Simon Kolawole’s online newspaper, thecable.ng has done wonderfully well in one year – and the gentleman who edited ThisDay on Sunday for five years is happy and grateful.
He spoke to ENCOMIUM Weekly’s KUNLE BAKARE about the high and low points and the future of thecable.ng…
Are you grateful and happy about where thecable.ng is now?
Considering the fact that we are in a market where you have about 10,000 websites competing for a similar even if not exactly the same market, we are glad that we have covered a lot of distance within one year. We met and surpassed some of our targets but we are yet to fulfil most of our initial promises. That does not make me happy, but the trick is to keep moving one day at a time. We are grateful and happy that we have started reasonably well.
Where do you want thecable.ng to be next year as you clock two?
First of all, we want to keep climbing the ladder in terms of influence and respect. There is this perception that online journalism is about blackmail and sensationalism. It could make life difficult a bit because people view you with suspicion. When we were processing accreditation for our reporters at some government agencies, they told us point-blank that they don’t accredit online publications. Many of them granted us concession on the ground that TheCable is different. But some did not. We want to get to a stage where we would be treated like a normal newspaper, because that is what we are. We are not a blog or a news aggregator. We are a newspaper without the newsprint. We are not faceless. Our address and phones numbers are on our website. The names of our reporters are there too.
Also, we want to add more to what we are currently doing. We have succeeded to a large extent in delivering news with speed and simplicity. Our live text reporting has been well received. Our analyses also generate considerable interest. Now we want to do more investigative reports. We want to do video and audio. We are also considering going into printed publications, although that is still at the level of conception. By our second anniversary, we want to be far more robust than we are now.
What has been your greatest joy in the last one year?
We have broken many big stories and landed big interviews, so naturally a journalist should be happy with it. That is what we live for – be the first to report a major development. We interviewed President Goodluck Jonathan and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. So we interviewed an outgoing president and an incoming president! We broke stories on the Pastor Chris Oyakhilome divorce case as well as the withdrawal of the security aides of Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal. We were the first to report that Professor Yemi Osinbajo was going to be the vice-presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), four months before it happened. A year ago, we reported that Akinwunmi Ambode was going to be the next governor of Lagos State.
What are the major challenges?
I’d be honest and admit that the economics of online journalism are quite challenging. The income is highly limited compared to what we want to do. We need more writers, more analysts and more equipment to be able to deliver better performance. But we also have to look at what we can achieve within our income so that we don’t start taking bank loans to pay salaries! The advantage for online media is that the costs are low, but since we are not a blog our own needs are far more than usual. When I visited Huffington Post in the US in 2013 while incubating TheCable, I was shocked to see their structure. The newsroom is as big as CNN’s. They have a TV studio. If an internet newspaper could have such a massive structure, it tells you the development level of the US online media. We would love to do that here but the business cannot handle it for now. We face several other challenges, but all of them are manageable. We can live with them.
Do news websites need a large number of staffers and big offices like traditional newspapers?
Like I said, if we want to attain anywhere near the level of Huffington Post, yes we need a massive structure. Unfortunately, the advertisers in Nigeria see online as an irritant, so they still pump their budgets into the printed newspaper. Most of them advertise online like they are doing us a favour. But the truth remains that online is faster, more flexible and has more reach than the traditional newspapers, especially if you are targeting the youth and the educated. With your mobile device, you can go online and read stories from all the world. The newspapers will only repeat those stories the following day. The direct answer to the question is that you don’t need a big staff structure at the level we are operating now.
Do you consider blogs which steal stories a threat? What should be done about them?
There are blogs and there are blogs. Some are honourable enough to acknowledge the source of their stories. Some go the extra mile to get original content. The original idea of a blog, really, is like a column. The blogger is more like a columnist who writes opinions, quick reviews and behind-the-news stuff. But the tragedy is that some bloggers now think of themselves as journalists. They don’t understand that journalism has its ethics, standards and rules. They pass off opinions as news stories. It is not their fault: they don’t understand. That is why you have so many false stories circulating on the internet these days. The social media platforms have large congregations of anarchists who just sit down and concoct stories and manipulate pictures. They pass these off as news. I believe the internet will still be regulated someday. It is against nature and common sense to have such a lawless society. It is just of matter of time for some regulation to kick in. I don’t know when but things will not go on like this forever.
Do you have any regrets not being in a mainstream, traditional newspaper?
I am a bit relieved rather. I was a newspaper journalist the whole of my life, since 1991 when I started with Complete Football magazine. My new life is a fresh challenge. I don’t miss anything at all. But you can understand. I was Editor of THISDAY for five straight years, working till very late for five days a week. There were days I got home at 2am. One day I got home at 4am and my security guard said: “Oga, this una work sha!” I laughed. So when I left THISDAY in 2012, it was a new life for me. I slept more, had time to do regular exercise and revive my small printing business which I set up in 1996. In terms of influence and access that the mainstream gives you, I also don’t miss that. I was not much of an outgoing person before, so nothing changed.
Do you have more time for your family as opposed to when you edited ThisDay?
I had a wonderful boss at THISDAY, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena. He always gave me time off anytime I requested. I am a traditional family man, always wanting to spend time with them for as long as I can. I easily miss my family and it tells on me emotionally. My chairman was very helpful. Now that I am my own boss, as they say, I determine my own schedule. My family is seeing more of me now than before. I hope they won’t get bored soon!
What are the elements that make a news website eligible for success?
There is no magic formula. Do good stories and soon people will find you out. The fastest route to success is to be publishing scandals, both imagined and real. In no time, people will be sharing your stories via the social media and you will get massive followership. Human beings like gossips a lot, even when they pretend to be serious-minded. But I define success in many ways. One way is the quantity of traffic to your website. The other is the quality of traffic. At TheCable, our focus is on the quality. We target the serious-minded, the enlightened, the decision makers in business and politics. It is more difficult to attain the popular definition of success the way we have chosen.
Does thecable.ng run profitably? And how long did it take to break even?
Breaking even, in strict business definition, is when your income sustains your operations. Interestingly, we broke even from the first month. It is nothing special really. After all, you only pay salaries and internet subscription. For a traditional newspaper, you incur newsprint and distribution costs every day. As for profit, we are not there yet because of other costs we incurred before the business took off. Financially, we are fairly comfortable. We planned to start making profit in three years. We are ahead of schedule.