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:
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You would agree with me that the cost of production of newspapers is very high these days and most of the media houses can hardly survive; they are unable to pay staff and some of them are even closing shop. What is the way out?
Again it still goes back to the fact that we stayed too long in denial. We are not awake early enough. When new media was catching up, many media houses were very dismissive in their approach. They felt that “this is our area, we have mastered it and nobody is going to come into it.” But what we have seen is that people who have been able to take advantage of new media have succeeded. What is going to happen is that, because we are not changing, our business modem has become no longer sustainable. We can’t pay our bills again. That is why I am talking about reorganisation. If we can no longer pay reporters in every state, we need to think about what else to do; if we must maintain those reporters, we need to think about what else we can do with those reporters to be able to earn revenue. If we don’t do that, the option is to close shop. But if you must remain in business, the option is to think about how to recapitalise our industry. It is not to recapitalise it to do what we are doing before, but to see what else to do and what else we should not be doing any longer. One hard fact is that many media houses cannot continue to carry the burden of the staff they have. If the staff must continue, they must justify their existence in the organisation. Why must we have photographers like we had then, who cannot do video editing, produce videos. Yet, in this age, we find some platforms and all that they do is generate video from all the assignments we attend, and they earn revenue from it. We have enough capacity in our media houses, but all we need is how to change our orientation. I see newspapers in America. They resell their old photographs. They have data base that they are able to market to the industry. What we have here is that we still have photographers the way we had them, they cover assignments, bring in pictures and we don’t even use those pictures. And sometimes, we don’t even need some of those photographers. But we are not with that reality. If you need the photographs of Buhari officially, you just need to go to Femi Adesina’s wall and you get everything. Follow somebody on Twitter and you get all the videos. So, if you have a photographer in Aso Rock, is it enough for him to send those photographs. Sometimes, his camera is not as good as the one by those other people. When those photographs come, you would rather use the ones from Aso Rock. So, when you do an evaluation of the contribution of that staff, how do you justify his continued stay? We are not saying you should send them away, but to rethink how we can continue to make money. If we have to find money to recapitalise, and put us on the right side of the new modem, so be it. But if we don’t do that, we are going to close shop. Or we are going to cut down on the staff. That is the option. It is a change or perish situation.
Do you see the conventional newspaper still existing in the future?
Newspaper will not completely die, but a good number of them will not survive, especially when they don’t change. What is going to happen or what some people are advocating at the lecture at the NIJ the other day is the need to merge. Even in other sectors there is what we call merger and acquisition. Sometimes, it is good to have 10 per cent of something than 100 per cent of nothing. Truth be told, some media houses need to merge, some need to change. Some people have said, but I don’t know how true that is: We used to have Next newspaper. It was excellent as an online newspaper; it tried hard as a weekly newspaper. It went daily and it collapsed. From the ruins of Next came Premium Times and it is a big success. Some people are saying if the owners of Next had thought about that kind of modem, perhaps they would still be here. But, Next is no more here. We have had some modem, others come out of it.
Dr. Doyin Abiola said she could not imagine how people produce newspapers these days because the cost of that had become too high. The high cost of producing newspapers makes it impossible to continue to print newspapers sufficient enough to make money. But for some of the other things some of the newspapers are doing, there is no way they can justify their continued existence. And some of the things we are doing are not ethical.
Like what and what?
Like some of these jamboree awards that we do. It is de-marketing us indirectly. We are competing to give Governor of the Year Award to different people in a year. In a year, you have five Governors of the Year. And some of them decentralise it. So, you have Governor of the Year, Man of the Year, Governor of the Year Education and so on. Those things in the long run are not sustainable. They call our integrity to question. And those that we give the award know that we are just coming for the money. So, our copy sale is not worth anything in the eye of the public which has access to more information than they used to have. We are no longer the gatekeepers that we used to be. If people don’t buy newspaper any longer, they can still get all the information. Dr. Abiola said she no longer buys newspaper; she is a veteran journalist. She reads all her papers online. She is over 70. We need to look at the numbers and convince ourselves that we are a threatened industry. All of them will not die. Some will die. There is nothing we can do about it. Some of them are just on oxygen; it is just a matter of time before they collapse. There is a chance that if we review our operations, check what we can swallow and face it; if we merge where it is possible things will be better.
Don’t you think it can also happen in the online space?
I can see the trend in the online space too. At some point, some of us would need to come together and do a stronger publication. The costs of producing those things are heavy and we are seeing signs with those people in it. For newspapers, there will be fewer newspapers. Many will not find it easy to continue.
It is obvious that the problem in the conventional media houses led to the preponderance of online publications. What’s you opinion about that?
Like I keep telling people, Journalism will remain and what will keep changing is the platform through which we get information. Nobody should be scared about journalism going into extinction. What we should worry about is how people will get the information that we have. That is why skill acquisition is very important. If you have worked as a Business Reporter for about 15 years, that means you are a repository of knowledge in that industry. If you see yourself as a journalist and a content provider, chances are that you can survive. Chances are that you are very present in that your industry and you understand the need of that industry. There are people who need contents. Can you provide that? Can you research? Journalism should go beyond reporting; those skills that we have will be necessary in different formats. So, some of us should be able to do cross-cutting jobs. Some of us should be able to single-handedly manage a website. If there is a company that has a website; how much of content can you provide for the company? Not necessarily for the newspaper organisation. The journalist that can be relevant will be those that can do the work across. Not the one that just does only the basic; journalists that can provide necessary information that are needed. If I cannot own my own website, I can provide content, but that content will take me to looking for who is in need of it; the content will make me a global person.
Even when you are having your own website, you need to carve a niche for it. What are we going to be strong on that people can pay for? Some of us experimented with this kind of thing in the past; we didn’t know what we were doing. I went into the website of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, I noticed that though they held Holy Ghost convention, there was no report of it on the website. I sent a mail from the cyber café because I didn’t have a system of my own at the time, to the address I saw on it. I sent a mail that I could provide the content. I didn’t have a camera, the man in charge gave me a digital camera using disket, not flash drive. Myself and a young man went to camp despite not being members of the RCCG, we reported what was happening, went to a cyber café and sent the reports. We were paid. That is what should obtain now. The danger is not for journalism, the danger is the platform. We should have the ability to go beyond the platform to provide content.
We have so many online publications today. Are they not too many?
Yes, they are. Again, I dare say that the preparations that some of us need, the knowledge some of us need and the need to avoid the mistakes of the traditional newspaper appear to be lacking. So, some of us need to team up in order to have strong websites. Then, we are having too many general interest platforms. We need more of niche websites; websites that can provide services that can meet needs. We must see it as a business. It is a serious business and not because everybody is having one hence I need to have mine. We must do our business survey. What is working, what is not working? What other things would we do beyond providing those news on the platforms? What other services can we offer on our own? How much of media presence online do we have? I see some online publishers who are strangers online. And when that happens, it may be difficult to get the online traffic. So, if you have a facebook page that has 5,000 maximum followers, you share a link on your website, if one per cent of your followers see it, it means something. If you are on Twitter, and you have mass following, you are using your image; you are contributing to online discourse, people see you as an authority, they will take your website seriously. But when you are not visible, when they even see your name they don’t understand where you are coming from. We need to build our own online reputation because it has its advantages. We have many websites already, so we need to review. Some of us don’t need websites, we just need to be strong content providers; some of us need to just zero in on some niche and be service providers in some sectors. Some of us need to find out how our skills can be useful in another space. For instance, I initiate training ideas and I also teach and get paid. But when I do I always get data base so that I can return to those places. Sometimes I come up with my own ideas and those who are initially reluctant to pay end up paying. I must admit that it is a tough work. The former Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Femi Pedro, who was at one of the lectures held recently said the problem is not only in the media that even the banks do have theirs. He said before, if you wanted to travel you needed a travel agent, you no longer need a travel agent. The disruption is not only about us. Also look at Taxify. They don’t have a car, but they run cars. So, how can we practise without necessary incurring those overhead costs. That is the thing I am talking about.
With non-professional reporting as a result of the availability of online platforms the business of reporting has been bastardised. How do you think this can be stopped?
The problem is that we need to do a distinction between journalism and what one professor at the University of Lagos called information trafficking. Journalism is a profession; it has its own knowledge, it has the ethics that guide it. Those of us who profess to be journalists must remember that and not be carried away by the lure of the online space which is unregulated. Some of these people don’t practise journalism, they are information sharers, information disseminators who have the right to do so because it is a new world that is available for everybody. But those of us who are journalists need to show best practices. What I see is that some of us have been consumed by the speed of the online to abandon those ethics. I have situations where those who are not journalists are saying: you are like us, you are not different from us. You are making the same mistakes we are making, you are carrying the same fake news that we are carrying. So, what claim do you have to say that you are better than us? That is the main challenge because it is too late to correct all that. To deny me the opportunity to share on my facebook page is a violation of my fundamental human right. But I will advocate that where the laws make it possible and there are enough laws in this country to go after people who indulge in what they should not do. We have had bloggers locked up in this country and some of them have gone to jail. We need to make scapegoats of some people. Because it is our industry, let us show class; let us show professionalism so that we can become reference points and have enough gut to tell people that they are not doing what they are supposed to do.
But if you get carried away and use the photograph of an underage, which our ethics says we should not do, or publish without verifying, which is required of us a serious journalists, then we are not different.
What would you say is the future of journalism in Nigeria based on some of the issues you have raised?
The challenges we are going through in Nigeria is not peculiar to us; unfortunately we have excuse for our problem. Mr. Ifijeh was able to come up with facts and figure that in South Africa you can know how many copies of newspapers that are printed. You can’t know that in Nigeria. In Kenya, there are data to show how well they are doing. Perhaps if those figures stare us in the face, we will sit down properly and address the problem. But because we live in denial, people don’t know exactly how bad we have gone. We are pretending that all is well. All is not well, but it is not peculiar to us. Newspapers are dying in America; in UK, journalists are losing jobs; journalists are reinventing their skills. So, the future, like other places is that it is no longer business as usual. Journalists must be able to fit into the disruption. If we don’t have that kind of skill that can see us through, we are no longer fit. If I run a media house, and you as an editor are not online compliant, you are endangered. The beauty of those things is that the online platform is not an addendum, it is like my MD calls it, another revenue platform which must be run efficiently like the traditional medium. When we earn revenue from it, it helps to reduce our losses. In some newspapers, they think the online platform is a sahara where you can just push anything there. Many people don’t have a clue as to what online is about. They are doing a disservice to efforts to make the platform active. That is the problem. Journalism will continue and the platform will be at risk if we don’t quickly reorientate ourselves.
As someone who is now into media career development. What is your advice for those just coming into the profession?
My advice is for them to get necessary education in this field and develop their passion. When they get those skills, they should take the opportunities to practicalise those skills from school very seriously. We are in an age where you don’t have to graduate to start practising. In this age where people have facebook accounts, they should start practising, showcasing those things because it is an opportunity to start early. My counsel is that they should understand that the industry is not what it used to be. You don’t have the luxury of people coming to train you. Be sure you want to be a journalist. Be sure. There are too many people who go to journalism schools but don’t want to be journalists. They force them through it and they try to get job. It won’t work. We need a large dose of passion to survive now. We need a large dose of interest to experiment and thankfully, they don’t have the limitations the old generation had. If you couldn’t get your story into a newspaper then, you were not practising journalism. Not any longer. You can showcase what you have. Somebody can see that you are running a blog on your own and you are doing it very well and decides to hire you. Sometimes, these platforms are to showcase you; they are your Curriculum Vitae. If, for example, you want to become a photo-journalists, start taking photographs and put them online. Someone is going to see it and say I can hire this guy. If you want to be a broadcaster, start using Podcast; if you want to be a television person, have a Youtube channel and start doing amateur things that somebody will see and say I can grow this person. That is your new CV. You can generate a good CV online and it looks or sound excellent, but people want to see what you can do. That is my advice for them and it is achievable.
What advice would you give to journalists generally?
The only addition is for media organisations to take training more seriously. The emphasis is regular training. When I was in The Punch, I didn’t go to any training until I was a News Editor. Largely, we have companies where even when NGOs offer free training they would say the reporters don’t have the time. Training makes the journalist better. Before someone is made an Editor, he should have management training because managing people is different from writing news or editing stories. If somebody is a good reporter and you make him an editor, you may end up losing a good reporter and getting a bad manager in the process. Nobody becomes a manager in other sectors without going for training. It prepares them for the position. If you don’t prepare them, they will mismanage the organisation. They will forget that they are working with human beings who need to be managed; who need structured mentoring and special assessments. The rules of engagement in organsiations should be very clear. It must have a human face. Except we do that we’ll continue to have too many journalists waiting for the opportunity to run away.