What online publishers must do to survive – Soyombo

Fisayo Soyombo
Fisayo Soyombo

Fisayo Soyombo, Pioneer Editor of The Cable, former editor with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, now ‘Roving Editor’. in this interview with Media Career Development Network team speaks on investigative journalism and online media publishing in Nigeria

We seem to have too many one-man websites all over the place. What do you think journalists who want to go into online newspapering should do that they are not doing?

People think the rigours of journalism have lessened because of the emergence of online newspapers but that’s a mistake. I worked a few years in the online space but my original background is print. I was trained at The Guardian newspaper. I worked for a number of bosses but the editor who had the most impact on me is Mr Jahman Anikulapo. Working for him, I learnt that journalism happens on the field; it’s rigorous fieldwork. It is not in the office that you practice journalism.

Yes, there is the online space; but prospective founders of online newspapers have to understand that the rigour, hard work that real journalism requires will not suddenly disappear because of the online space. If all you do is go to other websites to copy, there is no chance that you will stand out.

The investigative stories you find on The Cable and Premium Times for example, if this wasn’t the era of online, you’ll still find them in print newspapers. Online may have its own flexibilities, but once you try to find a short cut to journalism, it wouldn’t be the same. And for journalists, the truth is that anyone who cannot work hard should run as fast as his legs can carry him because online newspapering is very demanding. You have to be flexible for work. The day Oby Ezekwezili pulled out of the presidential elections, she released her statement in the dead of the night.

The day Professor Wole Soyinka endorsed Kingsley Moghalu, he released the statement in the dead of the night. So, you can’t be an online journalist and assume you can sleep at scheduled hours. You always have to be on top of your email and social media. It requires extreme passion, not just passion for this profession. Often times, I’d be driving and there’d breaking news, I’d park my car and treat it. I’ve published breaking news from the barbing salon and the toilet. online

So, it’s a lot of work — strenuous, demanding but at the end of the day, nothing can be more fulfilling than taking up a job and delivering, making an impact and helping to shape the views of people especially if you’re talking about journalists who mix skill and grit with integrity. We tend to talk a lot about brilliance but I always say that the most important quality a journalist has to sell is integrity; it’s not even the writing ability. Wiring ability is useless if it comes at the expense of moral presence. If every time you write people can doubt it, people think maybe someone paid you to do it, for me you don’t have any value again. So, I don’t think the values, tenets, principles of journalism should be allowed to change simply because we now have the social media to drive traffic. The online setting offers us incredible space for innovation, but there is still no shortcut to good journalism

Talking about corruption in the media, have you experienced any situation where your story was ‘killed’?

I don’t have recent memories of this because in the last two years I’ve not been really active on the field. But in my early years, yes. Since I was fresh in the industry, I couldn’t ask why. What I have experienced more is a divergence of opinion between my publisher and I. And at the end of the day, it’s for the Editor to say ‘we have to be high on integrity’. If integrity is not part of the process, then I, as the Editor, should stick my neck out for it. I think that personal interest should never supersede public interest. Personal interest of the publisher or an advertiser should never be more important than the right of the public to know. And if that story cannot be published in that newspaper, it must appear elsewhere — because the public deserves to know even if one paper says no.

In journalism, some people say some people are lucky. For you, based on your experience and from the terrain…what do you think independent journalists who want to establish their websites should do?

One of the reasons I love journalism is that it’s pretty much like a mirror; it’s like you’re writing exams and you’re getting instant results. You can appraise yourself immediately; you’re not like a banker who will wait for end-of-year or biannual assessments.

First of all, those who are aspiring to come into the industry should understand that if you are good no one can stop your shine. Any editor can hate you but if you give him a good story because he wants his paper to move, he’s going to publish the story. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’d suddenly like you overnight, but he would at least publish you.

Secondly, before I got into the industry, I heard stories like “in this industry, you’ll suffer”, “there’s no money”, “there’s no this or that”. Yes, financial security in journalism is not a straightforward matter, but opportunities abound. The start is often hard. I’ve had my rough moments. For instance, my first job after NYSC, I was owed. At some point, my shirts were getting torn, usually at the elbow. I would wear them under my suit, and my colleagues occasionally wondered why I was always suited up even in periods of power outage. They’d go “Fisayo, remove your suit now, aren’t you hot?” And I’ll be like “never mind”.

I remember interviewing the late Chief Olusegun Olusola, Nigeria’s longest-serving ambassador to Ethiopia, in 2009. I got to his estate but couldn’t locate his house. I recharged my phone with the last N100 on me so I could call him for further directions. At the end of the interview, the man did not even offer me water much less money. And there was no way in the world I was going to ask. What he gave me was his book, ‘The Village Headmaster’. So I had to walk more than two hours from his house to mine. I had all those experiences but I’ve always felt if you work very hard, and while working hard to learn how to work really smart, then you will be fine eventually. If you combine the two, and you’re diligent, you read widely, write as often as you can, you look at the leading lights of your industry, track the stories they are writing, the papers they edit and you pray for God’s grace and wisdom, then you will be fine. I’m not a pastor, but I understand the place of God.

If for any reason, you wouldn’t acknowledge God, remember that if your health fails you, no matter how brilliant you are, you can’t succeed; no matter how smart, hard-working you are, you can’t even have the energy to do the work. There is the place of grace, but the industry is also one where people who work hard and smart, will eventually rise; it’s only a matter of time. Even if the salary raises don’t come, there are legitimate opportunities that show up once the name becomes a brand or as the name starts to become one. There are international agencies one can write for; one article may sometimes earn you more than your salary or close to it.

There are opportunities for op-eds, investigative reports… lots of opportunities that are legitimate, not chasing adverts. I personally don’t like to chase adverts because when you do, you get a commission and you start to exhibit a bias for the advertiser. So, if you want an advert from Coca-Cola, you don’t want to touch a negative story about them because you want to be in their good books. Journalists should look beyond making money from adverts and brown envelopes. I’ve come to realize that agencies want to associate with brands, big foreign newspapers want to identify with names that have become brands. If journalists could spend a bulk of their time developing themselves and try to grow their names into brands, it’s only a matter of time before the opportunities will come.

Of course, as a journalist, you’re not going to overtake Dangote as Africa’s richest man. I know that money is good, but personally, my ambitions in life do not include becoming the richest man in my village or in Nigeria.

Now that you are into investigative reporting, can one now say investigative journalism will be successful in Nigeria in the nearest future?

I wouldn’t say it’s a thing of success; it’s not even about how many stories, for me, I wouldn’t judge the success of investigative reports by how many you’ve published or how many journalists are into it. I like to look at the impact, by how many of our stories have forced the hand of government into ringing the changes? How many stories have we written that succeeded in changing the life of someone facing an injustice? So, until we get to a point where in one year, we can count 10, 20, 30 stories written by Nigerian journalists in one year that made an impact, forced policy change, exposed corruption without the intent of malice… until we get to a point where we can count so many of such examples, we can’t yet say it is successful. We have a few examples already.

Toyosi Ogunseye did a story in December 2012 that forced the government to close the steel company that was literary killing residents of Adekunle Fajuyi Estate. My most fulfilling moment in journalism is about the plight of a soldier who was injured while fighting Boko Haram, whose leg was amputated. He was abandoned and left to is crutches. But after my story, the Army gave him prosthesis and he got back on his feet. A lot of those soldiers had hearing issues not because they were shot but because Anti-Aircraft Gun (AAG) but because the shots were fired in there vicinity. They lost their hearing and the government refused to act, but after my story, they were taken care of. Until we can lose count of examples like this, we can’t yet say investigative journalism is a success. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Is investigative journalism rewarding?

Nobody should go into investigative journalism because of reward; it’s about what you can do for your country not what it can do for you. It is rewarding but I don’t think that should be anyone’s motivation. Sometimes, a lot of people talk about awards but what is the guarantee you will win one award even after 10 investigative stories? There are so many good journalists around but not all of them can win awards. How many full-fledged investigative journalism awards do we have in Nigeria? Just one — the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting. There are just five categories; online investigative journalists are only eligible for one category. For each category, there can only be three winners. So 50 journalists apply, 47 of them will end up disappointed. If awards are the sole of primary motivation, then you probably wouldn’t go far.

Of course, there are awards that can advance the career of the journalist, but that shouldn’t be the pre-eminent motivation. Investigative journalism should primarily be seen as an opportunity to be useful to one’s country. I know Emmanuel Mayah, one of Africa’s greatest ever investigative journalists, once consulted for the government of Sao Tome and Principe on some of its anti-corruption efforts. It was a mission totally outside journalism but as an investigative journalist, his name had become a brand and they needed him in another country. There’s an opportunity for lecturing. online

I may not have studied journalism, but I trained at the Guardian, where, by the way, I learnt so much. I’ve attended a lot of journalism training in and outside the country, and I’ve read a lot online. Before embarking on ‘Blood On The Plateau’, my first investigation, I read investigative journalism manuals as though my life depended on them. I’ve also done some very crazy investigative stories, and I’m currently in the middle of the craziest of them all. With the experiences I have on the field if you put me in a classroom, I want to think it won’t be a waste of time for the students.

These days, a lot of foreign donors have come to realize that you can’t strengthen democracy without funding journalism because journalists are the guys who shape public opinions; if newsrooms are not empowered, if they can’t exist outside of Corporate Nigeria, then their objectivity will continue shrinking. The likes of McArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation and so on support some Nigerian newspapers with grants. So there is the opportunity to be financially stable; not to make a lot of money but to be financially stable. But I think that the biggest reward as an investigative reporter is the chance to positively influence lives, speak for the voiceless and trigger useful policy change.

Where do you think professionals newspaper will be in the nearest future with the invasion of online newspapers and social media in Nigeria?

I think that sales will continue to drop but print newspapers still have the relevance that the online space cannot be substituted for; people rely more on online newspapers for news but people believe more in what they see in the newspapers. Legacy newspapers still have that credibility advantage over online. When the internet began to disrupt journalism practice, many of these papers didn’t take it seriously; they thought that digitally-compliant journalists were just playing. To maintain their relevance, all print newspapers need to do is pick their battles carefully. They need to strategize and adapt.

The online space is roughly 80% or more of the news; they usually don’t give readers the value beyond the news. Papers should drop the news battle because they cannot win it. One example I love to give is Goodluck Jonathan’s suspension of Lamido Sanusi as CBN Governor on February 20, 2014. Jonathan immediately named Sarah Alade as interim head, before eventually announcing Godwin Emefiele in a substantive capacity. Within 24 hours, there were three CBN governors! If a newspaper woke up on February 25 to report Sanusi’s ouster or Emefiele’s emergence, what was the point when all online papers had reported it? But online wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to properly analyze the three-way development, which is a gap only the print can fill. So, I think print will still be there; I don’t think they are going to die; they’ll still be relevant, but the level of relevance depends on their adaptation to the times.

Do you think that people who are reading breaking news are more than conventional readers?

You have to understand that there’s still a market for analysis; print should forget about the news. News is about what is readily available. Why should I go to a newsstand when I can just log on to a website to read a story? If we get to a point where we know that online takes care of news while print takes care of understanding the news, then the place of print is assured.

But print needs to rebrand, reduce their news pages drastically and increase pages for features. Have more feature reporters than news reporters; and every day as the news is breaking, do the analysis. We should open page two and see analysis, not news. For instance, if the CBN Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) announces a reduction in interest rate by 50 basis points, what does it mean? How does that affect the average man on the streets who wants to borrow N100,000 from the bank? How does it affect the price of rice in the open-air market? Somebody needs to explain that to readers. I personally print newspapers should reduce the focus on news and create a beyond-the-news brand.

The online platforms you have worked, were they profitable in terms of operations?

Of course. If they were not profitable, the staff would have been owed at some point. And their standards were high, too. TheCable is founded by Mr. Simon Kolawole. He was Editor of ThisDay; he was himself a p HBroper journalist; he couldn’t have done anything wishy-washy. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) was founded by Mr. Dayo Aiyetan, he was a distinguished journalist at TELL magazine for several years. SaharaReporters, founded by Mr. Omoyele Sowore, is the oldest of all existing online newspapers. Sowore saw into the future; when people were stuck in print, he foresaw the oncoming online era.

In their different ways, these men all exhibit the various ingredients that need to be in place for online media to survive. So, an online newspaper is about to be launched. One, who is the promoter? What media career has he had? Does he have a brand? What kind of brand? Is it the brand of somebody who is corrupt and is always collecting money and disappearing? Is it the brand of somebody who is always associated with excellence? What is the recruitment strategy? What is the business strategy? If it is just the one who employs his friends and friends of friends, then it will fail. Why exactly is the person going into it? Is it solely to make money? Is it to sustain his family? Or is to run a stable business that can advance journalism while being profitable as well? What’s the paper’s editorial strategy? Is it to steal original content from other sites and then expect to get advertisers?

It’s so easy these days to know the sites being read. Alexa and many other analytics platforms help us to know if people are reading a website or not. Why should an advertiser patronize a site struggling to attract 10,000 clicks per day? So, usually, when people say online newspapering is not profitable, it is often a question of strategy, competence, recruitment plan and brand equity of the paper and its promoters.

This interview first appeared on Media Career Development Network.

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