A Thought for the Watchdog

By Louis Odion
Technology is undoubtedly impacting journalism in the manner not many anticipated and, so, only a few are able to adapt. The concept of time and space is being aggressively redefined. The newsroom is no longer demarcated by walls. The market becomes invisible. The consequence: more and more professionals of old are the new casualties of the emerging digital divide.
The foregoing tectonic shift in the media landscape provided a perfect backdrop for a 2-day conversation at the 13th All Nigerian Editors Conference and Extraordinary Convention held at the iconic Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt last week with the theme, “Nigerian Media: Balancing Professionalism, Advocacy and Business”.
Given the relevance of the topic, little wonder that the turnout was staggering. It was a parade of generations of editors. From professional patriarchs/matriarchs like Ismaila Isa Funtua, Segun Osoba, Najeem Jimoh, Ray Ekpu, Nduka Obaigbena, Kabiru Yusuf, Bayo Onanuga, Emma Agu, Comfort Obi to Dupe Ajayi-Gbadebo.
From Dele Momodu, Victor Ifijeh, Tony Onyima, Tony Akiotu, Eniola Bello, Raheem Adedoyin, Gbemiga Ogunleye, Tunde Ipinmisho, Eric Osagie, Bonnie Iwuoha, Waheed Odusile, Gbenga Aruleba, Shola Oshunkeye, Simon Kolawole, Steve Osuji, Steve Nwosu, Rose Moses, Kelly Elisha, Azuh Arinze, Ali M. Ali, Ray Echebiri, to Abraham Ogbodo.
Excited Guild President, Mrs. Funke Egbemode, attested: “This is largest gathering of Nigerian editors we have had under one roof in recent times.”
Long before the economic recession was formally declared by the Nigerian state, the media industry had surely long been afflicted. As Times editor 35 years ago when national population was less than 70 million, Ekpu recalled that his paper sold over half a million copies. Today, with the population now over 180m, dozens of national dailies hardly sell up to 150,000!
This has resulted in exceedingly hard times in the industry with editors and reporters often left to endure irregular pay.
To simply assume diminishing income is the only factor will be reductionistic. The keynote speaker, Azubuike Ishiekwene (of the wave-making The Interview magazine) argues that only a return to “robust and honest journalism” offers the hope of recovery. The sort that gives readers value for money.
With the deep encroachment of social media, today’s media entrepreneurs need to bring depth and perspective to breaking news to attract readers and retain their loyalty thereafter.
To put the current decline in bold relief, Azu shocked the packed hall by dredging up a piece of history: “The West African Pilot (founded by immortal Nnamdi Azikiwe) of Thursday, May 19, 1938, Vol. 1, No 148, had on its front left ear the net circulation figure for the previous week: 8,264 copies. Seventy-nine years later, in 2017, newspapers are hiding their print figures under the table.”
Of course, circulation figures are being fiercely kept secret in order to keep advertisers.
To survive the harsh economic climate, discussants agreed the time has come for managers of the media business to tweak their models to focus more on content where their core competence lies and explore means of outsourcing problematic aspects like printing and transport to professionals in order to maximise their bottomline. These two cost centres often dig the biggest holes in the balance sheet.
Smart investors might, therefore, wish to take advantage of this window by setting up a concern that provides printing solutions at competitive rates.
In the 80s, for instance, MKO Abiola’s Concord Group floated the idea of Bulk Delivery with a view to helping the industry achieve cost efficiency in haulage.
But big ego would not allow competitors take advantage of this relatively cheaper option. Some felt it was like exposing their miserable rump to a rival. So, they continued to hemorrhage in silence until their publications finally disappeared.
Expectedly, the conversation was most animated when it entered the material welfare of the editor. Of course, opinions were divided on ethical limitations vis-a-vis the hot pursuit of bread and butter. Those who, disillusioned by reports of veterans reduced to indigence, therefore argued passionately that the editor should not shy away from taking advantage of any opportunity to better themselves materially were readily countered by the idealists who harp on the ethics of the profession.
On the other hand, some mooted the idea of the editor “not eating alone”. That is, they should not pursue their own prosperity in so exclusive a manner that leaves their organization to die of starvation. Holders of this view were, of course, also reminded of the ethical obligations of the fourth estate of the realm as the designated custodian of the society’s moral boundaries.
Fiery as the fireworks were from both ends of the spectrum, the consensus at the end of the day is that the hour has come for the editor to wake up from complacency, if not lethargy. The pressure of work is no excuse for them not to seek to acquire other skill/proficiency which may become handy after relinquishing the editorial throne.
They were also advised to cultivate lifestyle that is sustainable when no longer the darling of the high and the mighty. The glamour of the office should not occlude them from saving for the rainy day. Financial literacy is critical.
There were few success testimonies. Someone recalled how taking a degree in law on a part-time basis became her fall-back position after a career in journalism. Another narrated how a modest amount invested in a piece of land in Abuja from a personal saving as editor yielded more than fourteen-fold capital appreciation when the property was sold few years later.
The other highlight of the event was the review of the constitution of the Guild with new far-reaching provisions to reflect the growing influence of electronic newspapers as well enable more transparency in the Guild’s administration.
As is customary, the convention climaxed with a review of infrastructural strides by the host, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State. And “Mr. Project” has a surfeit to showcase. Those interested joined the tour of a number of ongoing projects within the Garden City. We helicoptered to Bori in the heart of Ogoniland where the administration unveiled re-constructed Birabi School and Abonema where massive sand-filling of the swamp was ongoing to build a road to link the community to the jetty.
Of the sites visited, the most significant – if not sentimental – is, in my view, the effort to uplift the Creek waterside as part of the urban renewal initiative in Port Harcourt. When completed, it will give a new lease of life to estimated 40,000 people among the urban poor. One of its features is an ultra-modern jetty to provide for the swamp-dwellers a better access to the oil city.
The Creek waterside rehabilitation was listed in the citation for the recent United Nation commendation for the Wike administration on environment regeneration.
On a jovial note, the governor and his aides would, however, not be drawn into reacting to comments by the opposition lest “We donate political oxygen to our opponents now gasping for breath in Abuja”, insisting “They usually tender newspaper comments against Wike for relevance in Abuja”, but “We will rather remain focused on working for Rivers people”.
Overall, for the Nigerian editors, it was no doubt a convention for deep introspection for a new self-awareness. 

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My error on Stalin
Contrary to my claim in last week’s piece as regard the circumstances under which Joseph Stalin’s uttered “How many division does the Pope command?”, it was unrelated to the demise of Pope John Paul II. It was one of the occasions my spell/fact check software failed me before production deadline. Apologies to readers for committing what could be mistaken in today’s Nigeria as “hate speech” against the memory of the likable Pope.
First, Stalin predeceased the Polish-born Pope by about half a century.
Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah was among readers who wrote to draw my attention to the error of fact. He was gracious enough to provide more illumination:
“First, I was at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and had a good front seat and  I  can attest that I did not see Joseph Stalin there. He could not be there because he died on 5th March, 1953 while Pope John Paul II was buried, April 18th, 2005. If he resurrected, he definitely was not at the Vatican that day.
“Secondly, true, the much used quotation belongs to Joseph Stalin, but he made the point in response to the French whose government had requested that Stalin stop persecuting the Catholic Church.. He spoke to the then French Foreign Minister, Mr. Pierre Laval in 1935.
“I hope this clarification helps the readers of your much respected column.”
Many thanks to the Bishop, J.O.O. (a.k.a “London Boom”) and my brother, Prince Emeka Obasi, and others too numerous to mention. 

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