, Mr. Lekan Otufodunrin can be said to have, perhaps, seen it all. Well known to be a brilliant journalist, he has over the years carved a niche for himself as a professional committed to media career development. He went from the bottom of the ladder of his career to the top. From being a state correspondent of The Punch newspaper in Abeokuta, Ogun State, he rose to achieve his ambition of becoming a title editor with his appointment as the Editor of The Nation on Sunday.
Otufodunrin was later made the Online Editor of the newspaper, a position he held until he left the organisation on December 31, 2018 to set up his non-governmental organisation which focuses on media career development.
In this interview with SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, the soft spoken, unassuming but highly experienced Otufodunrin speaks about, among other things, what it means to practise journalism for over 30 years; the problems facing the media in the country; the challenges of the digital age; what the future holds for the profession; his new organisation, particularly what he has set out to achieve with it. Excerpts:
You left The Nation newspaper at the end of December, 2018 to set up your organisation which is based on career development. How would you describe your experience of over thirty years in journalism and what is your view about the profession in Nigeria?
It has been an interesting experience for me because this is what I set out to do; this is what I read in the university; this is what I practised before I graduated. I would say journalism over the years has progressed and there has been quite some disruptions in terms of the digital space; but by and large, the process of sourcing information and practising in various capacities including editing and managing have been very very fulfilling. Every day I look back with excitement, remembering some of the great things one has been opportuned to do; the places I have been to, home and abroad; the people I have met. The impact one has made in some of those things that are just routine assignments have contributed in one way or the other to the overall good of the society. Journalism, I would say remains a noble profession. It is not just a noble profession, it is a necessary profession. Somebody said without journalists, imagine what the world would have been like. I think it is very interesting despite the challenges. And we have to keep doing it with the best of guidelines the profession gives.
Can you share some of your memorable moments with us?
It can be hard, but I will try. For instance, the first four years of my career was in Abeokuta, Ogun State, where as a young journalist, I was managing a whole state. That is the benefit of having a good training while going through the University of Lagos. I’d been an intern in a newspaper before. Also, when I did what I called the indirect interview by just reporting what happened in my neighbourhood when Awolowo died, it was just enough for them to say, you are good. It is memorable when I think about running an office of my own from Day 1, using the telephone at a time when it was a luxury for people to have telephones. It was very interesting. Beyond that, I remember being head of a Political Desk and travelling round the country when we had about 21 states; I travelled round and got to know virtually every major part of this country. That is also a very memorable experience for me. I also had the privilege of being a News Editor in a newspaper like The Punch where the operation was major. Like I always tell people, at The Punch then, there were no deputies. So, as a Group News Editor, I was only reporting to the Editor and every other person was reporting to me. It was quite an experience having to manage that kind of operation. I learnt a lot. It opened my eyes. It was at The Punch that I came to the realisation that if journalism can offer the opportunity to travel round the world, I should take advantage of it. Majorly, one striking moment in my career is having to go to Thomson Foundation in the U.K. for three months. Even what I am doing today – media career development – that was where I caught the bug. It is about running a media centre where journalists can provide continuous training like we did in Thomson Foundation. Even when we had worked for many years, we went there to review our career and it helped shape one. And of course, one of the things I had wanted to be was to be an overall Editor which I did not accomplish at The Punch. And when I ventured out to run Journalists for Christ and Media Centre and it didn’t work, I had to go back to work at The Nation. Being asked to be the Sunday Editor was professionally fulfilling for me. Indeed, that had been my dream. Being an Editor really challenged me a lot. I was able to take decisions at that high level and that was interesting.
Do you have regrets?
Well, just like any situation, there were chances where one was challenged. For example, I remember working in The Punch, I had a situation where I had to be redeployed as a News Editors. It was one of those challenging moments in my career. But somehow, it provided me the basis to review my career. It was at the time I went to the U.K. I came back and I can say since then, I have never been the same. Leaving The Punch at the time I did was based on the things that had happened. It was obvious that forging ahead in that organisation was not possible again. So, I decided to leave. But on reflection, I think may be I was a bit hasty. I had a lot of offers when I left The Punch. I took some and experimented – I worked in National Interest for about two months; I worked in Financial Standard for about three months. May be because I had worked in The Punch for a long time, I couldn’t fit in to those organisations. Unfortunately too, they were not paying regularly. That was one of the challenges I had with one or two of them. So, I would say looking back at my career, probably I should have stayed a little longer instead of taking that break. I would say it was somehow a blessing. There were some things I did at the time that I never knew I had the capacity to do. I was running media career services. In those years, I organised the first Young Journalists Award, Young Journalists Conference. When I see some of the graduates of those experiments, I really thank God that I was able to do that.
I don’t talk about regrets. I would say they are challenges. They are changing phases that one was able to adjust to. Of course, there were trying moments like when I was on my own; when I could barely meet my needs. But one lesson I learnt from that was that if you are doing something and it is not working, the skills that you have had will see you through. I was very reluctant to go and take a full time job, but when the opportunity finally came, I took it and it has helped me to stabilise and I feel comfortable to do what I have set out to do now.
What does it feel leaving active journalism to run a career development organisation after spending over thirty years in the profession.
Well, I have been trying to define what I have done. Some are saying I have retired or I have left active journalism. Well, may be what I have done is to practise journalism in another format. Before, I was working in an organisation, but now I am running my own full time organsation. The difference is that now I don’t have to worry about whether a story is breaking or it is not breaking. Being in an Online Editor is one major task, but unfortunately most people don’t appreciate that it is a major work. They think it is just a work in which you just take a story and put on the website. Rather, you are performing the job of a full time Editor in a hurry. So, while I was Sunday Editor for example, I had to produce just a Sunday paper. If there was a breaking news on Monday or so, I just have to take notes and do follow up and not work on it. But as an Online Editor, you have to monitor events as they unfold and put them on the website. More so, competition is very high.
The difference is that now I have the time to think clearly about how to help people manage their career; to be able to see what is not working, based on my experience. Now, some of those things we did no a hurry, I can look at them clearly now and say, don’t make the same mistake we made. You can do it better or take the opportunity of this or that.
One of the challenges in journalism is that we don’t have that structure where our careers are systematically built. So, what happens is that most media houses hire people and don’t make them go through any orientation. Most people wobble and fumble, and if they are lucky, find their way. There is no structured orientation in most media houses. That is bad enough. People just come in and start practising. Those who can’t wait, once they find another job, they run. But those who hang on, because of that lack of formal orientation, especially those who did not study journalism, just do the thing mechanically. Before you know it, they spend 10, 15 years, and when they ask themselves what they have achieved, they can’t really say. As it is, there are not enough organisations that are helping you to say this is what you need to achieve; you have practised for so so number of years, you need to write so so number of books and so on. That is what I am doing now. I am happy doing it because I can see that I am providing that much needed structure. In this capacity, I am going to work with many newsrooms, help them to help their staff, make their staff happy. There are too many unhappy journalists. They doing their work, but they are not happy. You can help them if you can provide them that little guideline. Let them understand the nature of their business, let them know how they can build their career; let them know the opportunities that abound; let them go for training; allow people to go on leave when it is the right time. People work for years without going on leave; you don’t get the best out of them. Let them know what is happening in the industry; let them know what is happening outside the newsroom and other places so that they can get better. Let us be able to work with students in schools so that they can get a full grasp of theory and the practical aspects of the job. That is the major difference. Of course I still do some journalism. I still maintain my column in The Nation. I still write it every Sunday. And if I find some story ideas, I still want to suggest them and implement them, but not in a hurry like I used to do them or not because I have to do them because it is my job. Now, I can decide when to do those kind of stories.
How would you describe your project? Is it a business venture and if so, what is the market like?
Well, it is not entirely a business venture; it is registered as a Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO. It is called Media Career Development Network, and as the name suggests, it is principally to provide structured mentoring and training for journalists. In terms of the prospect, I would say, training is a hard sell in the media. So, what you find out is that even the average journalist does not understand why he needs to be trained. That is why sometimes, when you invite people for training, they say they don’t have the time to attend. But in terms of operation, what we plan to do is, first of all, to come up with our concept of training – innovative training that people will be compelled to want to take advantage of. We are into publishing books. I have published a number of books that I have sold. I went to do a training for an organisation, ActionAid. Of course, I was paid for the training. I went with my books and journalists were convinced enough to buy each of my books for N2,000. I sold more than 100 copies there. So, there are things that we can do. We are going to be involved in publishing relevant things that can address those things that are not catered for. When we do those trainings, people will be convinced to pay for them. Again, this is also a model where people will have to pay to be members of the network. When they register, there are things that they are entitled to. There are things they can get which would not be available to them if they are not members of the network. There are ideas we can share with them, there are resources; if they are students, there are support they can get in their studies. We also work with NGOs which need media consultants and trainers. Those are the kind of things we will be involved in. Also, we have a website –www.mediacareerng.org. It is a full website and everything is about how to support journalists. That website will be functioning fully and we will provide contents that people can access and at some point, we will turn the content to materials that will be available for sale.
Like I said, we will organise our own training. We are not going to train only on Investigative Reporting; for example, it is a new era of online. How many journalists are fully online? My research shows that too many people are not online savvy and they live in denial and it is affecting them. For example, there is a job available and they need someone who has five years experience and more. There are people who have 15 years who qualify for the job, but they don’t have the skill. The ability to be fully digital is something that many journalists need to re-school themselves over. We are going to be offering a lot on that. By and large, it is a means of social service and some payable support service.
Journalism is known to have a kind of pull that brings back those who may have left. Have you thought about that considering that you have spent over 30 years doing the job?
This is not the first time I would be out. The first time I did it, perhaps I was not really prepared for it; I didn’t have the leverage; I didn’t have the kind of network, but it is different this time around. I am now in another newsroom. The only different now is that I am not going to wait till the end of the month to get paid. I have to think through about what I can do to generate revenue. That means I can provide value for people who will be convinced enough to pay. I remember that we first had a newsletter and that was good enough to convince people that when we called for seminars, there were responses. The Punch sent 15 journalists, other newspapers sent too. Those newsletters later became a book. The Punch bought 100 copies, other people bought it too. Again, it is our ability and the value that will determine how we are going to sustain it. With the benefit of hindsight, we see a lot of value that we can provide for people because there are issues. We are talking about knowledge gap. I have seen some journalists being invited for interviews, and they told them that the interview would be on Skype, but they don’t have Skype account, they don’t even understand anything about it. They lost the job. I have seen people go to interviews as editors and they said they wanted to see their online presence. The fact that you are editing hard copy does not mean that you should not be involved online. This is the age of multi-media. There are international jobs that are coming which Nigerian journalists are not qualified for because they don’t have the kind of new skills that are required for them to function in that space. Those are the kind of things that we are going to be offering. We have seen the signs that people are willing to take advantage of the services and pay. Along the line, there are people we are going to consult for. There are NGOs that need support. So, when these trainings are done we are going to give support. We still do those trainings, but we are focused more on bridging that gap, providing the knowledge base that is required, and helping the young ones to get the full grasp of the industry. You don’t graduate with a BSc Mass Comm and you are blank. We are going to work with institutions of higher learning to provide services. I have had the privilege of being in one or two universities where I had gone to do Masters Class.
You have harped largely on the digital aspect of journalism. What are other challenges you think the industry has?
One challenge is that we don’t have enough training that can help us grow. Every industry that I know has grown dwell heavily on training their people regularly. That is why people are able to come up with new ideas. I have seen journalists who have worked for 15 years; even the job he is doing, he is doing it routinely because he has not been challenged sufficiently to keep improving. In many of our media houses, we still produce newspapers today the way we were producing them 20 years ago. No difference. If you keep doing something the same way, there won’t be any change or difference. I have taken time to study other industries and have realised the reason for their growth. I know of an organisation outside journalism. Even the booklet they provide for those joining them newly is such that arouses the interest of the new worker. The new worker would want to continue to work in the organsiation. How many journalists know the history of the media organisations they work in? How many people know what has happened to those that had worked in that media house? What is the overriding goals and vision beyond selling those newspapers? So, largely, we don’t have that kind of structure. We are like: Just get the story. People don’t care about the welfare of the journalist. That is why we pay ourselves peanut and expect people to work. Or for instance, somebody wants to start a newspaper house or a media organisation; somebody wants to fund the business and they ask how much. He is only thinking about production cost and not about the salary or welfare of the average journalists; what needs to be put in place to make him be in the right frame of mind to do a great job. So, those are the major problems and if we don’t solve it, we’ll just be doing averagely. We need to address those issues. I see journalists who are very unhappy they just do the job because they have to do it and you don’t get the best out of them. I see journalism that we are practising as one where we are not sufficiently sensitised to be innovative. We just do the average; our training is not expanding the way it should.
We cannot sustain journalism on the copy sales any longer. We can’t. If it is about copy sale, we are no longer in business. What else can we do? Journalist have to be innovative and for media houses to think. Take for example and organisation has a Property Reporter. Is it enough for him to just fill two pages every week? That is no longer sustainable. What we can do is how can we turn that staff to a resource base.
Many years ago, The Guardian was leading in providing job adverts on Tuesday and Thursday. Today, we have Jobberman. We have different job websites. Why can’t The Guardian do such a thing? We have property platforms that are heavy and outside the traditional media houses. We have bloggers that are providing services journalists have the capacity to provide, but they are not because the business modem is old.
A few days ago, Mr. Victor Ifijeh, the MD of The Nation spoke on how to sustain print media in the age of digital. We need to innovate. It is not enough to give awards to governors. That diminishes us eventually. So, we need to sit down regularly and challenge ourselves on what else can be done. That will be possible if we provide the training, if we expose them. We shouldn’t prevent people from going to training. When they come back from training, they should be able to do step down training for their colleagues. Also, it is not a plus at times when you brag that you are an editor and you are producing a newspaper till 12 midnight. It is not a plus for us. It doesn’t give us the ability to think. That is the kind of thing I am talking about. Unless we address these issues, we will just go down. Now we are surrounded by younger people, by smarter people, who are using the same skill that we have to turn things around. Why should Linda Ikeji, for instance, charge advert rates that some of the media houses cannot charge. What is she doing? We have entertainment reporters. What is that platform doing that we cannot do? We need to sit down and do something. We have more than enough staff than they have. We have to re-arrange. What are we covering that we should stop covering or stop covering the same way we used to cover. For instance, it is not enough for the IT reporter to just report the IT companies and what they are doing. I know some platforms, they provide industry intelligence for the people they cover. So, how many of our reporters are producing what they can sell. It is not about just reporting, it is about producing content because when we come to multi-media, the content that we produce and just put on paper is now available for multiple platforms. Somebody said it is no longer a newspaper house or radio house, it is now a content providing company. Our content for the newspaper or radio houses should go on our other platforms.
It is difficult to go away from the digital aspect. Recently, there was the gubernatorial debate in Lagos and I monitored it. Apart from one or two, I didn’t see any traditional media that was part of that debate in terms of tweeting, in terms of commenting. One or two did, but it is because many of us still believe that our job is that that debate will happen, we will monitor it, and report it. But before that debate, we need to know what hashtag is going to trend on that day; we need to have people monitoring it and contributing. So, journalism has changed from waiting for it to happen. Before it happens we need to be part of it and after it happens, what else can we do. That is the kind of thing that I am talking about. I think that we need a re-orientation of mind if those our organisations are to survive.
*Part II of the interview on Friday