Survival of The Print Media in The Digital Age

Jan 10 2019 - 6:03pm

Victor Ifijeh

 

By Victor Ifijeh

His Excellency, Mr. Femi Pedro; Our distinguished elders in the profession; A former Editor; Former newspaper administrator, Dr. Doyin Abiola; The Commissioner for Information, Lagos State, Mr. Kehinde Bamigbetan; The President, Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, Mukhtar Sirajo; The Celebrant himself, the man I call Bambani – Gbemiga Bambani Ogunleye. He also calls me Bambani.

The story of ‘Bambani’

You may wonder why we call each other Bambani. Gbenga Omotosho is also Bambani; he is not yet here. I believe he is on his way. Many years ago, we were together, just having fun, and we were discussing the profession – Headline casting – and then one Chief Ayo Rosiji, a prominent politician died. And many newspapers papers just wrote: “Ayo Rosiji”. But the Comet newspaper added the name: Bambani. So we now called Gbemiga Ogunleye and asked him, “What do you mean by Bambani? He said, Aahh! When he wrote “Ayo Rosiji”, the Editor-in-Chief came and said, “Oooh, you people don’t have sense of history. This man should be celebrated. He was a distinguished politician. And people of his age knew him as Bambani. When a man like this dies you don’t just write his name, the headline should also capture the essence of his life. That is why you must add the name, Bambani.”

And all of us were on the ground, laughing. From that day, the name, Bambani stuck. And Gbemiga, being a jovial man, would see me and say: “Bambani!” I would see him and also call him, “Bambani!” The author, Gbemiga Ogunleye.

How I met Gbemiga

In actual fact, we met in 1993 (This ceremony is turning out to be a celebration of June 12). And it was on June 12 that Gbemiga and I met, far away in Bauchi State. I was in Concord newspaper on the political desk as assistant political editor. Gbemiga was with The Guardian. (So Martins Oloja, (former Editor of The Guardian) you will be happy now that I am giving credit to The Guardian).

And of course, that was the era of open ballot. We were in Bauchi but some policemen didn’t want us to get close to the venue of the election. I insisted that I will be there. A certain policeman corked his gun, thinking that that would frighten me. I stood my ground. Gbemiga joined me. He said we must be there to capture the event of that moment.

What happened? We prevailed. We were allowed into the election precinct and we reported it for our respective newspapers. Since then, Gbemiga and I, even though we have known each other by reputation, became very close. I went to Thisday; he went to so many other newspapers before he found himself in The Punch as Editor, and I was Editor.

Death of Bola Ige

Then Bola Ige died. We got the story by 1: 00 a.m., dashed back to the office, and did everything we could do, with the Editor-in-Chief, Nduka Obaigbena (many people don’t know he is a consummate reporter) who joined us in the production of that paper. We got the paper out, happy, believing that we were the only newspaper that carried the story. Of course we looked at The Punch; Punch was a major competitor as it has always been. So we were happy, celebrating. Then Gbemiga called me to say, “Victor, I heard you people are celebrating. We also have the story. I said “no, you don’t have the story. The Punch I have with me here has another story as lead.” He said “you are joking. We did another edition.” He had left his Idimu at about 2:00 a.m., to Onipetesi and produced a paper carrying the latest story! That is Gbemiga for you. Azu called him a passionate journalist; that is true – very, very true. Each time, when we were editors, we compared notes. And I tell you, Gbemiga was on top of his job. And that he has demonstrated today by the choice of this topic. Another fellow would have thought of something else. But he chose this topic because of what journalism, worldwide is going through. I will try to be as simple as possible so that everybody will understand what I am saying. Let me now go to my paper. I am sorry I digressed:

Trying times for print journalism

These are trying times for print journalism the world over. Our beloved industry is facing unprecedented challenges. Publications are gasping for breath. The future looks uncertain. We are told the end of what we labour to produce is near. Print, we are told, will go into extinction, ten years from now, some have said. They hinge their prediction on technological advancement – the impact of the Internet. Doubtless, the internet has transformed our lives. It has steered a revolution of sort in the world of business. New ways of transacting business are evolving. Every field of human endeavor is affected. In banking, transactions have been made easy. With your phones, payment are made and received in the comfort of your home outside the shore of where you are domiciled. In aviation, you book your flight, check in by yourself, and pick your preferred seat, using your phone. With the internet, shopping has been simplified. I have a cousin who read chemical engineering. He has finished his youth service. He is at home looking for job but he is already a millionaire. How did he do it? He sells Forever Living products. And he uses his Facebook page to advertise the products, make payments, deliver to customers, and he is just having a ball. The Nation recently reported a wedding where a young lady who read law at Babcock University, did her youth service abroad, did her masters, came back and started trading on the internet, selling gold and jewelries, making good business and what next? She met her husband on the internet! In our field, information is now readily available. Its dissemination is now easier. With your Smartphone you can access whatever information you need, free of charge. You are also bombarded with a deluge of information – fresh and timely. Time and space are no longer barriers. News is delivered through multiple platforms: the social media, comprising Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Linkden, and traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio. The purveyor of news need no longer to be those whose primary duties are to keep citizens informed. Anybody who has access to his Smartphone and can string word together is at liberty to keep others informed. He can watch the news, and tell it his own way, using this preferred channel. Information is digitalized. The traditional way is being supplanted by the new media. Reliance on the old means is dwindling. The new way is the rave in town. This the age we live in today – the information age, the computer age, the age of the Internet.

 

Gbemiga Ogunleye

Everybody – a Reporter, Analyst, Publisher

Now, everybody who cares is a reporter, an analyst, a publisher. In 2006, when the newspapers hit the news stand, any time I was at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in the morning, I was always delighted to see passengers either holding or reading newspapers while waiting for their flights. These days, you see only a few people with newspapers. What you see nowadays are people reading something of interest on their phones. Readers are abandoning the print for the new media. The reasons are not far-fetched, some of which I have highlighted above. The news is delivered to them fast, well ahead of the print, and at no cost. The prevailing situation has impacted negatively on the print. There is migration from print to online. Circulation figures of newspapers are tumbling. Advertising revenue is shrinking. The digital revolution may not be the sole factor for dwindling newspaper revenue as is very obvious here in Nigeria. The print is also affected by the poor state of the economy. Like many manufacturing concerns, newspapers depend on large imported input for production. Foreign exchange, as you know, is hard to source. For months, you can be on the waiting list for forex at the official rate of N305 to $1. Few years ago, one US dollar was selling for less that N200 and was readily available. With the high exchange rate today, the landing cost of imported material for production is shot up by close to 100 percent. Cost of production has subsequently shot up. With rising cost, newspapers have shrunk in size. They have reduced pagination. The average newspaper today is 48 pages, except when you have adverts, then, you go to 56 or 64 pages. It does not really make sense. When we started in 2006, The Nation on Sunday was 80 pages. But the Editor dares not contemplate that today. He will be sacked instantly. There is no newspaper in Nigeria that prints today the quantity it printed 5 years ago. That is a fact. Gbenga Adefaye, you will agree with me. Azu will also agree with me. Then wait for this one: What percentage of what is being printed today is sold? When Dr. Abiola was Managing Director/ Editor-in-Chief of Concord Group, the Sunday Concord printed about 500, 000 copies. Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, as Editor of Sunday Times equally printed 500, 000 copies. Put together, is the circulation of Nigerian newspapers today up to 250, 000? I don’t know. Adefaye, you should answer this question. Newspapers are regarded by many as a non-essential item. And in a recession, such items are taken off the shopping list. However, the effect of the internet on print is more devastating. The digital revolution strikes at the core of the print business. Two years ago, proprietors of evening papers were smiling to the bank. In Nigeria, The Guardian Express, PM News, were doing very well. They were the first with breaking stories. But today, the online publications are the first to break the stories: the social media, as the stories are breaking you are getting them. You may be in Kotagora; you may even be in Egbeda or Idimu. They will get it before people in highbrow Magodo. This is the way we are. The new media came and displaced the evening publications. Now the new media are in fierce contest with morning publications. Also some years back, the soft sells were the favorite of those who love to know the latest about celebrities, the high and mighty and the super-rich. The soft sells had a field day. Then came the bloggers, gossip sites, whose targets are also the high and mighty. Today, many soft sell magazines are hemorrhaging. They are in the Intensive Care Units.

Statistics showing dwindling circulation

The figures will perhaps tell the story better. I have been blowing grammar. I deal with statistics; with figures. But to other countries, we must go this time around, as there are no verifiable circulation figures here in Nigeria. I will give it to Ogunsola – this is what he has been canvassing. We need an ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation). We hold others accountable. We preach transparency. We preach accountability, but in our own profession, how accountable are we? How transparent are we? We are too secretive. You will see this from what I am about to say. The ABC of newspapers (i.e. circulation statistics) released in May, 2018, in South Africa, show that total newspaper circulation declined by 4.4 percent, year on year. Daily newspapers declined by 15.7%; Weekly newspaper by 12. 5%. Then the local papers or community papers declined by 6%. And even free papers declined by 1.1%. In the first quarter of 2018, the largest circulating paper in South Africa, The Sunday Times of Johannesburg, reported a figure of 260, 132 copies. Another major newspaper, City Press, reported print-run of 58, 566 copies. In first quarter of 2014, Sunday Times of South Africa circulated 405, 458 copies. City Press sold 118, 676 copies. Both papers lost 50% of their circulations within 2 years. A 2015 study of Kenya Bureau of Statistics show that Daily English and Kuwasili newspapers in the country have continued to decline owing to the growth of online. The circulation of daily English newspapers in 2015 fell to 98, 548 copies from 102, 000 in 2014 – a drop of 3.4%. In the United States, analysis by the Pew Research Centre, based on filling by newspapers, with the Alliance for Audited Media, show that daily circulation, both print and digital, for US newspapers fell by 8% in 2016. Sunday papers also fell by 8%. Total daily circulation fell to 35 million; Sunday circulation – 38 million and the lowest since 1945, according to the centre. In 2014, the daily circulation was 40 million, down from 53 million in 2005, according to a study by KPMG. These are not my figures, not my statistics. On the decline of print in the US, the free fall is attributed to the rise of the internet. The story is the same in the United Kingdom, where circulation fell by 12% in 2015. In Germany, it fell by 3%, with perhaps the exception being India, where the ABC said circulation rose by 39.1 million copies in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016. You will ask, why India? Why is it rising in India? It is because in India, production materials are sourced locally to a large extent. They produce news prints, ink, printing presses. Indian machines are all over Nigeria. So India produces practically what newspapers consume. And because of that, newspapers are cheap. Even when the internet readership is going up, the print readership is equally going up because how much (are the newspapers sold?), one or two rupees – cheap, but here, there is a Sunday paper that sells for N400.

Dwindling advertising revenue

Data on advertising revenue also paints a dismal future for the print. Here, I will quote the statistics by Media Reach. The 2016 media facts reports published by Media Reach show that media advertising in 2016 was 18 billion from 24 billion in 2015. This was out of the total advertising earned of 91 billion in 2016 and 97.9 billion in 2015. In the US, between 2005 and 2015, the US newspapers advert revenue fell from 47.4 billion to 16.4 billion – a 60% fall. Advertisers, again, are migrating online to meet the readers who are also migrating. To say that the print is seriously challenged is an understatement. To say it is in decline is putting it mildly. In fact, a commentator said the print is dying slowly. The Independent and its sister publication in the UK, The Independent on Sunday, have died as prints. From 428, 000 copies (daily sales figure in 1986), The Independence could only sell 28, 000 copies, unless a day before it went into extinction as print. We have local examples here too: PM News, The Source, have all been rested as prints and gone digital. The Tell, occasionally you see it on the newsstands. Many newspapers have died. Some, as soon as they hit the market, they exited. The question is: What is the way out?

The way out for print media

As papers are dying, we have strong digital publications (online newspapers) also coming up. We have Premium Times, Cable; these are good online digital publications. They are breaking news and doing what the print is doing editorially, sometimes, better. So what is the way out for prints? Let me repeat what I proposed at the Guild of Editors Conference in Asaba, Delta State last October. Newspapers, I said, must seize the initiative from online platforms, many of which use contents from print to develop huge readership. By online, I am not referring to the digital publications like Premium Times or Cable – these are professionally run digital publications. But you have bloggers. You have people who say they are into online. What you see journalists do these days when they are out of jobs and you ask them, “Old boy, how now, what are you doing?” and they will say, “Ah! I am in online.” What kind of online are you doing? READ

Journalists must come together

I have always recommended that journalists should come together. Come together, float a viable online platform. When Sanusi came (as CBN Governor), he carried out a stress test for banks, and saw that many of them were not doing well. He said, “Why don’t banks come together? It is better to hold 1% of something than to hold a 100% of nothing.” When journalists come together and float a very good online platform like the two I have mentioned, there will be more impact. They will do better than just sitting down lifting stories from papers and rewriting them – it does not work. We must seize the initiative from the online platforms. Many newspapers have the resources to develop credible and viable online platforms. But first, the attitude of media managers must change. Our attitude to online must change. Few years ago, Teddy Willy, a former MD/CEO of The Nigerian Daily Independent, advocated what he called Digital First Mentality. By that he meant that editors of newspapers should not see the digital versions of the publications as distractions, secondary, or inferiors to their print editions. We must consciously develop the online, and I tell you, some newspapers are doing very well.

Paying to read online newspapers

Let’s look at the example of New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Both are quality publications. They are keeping their prints and doing everything to boost their online. The Wall Street Journal, no apologies about it at all, is asking people to pay for its online publications. You have to pay. It should not be for free. Quality journalism is not cheap. You spend a lot of money to pursue stories and to do investigations. You can’t give your content out for free. It was not popular, but they were sure of themselves. Today, they have over one million digital subscribers, that is, you must pay for you to access the digital publication. It is the same thing with New York Times. Its approach is slightly different. It allows readers of its digital content to access not more than 10 articles a month free. To have unlimited access, you must subscribe fully. They call that Metered Subscription Model. And it has paid off also. You ask: Why are these two publications doing this? How are they able to do it? They are able to do it because they are into quality publications. They boast of their journalism, the journalism they deliver. Build your brand. Let your journalism be strong. Let it speak for you. In fact, the New York Times will say they want to be the destination of quality readers. Of course The Wall Street Journal is an economic publication. They have a lot of stories and analysis which business leaders love to read. So while boosting the online, we should also boost the print. This is why the two US publications are doing well. And that is the point I want to make now:

Content development and rebranding

There are no two ways about it. Many of us have been doing the same thing for many years believing that we know what the readers want. That is not true. It is an assumption, a costly assumption. It is like many of these companies many years ago that are into community relations ventures. They were deciding for their host communities what they wanted. And of course, they never got it right until they changed their approach. Newspapers should spend money on surveys. Don’t assume that you know what your readers want. From time to time, improve on your content. Rebrand your publications. The Guardian of London has rebranded. We must also turn our publications, both digital and prints, into marketplaces of ideas, and resist attempts to censor readers. Divergent views, no matter how critical they may be, must be accommodated in today’s digital world. Readers have many choices. If you gag them they move elsewhere. I know of a publication that said they will moderate comments. They started with the moderation, but you know what? The comments dried up. Some of those who were patronizing them migrated to Vanguard. We see them here – special publications. By this, I mean well-researched publications that are not advert-driven. Consider special publications with titles like “Bank that will not collapse.” How can you do such a thing? Where are the statistics, where are the figures? Of course in our country when bankers see such they will run to you and say, “Ah. We don’t want to collapse, so we want to be part of you.” It cheapens the media. We want to talk of banking annals – special publications. We can collaborate with KPMG, with reputable organizations, pay for it, and people will look forward to it. Put it on your online. Just do bits of it in the newspapers, then any newspaper, bank, or organization that wants the full report will pay for it. At Thisday, for example, we recruited Professor Ayo Teriba. And we said we wanted to be doing something that the Financial Times of London does. And we said it has to be research-based. He is an economist and he did it once, we made a lot of money from it, but we couldn’t keep Ayo Teriba. Today, that is what he does. He is the Chief Executive of Economic Associates. He publishes banking annals, economics report. Newspapers can do that. The resource persons are all over. They are in the universities, corporate world. Get them, pay them, and do publications that will lift the industry, not these publication we call man of the year, governor of the year, etc. These are rubbish. It cannot take us far. Rather, we will be sinking deeper and deeper to the abyss. Let us do something that will uplift the industry. After giving everyone award, soon we will no longer find anybody to give an award. Then what happens?
Wooing young audience

Then the young generation, how do we woo them? The demographic of readers have changed. Many under-14s access information from their phones and IT devices. The print is certainly not their favourite. We risk losing them forever except we give them what excites them. When we were in the universities, many of us were reading newspapers – popular columns. I was in UNILAG. I knew virtually all the columnist in the newspapers – that culture of reading newspapers was imbibed in us. But today’s youths who are in the universities, how many of them buy newspapers. It is online. So we must do something to woo this generation.

Consuming print products before payment

At the Asaba Editors’ Conference I advocated (and this is very important) a change in the business model of newspapers. For ages, the business has been run on credit, too much credit. Copies are given to agents on credit, adverts are published on credits, owners and managers of the business are at the mercy of advertisers. In other sectors, payment is made before services are rendered. But in newspapers, particularly with agents, you give the products to them, they are there, they have contributed nothing –no investment whatsoever – you give it to them free and they believe they are doing you a favour. Some of them will sell and remit whatever they want to remit. Then the debts pile up. Advertisers do the same thing too. This is why you have high collectibles in the prints. Some people believe that high collectibles are assets. But in today’s world of accounting, they will ask you, where is your accounting procedure; where is your manual? What is the age analysis of this debt, when did you say you must collect the debt? When they look at your books (and see that) the collectibles are high, you say, we have money to collect. They will tell you “no, you are going to make provision for this”. First, they make provision for them. It reduces your profit. The next time they come and you are unable to collect them they write them off! Chief Femi Pedro knows what I am talking about because it happens a lot in banking. And I tell you, it is the same thing all over because auditing is now the same. They will write them off.

The investment options – building capacity

Where are we looking at? We need to build capacity in the media. This is the digital age, we need to build capacity. We are still investing in machines. We want to do simultaneous printing. The era for that is gone. Newspaper companies set up presses everywhere. But today, the market has shrunk. What are we printing? Do we really need to invest in machines all over? Because when you do that you duplicate cost. Not only that, pilfering, whether we like it or not, will also be duplicated. Thisday has stopped printing (has shut down its press) but it is still in business and is doing well. So what I am saying is that investment in the media now must be the right one.

Corporate Governance

Then lastly, and this is important: Corporate Governance. Many of us don’t want to hear about this. Few papers have corporate governance. The owner/publishers do whatever they like because they own the business. There is no difference between the pulse of the owner and the pulse of the business. Bring people who are knowledgeable in a particular field. If the problem is finance, look for people who are knowledgeable in finance and bring them in and they will structure it. And let the board function very well. In fact, some of them don’t even have boards. Many don’t have boards. When we do that, we may be able to arrest this problem. These are my thoughts. I welcome yours. Thank you.

• Full text of the paper delivered by Mr. Victor Ifijeh, MD/Editor-in-Chief, The Nation on 5 January at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Ogba, Ikeja on the occasion of the 60th birthday of Gbemiga Ogunleye, provost of the institution

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