FAMOUS writers and veteran journalists, Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe are more like identical twins in the creative province. Working together as long as we know –from their Weekend Concord years to The Sun and now Entertainment Express –they have written popular books like the journalism classic, The Art of Feature Writing, the business bestseller, 50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategists and Nigeria’s Marketing Memoirs amongst other seminal publications.
And come March 22, 2012, at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos, the founding Managing and Deputy Managing Director of The Sun Publishing Limited, would be presenting to the public their latest book entitled Segun Osoba, The Newspaper Years.
In this exclusive interview with ENCOMIUM Weekly, the gifted biographers took us into the lexis and structure of the book that captures the golden years of Nigerian journalism (that’s from the 50s to the 90s).
Mike and Dimgba also touched on the challenges and future of journalism practice in Nigeria amongst other relevant issues.
How is Entertainment Express doing?
DIMGBA: The watchword in marketing has always been choose a niche, develop it, dominate it, be the first in it and be the king or market leader in that sector. Just as you guys are a celebrity journal, we are newspaper men doing the first exclusive newspaper on entertainment. And picking on that alone, we want to build and make the best mileage possible by being the first. We expect that there would be response from competitors. And already there are responses, but those responses can only make the business better. It can only make the game better.
MIKE: There is always great joy in being first in any business. We have been pioneers all these years. We pioneered Weekend Concord, we pioneered The Sun and now we are pioneering Entertainment Express. There is this joy in starting something very small and watching the small baby grow into a big brand. We are looking forward to the day we will become grandfathers. We would be looking at these publications and say these are our children in whom we are well pleased.
So, what has been the challenge so far?
MIKE: It is basically the challenge of coming into a very new market. It is always there. Advertisers are not confident that you are in there to stay for a long time. So, they are just adopting a wait and see attitude to see if you can survive before they start giving you advert. So far, we have started getting adverts. And in terms of content, I think we even offer more value than N50 which is our cover price. We want to be affordable so that even beggars can buy us without feeling the pinch.
DIMGBA: Usually, when you are starting a new thing, you are going to have initial logistics challenge, initial sense of lack of recognition because the market will take time to even come to an understanding that there is a new product. So, we went through these initial challenges although with a lot of advantages. We had a lot of goodwill in the industry. Out there, people called from everywhere, “where is your publication?” One thing I and Mike have come to discover is that a lot of people care for us in this country. So far, so good, but that doesn’t mean we have overcome all obstacles. For every new publication they expect you to die within three months. But if you refuse to die and keep coming on strong, they give you a benefit of doubt for about four/five months. So, you have to go through all these hurdles. If you didn’t have this in mind, you will have problem. For us at Entertainment Express, we planned our paper with zero advert budget for the first six months. Now, all the adverts we’ve had so far are bonus because they came outside our budgetary expectation. I think we are lucky.
MIKE: Ours is a whole lesson in humility. Some people would say you people used to run big big newspapers, how come you are doing a small newspaper, is the big one coming? We tell them yes o. They said a whole former MD, you are carrying a tape recorder and you are interviewing musicians (2Face, Olamide and all that), what else should I do? It’s my job. I’m a reporter first. I don’t feel ashamed with a tape recorder going to meet Wizkid or whoever will sell my paper. That’s why I say it’s a lesson in humility. I’m essentially a reporter. That’s why we wrote this book, Segun Osoba, the Newspaper Years. It is a book about Segun Osoba, the quintessential reporter. He has been a reporter all his life and his story has been an inspiration for us. We saw him as a role model, a hero who is worthy to be written about. We didn’t even tell him we were writing a book about him. We just went about our assignment and we started interviewing people close to him, his contemporaries, his bosses and all that to know who is this man called Osoba? What kind of reporter was he? What was his strength as a reporter? The idea was to celebrate him. We should learn this culture of celebrating the good things about us. We should learn to celebrate our heroes. If somebody has done well, tell the world. So, we are here to tell the story of a great reporter, Segun Osoba. A reporter who in his heydays did impossible things. A reporter who in his days broke walls to get a story. A reporter who in his days did the unthinkable. Here was a coup d’état, Tafawa Balewa has been killed, top government officials like Okotie Eboh have been killed; there was confusion and a sense of anarchy all over Nigeria. People were wondering what was happening. It took a man called Segun Osoba to tell the whole world that this is where I saw the body of the Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa (that was somewhere in Sango Ota, Ogun State). It was a big scoop back then. He broke so many stories. So, we wanted to know more about this reporter, what made him thick, what were his qualities, what drove him. The beauty of it is that we didn’t even interview Osoba in this book. He didn’t open his mouth to say one word. That is how we do it. Once we are determined to write a book about you, if you talk, na you sabi, if you don’t talk, na you sabi. Mike Adenuga didn’t talk and we wrote a book about almost 700 pages based on his life. That shows you what a journalist can do.
Did he appreciate the work?
He is still looking at it (laughs).
What does this book mean to you?
DIMGBA: We needed to write a book about journalism and we needed to choose a style that will capture the story of Nigerian journalism in the last 50 years. So, we chose a man who probably encapsulates that story in his approach and practice of journalism. In doing so, we also captured the memoirs of all the historic figures that played in the Nigerian journalism landscape over the last 50 years. So, Osoba becomes an intellectual or literary foil used to draw out the memoirs of Babatunde Jose, Peter Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Tony Momoh, Sam Amuka and all the big players over the last 50 years.
Some of them started journalism around 1945. Now, what was journalism practice in their days? What were the stories he broke? What was reporting in his time? What was sub-editing like? What was editorial writing like? The greatest columnist Nigeria has ever produced is Peter Enahoro. Now, what were his tricks, techniques of his trade and where did it cross paths with Osoba? What’s his view on Osoba? The greatest newspaper manager that Nigeria ever produced happened to be a gentleman called Alhaji Babatunde Jose. What made him tick? What were the things that defined him?
Oh yes. Almost all the big names, dead and alive, who practiced journalism in one way or the other passed through Jose or encountered him somehow. Now, those people that encountered him, what do they think about him? We talked with Jose before he died. We probably have the last interview before Jose died. So, if you like Jose send some of his journalist memoirs to us. We used some of them here. And we are using some in another book which we would be using to mark Mike’s 60th birthday in July, 2012.
Is Mike Awoyinfa clocking 60?
Yes, he is no more a small boy. He’s coming up in age (laughs). The book is called World Editors, Conversation with Journalism Masters on Trends and Best Practices. We are going to have editors of New York Times, Times of London, Guardian of London, Daily Mail, International Herald, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times of London, The Los Angeles Times, name them, the biggest boys in the industry. Over the last 10 years or so, we happened to have interviewed these ones. And Jose would be representing Nigeria here. He too was a member of the iconic generation like Harold De Vans, the global media hero. They said he is the greatest living editor, worldwide. We are capturing the experiences of these icons so that today’s practitioners would draw from their experiences. You need to know what others have done before. If you think you people started celebrity journalism, Tony Momoh used to edit an entertainment publication called The Spear. Osoba edited Lagos Weekend over 40 years ago. So, it would be good to read from Tony Momoh what he did when he was the editor of Spear, a celebrity publication.
Still on the book, when did you start writing it?
That was around the year 2000, when we left Concord. That was one of the books we thought about when we decided to go into book publishing. It was the year we released what we called 50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategists. While the book was on sale, we were working on this.
When was it completed?
It was completed around 2007. But having been completed, we abandoned it. When we left The Sun, I think I had a conversation with Muhammed Haruna and he asked me about the book, that was how we went back to it.
When is the book going to be presented to the public?
MIKE: That is on March 22, 2012, at Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos by 11 a.m. We hope it’s going to be a big media event for old and new breed journalists. They are all coming to celebrate this newspaper reporter, icon of our time. The book would be officially presented that day. Eminent Nigerians would be there. And General Ibrahim Babangida would be coming.
What has been the reaction from the reading public so far?
It’s encouraging and awesome. Those who have read it can’t put it down. They said the style is very approachable, it’s breezy and personal. We wrote a book that is practical not theoretical. It is experiential. Our approach was for everybody to tell his story and tell Osoba’s story. So, it’s a very easy way of teaching journalism. We wanted to teach Nigerians journalism history in an informal style. The idea is to wake up today’s generation of journalists from their slumber and placidity. And to let them know that this profession is a serious business, it requires a lot of dedication, passion with no room for lackadaisical attitude. We have to wake up. We have to be breaking stories like people of the old. Journalists of the past were committed, they were even better writers in their days, you read and hardly find errors. They had sub-editors, the gate keepers and custodians of the house style. These sub-editors were the ones teaching reporters. Today their tribe has gone extinct. That accounts for sloppiness in writing, the flaws and grammatical blunders are common these days.
Before we continue with challenges of journalism, what is the sweetest thing they say about this book on Osoba?
DIMGBA: First of all everybody love the packaging. It’s an excellent production and design. And of course, they are amazed at our capacity to garner so many icons in for the book. But we are waiting for what you people would say.
MIKE: This book is a wake up call for today’s generation of journalists to know their history, to know the journalism of the past and to know the kind of culture and possibilities of the past. For example, in those days, do you know you could hire a plane to go and get a story? You charter a plane to pursue a story. Professor Shobowale, who was then in Daily Times, when they were going to bury Tafawa Balewa in Bauchi, Daily Times provided him with a plane and a photographer to cover the story. He was to report the story and come back with the same plane to Lagos. Can you beat that? If you haven’t covered a war, read this book, you will see how Nigerian journalists covered the Nigerian civil war.
Is journalism profession really sick?
MIKE: That’s what we are saying. We need to wake up, we are sleeping. This should be the golden era of journalism. A time journalists should fly to the sky because we have facilities available for us to do our job. Today’s journalists are living in luxury. In those days, there was nothing like the internet. Today, you can google any story and you will stumble on an avalanche of facts. You want to send your story, you can do that through your phone, and other mobile devices. You didn’t have such luxuries those days. You may have a scoop, you can’t send it. They still performed well with all the challenges. But these days, journalists are so laid back and like I said they don’t have that drive and commitment. Everybody is thinking about money, which is not everything. Journalism first, if you do this job very well and you succeed, money will come.
What to you are the basic challenges of journalism?
DIMGBA: Mike has been addressing a lot of them but I will say there are many forces fighting against the very existence of the print media and the biggest obstacle is the digital world, which is to say the internet, the electronic media, all the global media. Now, news is instantaneous, it hardly waits for 24 hours to be disseminated. That creates for the printed word a serious challenge. Even our children are becoming highly digitalized. The reading culture is receding. Children no longer care for books as much as they care for the internet, Blackberry, Facebook and so on. So, the conspiracy of all these forces is threatening to squeeze journalism to death. And that is responsible for the dwindling circulation of newspapers. I will tell you a story, some years ago, we did a story where Stella Obasanjo was abusing the hell out of Maryam Babangida. Abiola felt very angry about the story and he said it should be killed. We have printed the first edition. Do you know how many copies that were burnt? 257,000 copies, first edition alone. That should give you a picture of the circulation of Weekend Concord as at that time. Then you ask yourself what is the circulation strength of typical newspapers today. That is food for thought. And in the midst of all these, the current journalists then have the challenge of creativity. How do you out-manoevure the digital forces to create something that will still retain attraction for the readers despite the instantaneous nature of news. That is the core challenge. That’s why the magazine market is in trouble. Nobody waits for seven days for news. If there is Grammy Awards, you are watching, I’m watching, what do you want to tell me in your publication? That is where creativity comes in. You have to go back and develop a creative interpretation of what people have already seen and present to the same audience and they are shocked. The challenge here is can my story retain the attention span of the readers who have Africa Magic, CNN, and the rest? The question is can my publication take them away from these channels to focus attention on reading me? If my publication cannot do that, then it has failed. We are in trouble!
MIKE: That is the key thing now, creativity and pro-activity. Yesterday news is no longer news in journalism. You have to give the reader a new lease. You can’t tell your reader Gringory is dead. That’s old story. My philosophy is that every newspaper should have the power to make the reader smile. If any paper doesn’t pass the smile text, it has failed. Don’t bore your readers.
A lot of Nigerian journalists have been accepting appointments to work for politicians, have you not been approached before?
Many years ago, I was called to be a Commissioner in my state, Osun. I didn’t even think about it twice. I rejected it instantly. My people were very, very shocked and surprised, “What is wrong with this man? We fought this battle for you,” they said. But I’m not a government person. I’m not a politician. I’m only a reporter. If I die today, that’s the biggest eulogy you can pay me. Don’t ever say I worked for any arm of government. That would be a desecration. I will wake up and protest. Just say, he lived as a reporter and died as a reporter.
What’s your stand, sir?
I don’t have the temperament to work for government. The way I’m made, I would not be able to survive in it. For those working for them, if His Excellency breathes, everybody will stop breathing (laughs). I can’t cope with it. So, I have made up my mind not to accept political appointment, big or small. Everybody should play on the areas of their strength. And the area of my strength happened to be journalism. The reason political appointments are attractive here is because of corruption. They beg people to come and work for government in America and Europe.
What does the future hold for Mike Awoyinfa?
The future is already here. I’m already doing what I would still be doing when I am an old man. That is being a biographer. This is a country of about 160 million. So, there are many Nigerians we can write their biography. It is so much that even in my grave, I will still be writing. As for the future of print journalism, I don’t think the newspaper would die. The internet will not kill newspaper business. Newspaper will always be there. Nothing can compare with waking up in the morning and reading a fresh newspaper. It’s just like a cup of coffee in the morning. There would rather be specialized newspapers in the future.
Is Mike’s future your future?
DIMGBA: Yes, if by Mike’s future you are looking at what we would be doing in the years ahead, of course, we would be doing newspaper and writing books. I’m a man of the word. The word here means literary and spiritual. It may be the word of God or literary word. That is where I resonate. But in terms of the future of the industry, there is a future, but it is an endangered future. There are threats. It is going to be survival of the fittest. The fittest now is not going to be the fittest in terms of strength. It is for those that are very creative. Like Mike said, the general interest newspaper will definitely diminish in importance and nitchemanship will rule. It would be an era of increasing specialization. The threat of digital media will encourage those that will take a narrow angle and expand it.
Finally, what’s your assessment of the FOI Act? Are Nigerian journalists really working with it?
I haven’t seen the FOI Act in action. I haven’t seen anybody use it. People were just emotional about it. It’s all hype, hype, hype. They said beware of what you ask for so you could get it.
What’s your take on FOI Act?
DIMGBA: The journalists are not making use of it. We got the Freedom of Information Act, but it is the application. Journalists are not demanding their rights. The reason is that some journalists are embedded with the government. So, if you work with them, why do you want to trouble them? Nobody is troubling them. The Act is very good but it’s about its application.
- This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, March 06, 2012