Newspapers must be more creative to deal with online threats, says Femi Adesina

Mr. Femi Adesina, President of the influential Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Sun newspapers, spoke extensively with ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI on a wide range of issues last Sunday in Lagos.

Excerpts:

Your recent re-election as President of the Guild of Editors has been widely described as well deserved. But how would you describe your first term?

   For me, it was fulfilling. To lead editors, you need to really be at your best because they are enlightened people, they are very critical people and you can’t treat them anyhow. As leader of the editors, you have to just represent them well; otherwise, they would throw you to the wolves.

We went into election and nobody contested against me. For me, that was an expression of confidence. It was a vote of confidence in my leadership and then, the fact that the election went very well and they gave me a second term in office. For me, it was quite gratifying.

I noticed that one of the Guild’s objectives is to encourage the training of journalists. Has the Guild been doing this?

When we were campaigning in 2013 for that office, one of our campaign promises was training and retraining of editors. And I tell you, in the first two years, God helped us a great deal.

We facilitated training opportunities for editors, both nationally and internationally. I’m sure we had more than 10 outings, about five of them internationally, for editors to attend workshops. Three people were sent to Paris (France) to attend the Global Editors’ Summit. I think two were sent to the World Editors’ Forum in Italy last year. This year again, as we speak, somebody is getting ready to go to Spain for the Global Editors’ Network. Then, I think the World Editors’ Forum is happening in the United States this year and somebody is going again. Those are the international ones.

Locally, we have what we call Centre for Leadership in Journalism, domiciled in the School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University. It is funded by the Guild. Constantly, there are courses we send our members for. As we speak, there’s one on Online Journalism that is running. I think about three of our members are involved.

There is a course called Leadership in Journalism that takes them (editors) abroad. Last year, we had one member that we also sponsored for it, paid for by the Guild.

We don’t joke with training. For me, it is major. Any training opportunity that we hear of, we send our people, because this is something that is key in journalism. You need to keep updating your skill, otherwise, you get stale.

Do you, I mean the Guild, also advise or convince media owners on the importance of training the journalists they employ?

   For me, that is also key. In fact, you have put your finger on something that I believe passionately in. And for us at The Sun, where I am fortunate to be the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, we don’t joke with the training of our journalists.

At the beginning of every year, the first thing I ask for is the training calendar for that year, and we line it up. Every quarter, for this and other courses, these are the people we are sending, both locally and internationally. And I think it is key for every media house.

If the NPAN (Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria) makes that one of the key things they want to achieve, it will be very good for the profession. At The Sun, we do it; I know that one or two other newspapers may also do it, but I think it is something that every media house should do: send your people for training.

You need to build people’s capacity. If you don’t build their capacity, you can’t blame then if they under-deliver. So, in the Guild, we do it; at The Sun newspaper, we do it but I want to see it industry-wide.

But I also know the constraints. Training does not come cheap. Is it the newspapers that are struggling to pay salaries, or those that are in arrears of salaries that would (organize training)? They will say training does not matter now. But it would always matter. If it becomes something that is seen as critical in the industry, particularly by the investors and their owners, I’ll be very happy.

As Managing Director of The Sun, how would you rate the quality of graduates your newspaper offers employment to? Are you satisfied with what you’re getting?

     Absolutely not. You find people parading all sorts of fancy degrees – first degree, second degree; and when you tell them to write something, from the very first line, you see howlers in terms of errors. It is dispiriting.

We do something at the Sun, and fortunately, I have been at the centre of it since we established the Sun 13 years ago. We do what we call Graduate Trainee Scheme. I have administered it about three times, we just did one last year, well, because I am the managing director now, I didn’t administer it directly but I still had a say in the final decisions.

What we do is, we advertise for graduates in any field and we test them. They do written, oral, all sorts of tests. And when we have got the type of people we need, remember, they don’t have to be Mass Communication or Journalism graduates, all they need to show is that they have what it takes to be able to write, we then employ them, and we train them. It’s a six-month course and at the end of the six months, those who scale through are then employed fully. Those who do not scale through are dropped. This is the fourth season we have just done in The Sun.

That is how we renew our manpower. We do that training scheme and in 12, 13 years, we have done four. That shows that in an average of every two to three years, we’re taking people. The minimum we take at any given time is 10 graduates. We took 12 in the one we did in the last quarter of last year.

All owners of media houses pay premium on training. It is not enough to just come out of school with any degree, whether Mass Communication or any other, and just come into the profession. There must be continuous training and re-training. Without that, journalism will not rise beyond a certain level.

That is why, when these people come from the schools, we know that the actual training will be done in the work place.

In that case, does the Guild interact with faculty members in the universities offering journalism programmes, in order to advise them on the best way to package their curriculum, based on the quality of graduates coming forward?

       No formal interaction like that yet. But I agree with you, it is like blending the town and the gown. It is very, very important. Students do all the theories in schools, but when it comes to the practical aspect, they know nothing. Therefore, journalism education must find a way of blending the town and the gown. I think what the institutions should do is to have an interflow between the professional area of the calling and the theoretical area.

There is nothing that says a Professor of Mass Communication or a PhD holder who wants to do sabbatical shouldn’t come and do it for one year at The Sun, on our editorial board or somewhere else, instead of going to another University. If he is teaching Mass Communication, why doesn’t he come to where journalism is being done practically?

 

Some students have actually wondered how, for instance, a Professor of Mass Communication, who has never practiced journalism, can teach the practical aspect of the course.

   Exactly. You will find that, particularly in the area of newspaper production, it has changed completely from what is being taught theoretically. And if a teacher is cocooned in the university, he will still be teaching the old, theoretical newspaper production, but production has changed with the influence of ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Therefore, the town and the gown must inter-mingle.

Who says that a News Editor or an Editor, who is on leave or wants to do some time off, can’t go to a Department of Mass Communication to do it. He would bring in a lot of practical experience to that kind of department.

So, I hope this is something that our teachers in the various departments can look into. It will benefit journalism education a lot.

President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr Femi Adesina with outgoing Governor of Delta State, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan

President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr Femi Adesina with outgoing Governor of Delta State, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan

But how would you react to the criticism that the Guild does not care about the welfare of journalists

   If that criticism comes up, it may be because they (critics) don’t know what the Guild is for and what it does. The Nigerian Guild of Editors is not a union. It is an association of editors. The union end of this profession is the Nigerian Union of Journalists.

But the Guild is very influential….

(Cuts in) Yes, the Guild is quite influential because it is an association of people at the top echelon of the profession, but in terms of welfare, unionism, that is the duty of the NUJ. Don’t forget that even editors who are members of the NGE are also members of the NUJ, but the NGE takes care of things that pertain to editors.

Editors are like the bridge between the owners of the businesses and the journalists who work in those businesses. Editors are privileged to be senior people, and they interface between the owners and the journalists. Therefore, the editors cannot be unionists. They cannot be. If you are representing ownership, you can’t be carrying placards (general laughter). So, that is one thing people need to realize.

In that case, because editors are so privileged, they are in the position to advise media owners on the importance of welfare.

Ooh, definitely, definitely.

However, editors seem not to be doing much in that regard.

Editors should do it. A good editor should speak to his company’s owner (on the importance of welfare). You will see that a good number of editors even represent their owners at the meetings of NPAN. When NPAN meets most times, I represent my publisher. I see Mr. Gbenga Adefaye representing the Publisher of Vanguard (newspaper). I see Victor Ifijeh representing the publisher of The Nation, so, a lot of Editors – in – Chief represent their owners at NPAN meetings. That means we should be able to then talk about welfare with our owners.

But don’t forget that the buck stops on their (owners’) table, because they are the owners, they fund the business, they are the ones that know what goes into newsprint procurement, plates, ink, everything, all imported. And it is a lot of money. I agree with you, welfare can be a lot better, but it’s purely a union thing, more than a thing for the Guild of Editors.

Do you have any fears for the survival of print journalism in view of these online threats, or what they call social media?

It seemed to be a potent fear at a point, and I’ll give examples. When we were younger, there was a publication that we read – Reader’s Digest. It made the reputation of being the world’s largest publication at that time, small and compact. But Reader’s Digest is not there again. When it disappeared, it went online. So, if a publication that made the reputation of being the world’s largest publication in printed form can disappear, it shows the online threat is very potent.

Again, don’t forget Newsweek magazine. There used to be two key weekly foreign magazines in the Nigerian market – Time and Newsweek. A couple of years back, when Newsweek was about 98 years old, it folded up its hard copy and went online. That also shows you that the online threat is real.

Let me mention another one – Encyclopedia Britannica or Americana. In those days, when we worked in Concord Press, if you entered our library, from one end of the wall to the other, all the encyclopedias were set out, A – Z. If you needed to write anything, there was no Google, there was no Internet, you bring out the Encyclopedia that treated what you wanted to write, and then you write your story. But where is the Encyclopedia today? They don’t do hard copies again. Encyclopedia has gone online.

Remember our own Broad Street Journal, published by TELL. It used to be in hard copy. Where is it today? Only online. A number of publications have gone online. It shows that online has been a potent threat.

But then, I have also attended conferences of the World Editors’ Forum twice, where the focus was on the Challenges of Online. One was in Cape Town, and then I attended another one in Hamburg, Germany. Both focused on the online challenge. At those two conferences, you know what the consensus was? Online, yes, it’s a challenge, but the printed word would always be there. That was the consensus.

And I never forget two inferences they drew in one of those conferences. They talked about when radio first came. When radio first came, the noise was that, ha, this is the end of the printed word, particularly the newspaper. And you see that radio and newspaper ran pari passu for decades.

Then, when television came, ha, the noise was louder – ‘this will finally kill the printed word.’ Television: you can see, you can hear, why do you need to read again? But television ran for many decades, the printed word was still there. So now, the online has come. It has posed a challenge in terms of diminishing revenue. But the creative newspaper or magazine would remain alive.

What do I mean by ‘creative?’ When anything breaks now, you find out that by afternoon, if it breaks around midday for instance, two, three hours later, it is everywhere. For example: ‘Jonathan sacks IGP.’ That happened in the afternoon. The newspaper that goes to town the next day and says, “IGP fired,” would see that it is not bringing anything new to the market. But the newspaper that says, “Why IGP was fired” will be bought, because people want to know why.

So, the challenge is the challenge of creativity on those that run the newspapers. If they are creative enough, they will continue to sell, but if they continue to do things the old ways, their revenue base will be eroded.

Another challenge it brings is that, newspaper houses must then begin to have multiple streams of income. It used to be that the only stream of income was from newspaper sales and adverts, but now, you have to put on your thinking cap. What other ways can we make money?

For us at The Sun, we have identified awards. But then, you need to be careful that you don’t just give frivolous awards. People that are worthy of awards can be given. We do that annually. Then, Special Projects that can attract money. But if you depend just on copy sales and advertising, you may not make it.

That brings us to the question: how thin or wide is the line between ethics and the quest for profit? I see a conflict. People tend to say, if you talk about journalism ethics, and then you go ahead to make some money from the guy who’s doing the wrong thing, either through Special Projects or awards, then you can’t report him when he does something wrong.

   It’s an eternal combat (general laughter). It has been there, it will continue to be there. The onus is on those who run media houses to be able to discern between what would compromise you and what is just mere business.

For instance, we at The Sun, we do this annual awards. First, we are very, very careful about who we give. Two, there’s nothing that says that if our award winner runs into trouble some months later, we then close our eyes to that. No. We’ll report it, because, having won that award, he should be careful to become a paragon, a model in the society. So, if he goes to do what he should not do, we’ll report it.

Therefore, the onus is on those who run media houses: despite your Special Projects, despite the awards you give, don’t compromise ethics.

If you were asked to advise Mass Communication departments or Journalism schools in the country’s tertiary institutions on what they should be concentrating on in this day and age, in view of current developments, what advice will you give?

   I will say teach all that you teach now, the theoretical background, because in any profession, you need the theoretical background. But in some areas that are practical, send the students to media houses.

When they come for Industrial Attachment – six weeks, three months, at times one year, you ask yourself what they (lecturers) have been teaching them because they almost know nothing. Like I said before, there must be a blending between the practical and the theory.

The curriculum needs to be looked at, even if it means that there will be a national summit to look at Journalism curriculum in Nigeria. It’s very important. For instance, you find someone who comes out of journalism school, he is looking for a job, and you ask him, what have you published? He has not even published ‘a letter to the editor,” and he has spent four or five years, going through school. What can you do?

It used to be that, when we were looking for job, when we entered this profession, the first thing is, where are your (newspaper) cuttings? And you present your cuttings and they can fetch you jobs. But now, they come and you ask them, what have you published? Nothing. It shows that there’s a deficiency in the teaching of journalism. I believe everybody that goes through a journalism school and graduates, by that time, must have had some publications to his credit, even if it is letter to the editor.

     When they come to do Industrial Attachment with us, some that, maybe, come in through me, after I have sent them to where they would practice, I tell them, before you leave, come and show me what you have published. Most of them don’t come back. Throughout the six weeks or three months they spend, they won’t have a single byline because they don’t even have an idea how the thing is done.

Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Sun newspaper, Mr Femi Adesina (left), Secretary to the Federal Government, Pius Anyim and outgoing Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio (right) at an event.

Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Sun newspaper, Mr Femi Adesina (left), Secretary to the Federal Government, Pius Anyim and outgoing Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio (right) at an event.

But are you satisfied with the way journalism is being practiced now? People tend to criticize us a lot these days. You read a news item, you can’t find the five Ws and H. So many subjective contents are being dumped out there. Quality seems to be going down. Is the NGE concerned about this too?

   Yes, quality must always be an issue. We have our annual conferences every year. During that conference, we take a national issue which we tie the conference round; the conference opens on a Wednesday and closes on a Saturday. Saturday morning is the time we use for ourselves. All editors would sit down and we will look at the profession.

You need to see us. You need to see all our fellows, all these old men, when they begin to descend on the other editors. Ha, you need to see them. It’s like taking ourselves to the cleaners and I think it’s very good for the profession. We are usually very frank with ourselves. We look at issues, we look at standards, we look at everything – practices, ethics, developments in the industry. I think it’s some sort of peer review.

I know you’ve had many experiences, but can you put your finger on your most memorable experience as an editor?

Hmmm, many, many experiences. But this is one story I never forget. One day, I was editor of a daily paper, the Deputy Editor-in-Chief, God bless his soul, Dimgba Igwe, called me. He said he got reliable information that a local government chairman in Enugu was arrested with a truckload of AK 47 rifles. He asked that we publish.

I now said, instead of going ahead to publish the story, can I investigate it? He was a journalist, he said, “by all means, investigate, but the person who gave me the story is a reliable source,” and he told me that source. But I still decided to investigate.

It was during the time of Tafa Balogun as Inspector General of Police. I knew Tafa Balogun, I had access to him, so, I put a call through to him and said: ‘Sir, I learnt that a local government chairman in Enugu was arrested with a truckload of AK47 rifles.’ Tafa said: “In this country? I am the IG and I would not know?” He said Femi, hold on, don’t publish that story yet, I’ll get back to you.

Now, it was getting late. My Deputy Editor-in-Chief got back to me: “Have you got the story?” I said no. He said, “don’t let them (other newspapers) beat us to that story.” But I said let me cross check this thing properly.

When he was going home at about 7pm, he stopped by in my office and said, “have you tidied up the story?” I said no, the IG has not got back to me. The IG didn’t get back to me that day and I held that story, I didn’t use it.

The next morning, when my Editor-in-Chief didn’t see the story, he asked, “what is happening?” I said, let’s err on the side of caution. About midday, Tafa Balogun now called me. He said, Femi, yes, I have crossed-checked. It is true that a local government chairman in Enugu state was caught with a pump action rifle, which he had a license for..

And not a truckload of AK47 rifles….

   (General Laughter) A pump action rifle, just one, instead of a truckload of AK 47 rifles (more laughter)! So, triumphantly, I marched to my Deputy Editor-in-Chief’s office and gave him the information. He said, “you were right” (general laughter).

Ooh my goodness….

Imagine the ridicule that we would have landed ourselves in, if that story had been published. The libel case would never have ended. There were many other experiences, but I never forget that. And I use it to always tell people: check and double check (facts).

How do you relax sir? You are a very busy man, holding multiple meetings, attending conferences, managing a newspaper, and steering the Guild of Editors’ ship. How do you cope?

     I can tell you that in my entire career, this is the busiest time of my life because I need to juggle the Guild plus running The Sun. But I have also learnt to devolve responsibilities. In the Guild, the structure is that you have vice presidents in three zones. So, if something is happening in one zone and I cannot go, I call the vice president in that zone and say, please, attend this.

And also in The Sun, if I need to go for Guild activities, I have people, Executive Directors, who stand in to do things for me.

But how do you handle occasional unjustifiable personal attacks, when people criticize you wrongly without knowing the facts?

   You know, it’s just human. It can be very dispiriting. You feel disappointed and you ask yourself, is it really worth it? But then, you also realize that this is all about service.

I remember when we were campaigning for Guild’s presidency in 2013. I needed to go round the entire country. There was one day, I left Lagos, flew to Port Harcourt, held meetings in Bayelsa with editors, slept overnight, the next morning, from Bayelsa to Port Harcourt by road, Port Harcourt to Enugu by air, I just asked myself, what did I put myself into really? (laughter). How did I find myself in this thing? But then, you remember that it is about service to your own association.

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