Nigerian Media: Balancing Professionalism, Advocacy And Business

Nigerian Media: Balancing Professionalism, Advocacy And Business

Thursday, September 21, 2017 2:28 pm

Azubuike Ishiekwene

By Azu Ishiekwene

What, really, is the business of the media? I suspect that if this question were opened to the floor there would be as many answers as there are editors. You might also be surprised that even editors working in the same media organisation would have significantly different answers.

There’s nothing wrong with that. There will be those who would say, “The business of the media is to sell space.” Another editor might say, “We’re in the business of publishing news.” While another might respond, “What do you mean? We’re in the business of creating communities.” And yet another editor might say, “You know what, our job is to mirror society.”

There’s no wrong answer. The editor who says the business of the media is to sell space is saying what happens in a number of media organisations these days where editorial and advert sales functions have dramatically and frighteningly fused.

The editor who says he’s in the business of news publishing will lock horns with the advert manager if there was ever a threat of encroachment into the slot for news, while the editor who is concerned about creating communities will be interested in the social media extensions of mainstream content.

As for the mirror editor, he’s probably your straight news guy, with no care in the world about meaning, context and the like – until sales begin to drop.

But as I said, it does not make any answer right or wrong. It however does something more fundamental: it’s a vital insight on how the resources of the media organisation would be allocated. How we perceive what we’re doing and the importance we attach to it determine the level of resources and energy we allocate to it and, therefore, the result that we get.

A media organisation with senior editors who seriously think they do all of the above and even more; that is, selling space, publishing, creating community and being a mirror all at once, will dissipate its resources to achieve all of these things.

The conference

It would achieve some measure of success, of course. But it would ultimately suffer from the chronic anaemia that has afflicted much of the media for the last 20 years or so during which at least 25 major newspaper and magazine brands have folded*, advertising dwindled, circulation crashed to a combined figure of less than 120,000 copies and audiences moved in droves to video games, sports betting and Netflix.

We need to ask ourselves again: What really is the business of the media? What business are we into as editors, the professional backbone of media practice? The topic I have been invited to speak on, “Nigerian Media: Balancing Professionalism, Advocacy and Business,” suggests that the media should – or can – do many things at once. In a world of multitasking and activity addiction, that sounds cool, even enchanting.

But I have never been a fan of high wire walking, and it appears to me that one of the biggest problems with the media today is a love of high wire acts – acts that have drained it of the most vital nutrient for its survival, sustenance and renewal. That nutrient is focus.

Let me at this point, colleagues, share with you a story: my business odyssey in the last two years. I think you should lend me your ears (and your hearts, too), because before venturing into business, I had the privilege of working, for a combined period of nearly 28 years, in two media houses with two completely different business cultures.

The first, PUNCH, is a laser-focused mono-product specialist; while the second, LEADERSHIP, has divergent and diversified business interests ranging from property to education, book publishing and conferences, much like the PUNCH of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

When I was leaving LEADERSHIP in January 2015, I had the benefit of two different business cultures; but in answering the inescapable question, what next, I realised that if I wanted to succeed, I had to face and be focused on just one thing and one thing alone – what I could do best.

I knew that was the right thing to do, but I’m sure that a number of you might agree that the rat race is hard to resist. I defied the commonsense narrative that I had told myself that it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t resist the temptation to be like the editors who framed the topic of this Keynote: I wanted to be a professional, an advocate and a businessman, all at once.

In a rat race – or rodentry – to use a more contemporary word from our Presidential Villa – more than one road leads to the market. So, we set out.

We invested in equipment including pre-press, printing and post-printing, European-sourced machinery, hired printers and machine operators and, of course, hired part of a warehouse in Kubwa to join the league of the who-is-who in Abuja printing and publishing.

But keep in mind that even though I’ve worked for nearly 30 years as a journalist and have had the privilege of directly managing printing presses in executive capacity over that time, printing has never been my core competence or focus.

Yet, within a short time of our opening shop, I noticed that 80 percent of our energy was going into managing the printing presses and the printers and operators, not to mention the supply chain of consumables and other related demons. The effort was not commensurate with the returns.

The diversification into printing and publishing was not a bad thing in itself, but hardware was never our core competence. To save our business, we had to focus on the single most critical thing we know best: journalism, or, to put it slightly differently, providing meaningful content. That was how we started The Interview magazine.

You can learn all the acts of balancing professionalism with advocacy and business, if you are an editor, until and unless you get your journalism right and pursue it with single-minded focus, you will be wasting your time.

If our profession is in trouble today, it’s because we, the professionals, have sacrificed journalism on the altar of business and poor ethics.

Section 22 of the 1999 constitution charges the press to hold government accountable to the people. The Nigerian press has a heritage of resisting oppressive governments and standing up to bullies, in whichever guise they come.

We must ask ourselves how far we have defended and maintained this heritage, as a public trust. However we may dislike the non-legacy press, thank God for their courage and aggressiveness. The profession would have been poorer without these.

I’m absolutely convinced that robust and honest journalism is the one thing that we have been called to do; the thing that, once we get it right, other things will fall in place. It’s the thing without which any talk of advocacy or business will be a striving after wind.

This sounds like what we all know. Aren’t there some nuggets on business and advocacy that we can take away? Aren’t there practices or habits we can set aside in the quest for not just honest editorship but also to make our media organisations profitable businesses as well? In short, is focus on honest journalism and the pursuit of business incompatible?

I’m aware that many editors wear two caps – publisher and editor (or even editor-in-chief). I’m also aware that a number of editors are still employees, while not a few are kings and queens of the side hustle. In whichever camp we find ourselves, we often play the egg and chicken game, asking ourselves, why not good business first and, then, good journalism second? What’s the use of good journalism and bad business anyway?

I will not concede that single-minded focus on honest, ethical journalism is unhealthy for business, especially if we keep a long-term view. But let me share with you a number of practices/situations that I believe have been inimical to the business of journalism:

· Wastage (internally generated): For newspapers, for example, think about the cost of maintaining printing machines (cost of spare parts, competence of operators, etc.) and other printing-related infrastructure, not to mention the obsession to be “national” newspapers, when we have yet to become provincial titles; for those in broadcasting, the wastage could be in form of investments in massive transmitters that quickly become obsolete. Another big headache is the sheer size of the buildings of some of the more established brands and the cost of maintaining the buildings, not to mention the cost of managing branch offices, relative to newer, nimbler competitors, rising costs and falling income.

· Lack of transparency: The West African Pilot 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. Without audited figures, the print media will continue to grope in the dark. The ownership structure of most media houses (print and broadcast) and weak regulation by the appropriate official authorities allow a number of owners to get away with poor governance practices to the detriment of the business

· Poor adoption of technology: I don’t know how many industries are left without self-service. Technology has made self-service possible and efficient for nearly all forms of businesses. How many media houses have self-service advert departments, for example?

· Data: This is getting better, largely because of competition and demand for value. Open source analytic tools have made access to data easier and less contentious, especially for online platforms. But are we letting data guide our business and editorial decisions and helping us innovate or are we still steeped in the practice of rewarding what we cannot measure? There is a serious lack of the capacity to harvest and commoditise data; and editors who take this area seriously will do better than the laggards.

· Ethics: I’m not so bothered about what media owners do as I am about what editors that run the media do on the job. Owners will have interests – partisan, economic, religious or philanthropic. But editors are supposed to be the professional backbone, providing balance, context, direction and leadership. Can we look ourselves straight in the eye and say that is the case today? How can unethical media be taken seriously as advocates, except, of course, as advocates of vested interests!

· Training (especially in economic literacy): Editors are leaders; that is, as long as they continue to invest themselves perpetually in learning, especially in the economics of the business, and also maintain lifestyles that will enhance their productivity

· Environmental factors (externally generated): Apart from owning their own newsgathering, processing and distribution infrastructure, most media houses also have to provide their own electricity, construct their roads, provide their own water and contend with multiple taxes or levies. I don’t know about the ease of doing business; but I could write a book on the unease, the hostile and extremely unstable business environment in which we all operate. To survive in this ecosystem, there’s need to share and compare notes, a rare but necessary thing for growth and survival.

For the benefit of the Nigeria Guild of Editors as a group, I would like to make a few suggestions, because I know they have a tenure and need money to do a few things for which they will be remembered for good. I was a member of the Board of the World Editors Forum, before a few of us renegades branched out to start the Global Editors Network (GEN), which today – just six years later – is the largest cross platform of editors in the world – and quite profitable, too!

I’m not suggesting for one minute that we should adopt, wholesale, everything that GEN is doing. But if we want to be more professional, if we want to be worthy advocates, if we want to build a successful professional and business brand, if WE want to be taken seriously, then we must take immediate and urgent steps to free ourselves from the apron strings of political patrons. I’m concerned that there’s currently too much reliance on political patronage than is healthy for our integrity and long-term survival. We can be free, if we choose.

Here are a few steps I will recommend:

· Hire a proven executive director (call him/her whatever) that will have specific, measurable business targets.

· Get sponsorships from any of the global media giants, with interest in media in developing countries (but you need house-cleaning to succeed in that!)

· Create open, periodic value-driven conversations that will sufficiently interest partnership with corporates

· Start periodic research-driven solutions for media and allied industries

· De-emphasise physical structures, think network and people

· Create and maintain website/social-media platforms befitting a 21st century professional group

· Build networks with other professional groups, especially in more developed, open media environments

· Rejuvenate the Ethics & Disciplinary Committee and let the public know how they may approach it, if they have any complaints.

· Publish audited accounts

As you may have noticed, I have deviated – that’s the price that you sometimes pay when speaking on a wide-ranging subject. I will, however, at this point return to the subject matter: focus.

We must, as editors, raise our game. Single-minded focus on journalism is the strongest form of advocacy I can think about. And focus is not detrimental to business.

In my few years and limited experience in business, when the going got tough and the flood waters threatened, I asked myself what we needed to do to stay afloat, only one answer kept coming back to me repeatedly: journalism, damn good journalism.

(Show the video made by journalists in Russia’s 4th largest city).

This video, I think, is a good example of damn good journalism: I recommend it to you today.

Thank you

…Keynote Address At The 13th All Nigeria Editors’ Conference (ANEC), September 20 – 24, 2017, Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt, Rivers State By Azu Ishiekwene FNGE, MD/Editor-In-Chief, The Interview

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