THE FUTURE OF THE NEWSPAPER, AND OF THE GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN
By Femi Adesina
Text of lecture to mark the 20th anniversary of City People magazine, by Mr. Femi Adesina, Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, to President Muhammadu Buhari. May 20, 2016.
It’s my pleasure to be here to deliver this lecture. It is for me always heart-warming to find myself back amidst colleagues, fellow pushers of the pen, as we are known by outsiders.
This lecture will be a combination of two themes, each one of them dear to my heart. One has to do with the fate of the printed word in the age of the Internet and Social Media, and the other has to do with my experiences in making a transition from the newsroom, after 29 years as a journalist and editor, to the corridors of government. Both have a lot in common, which I shall get to later.
Let me speak about the impact of the internet on the journalism profession, particularly, the newspaper. The starting point is this: The newspaper has been dying for a long, long time, not only in Nigeria, but also around the world. If there is one obituary that keeps being re-written and re-issued, it is that of the newspaper.
It is of course the oldest of the forms of mass communication that are still with us today. In 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria – it wasn’t even called Nigeria then – was founded. Iwe Irohin, a Yoruba newspaper by the Anglican Missionary, Henry Townsend. Radio did not show up until when the British expanded the BBC’s broadcast to the colony of Nigeria. Television followed in 1959, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo launched Nigeria’s first television station, in Ibadan.
At every one of these moments when a new means of mass communication showed up, and began to quickly democratize itself across the population, it felt like print had come to the end of its road. Radio and Television carry the appearance of being more engaging than print, considering that they offer us the chance to see and hear human beings, unlike a newspaper that is a static medium, cold ink on dry paper, with no element of human interaction in the form of a voice or a moving image.
But print refused to be fazed by either of these revolutions. Even as television gained ground in the 1970s, we had newspapers like the Daily Times, printing and selling more than half a million copies daily.
Even in the difficult 1980s, when a combination of military rule and economic problems afflicted the country, newspapers and magazines thrived. A new generation of investigative and boldly confrontational journalism was born in Nigeria of the 1990s, with the advent of Tell Magazine, The News, Tempo, and the others that followed in their steps.
In the 1990s, a wave of ‘liberalisation’ hit the radio and television airwaves, and an industry that had long been dominated by state-owned media suddenly found itself the darling of private investors. Today there are scores of TV and radio stations in Nigeria; most of them privately owned. And there’s evidence to suggest that we’ve only just seen the tip of that iceberg. With the recent commencement of the switchover to digital television, we are going to see a lot more TV stations emerging.
And then there is the Internet. If TV and radio were the mediums that emerged to stun newspapers, then the Internet was supposed to be its undertaker; the medium that would lay it to final rest.
And the numbers appear to strongly support that. Every month, 16 million Nigerians use Facebook. That’s a number that newspapers can only dream about. There are more than 150 million mobile phone lines in Nigeria; and more than half of them are connected to the Internet. Our mobile phones are our constant companions. It is not unlikely that there are many young people in Nigeria who have never bought a newspaper in their lives. But all of them would be regular buyers of Internet data, and regular consumers of online news.
The appetite for news has not diminished in any way, but the means by which people satisfy that appetite has undergone transformative change.
“We all currently do our journalism in the teeth of a force-12 digital hurricane,” said Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of the UK Guardian, in the memo he wrote recently while stepping down from a position he was due to take up later this year, as Chairman of the Trust that owns the revered paper. Under his long watch as editor, he transformed the venerable print newspaper into a digital giant. But like many other papers around the world, the UK Guardian is struggling. Many other popular publications that dominated the market in the past have either vanished, or are only online now. Talk about Reader’s Digest, Newsweek, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Broadstreet Journal, and many others.
In Nigeria we saw PM News become an online-only publication last year. This is the reality of the age in which we live. And yet amidst the upheaval, I still retain a strong conviction that the newspaper is here to stay. Circulation numbers may dip, and appetites may wane somewhat, but the printed newspaper will continue to be an important part of our lives for a long time to come.
I am willing to bet that the much predicted demise will not happen. I might of course be biased, having enjoyed a long and fulfilling career in that field. I have watched technology transform the way we reported, contacted sources, met deadlines and even printed our papers.
In 2013, the American billionaire, and one of the world’s richest people, Warren Buffett, said: “I believe that newspapers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time.” A “sensible internet strategy.” That is what Nigerian newspapers need, as it currently does not exist.
Perhaps I am biased, but I very much share the optimism that the newspaper won’t die. Let me paraphrase the American writer and humourist, Mark Twain, and say that rumours of the demise of the newspaper are very much exaggerated. But survival will depend on how creative you can be as investors, stakeholders, and professionals.
Writing in a magazine called Financial Nigeria, Jide Akintunde, in an essay titled ‘The bad news that hit Nigerian media and journalism,’ posited that “the future of a professional Nigerian media is far from assured.” He says further bad news has hit the mainstream media through a formidable disruption, which is the social media, and then submits:”The charlatans of the social media, relieved of organisational wisdom and ethical considerations, are trumping professional journalism.”
Very well said. But then, look at these two pieces of good news from across the seas. Last week, The Times of London ran these headlines:”Readers shun ebooks and rediscover the pleasures of paper.” The second one;”Daily Mail publisher appoints digital guru as chief.” The two stories indicate that more people are returning to patronising the printed word, as opposed to the electronic version. And a giant newspaper conglomerate appointed a digital guru as chief executive, rather than a core journalist. These show that we need to tweak our business models as demanded by the exigencies of time and technology. The publications that reinvent themselves and their business models will always survive. Gone are the days when you can survive on just one product line. You need to have multiple streams of income, even while still keeping an eye on your core calling, which is newspapering.
The second theme I would like to address, is a much more personal one. It is, like the fate of the newspaper in the age of digital, a matter related to my professional life, but it is also very personal in the sense that it has to do with the interesting transition I have made, from being a journalist and a private citizen, to being a government official.
In less than two weeks, it’ll be one year since I took office, as Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity. I am of course following in the steps of a number of professional colleagues, all of whom you know. Before I talk about how my appointment came to happen, I think I should provide some context for the relationship between myself and President Buhari – this is something I have also previously written and spoken about. My admiration for him actually started when he was in office as military head of state, in the 1980s. I was at University then, and was impressed by his single-minded dedication to making Nigeria a better country, and tackling the rot and corruption that had long plagued us. I was of course disappointed when he was overthrown, and excited when, many years later, he joined partisan politics and decided to offer himself as a candidate for the presidency of Nigeria. I have been a passionate supporter of his ambitions since then; readers of my weekly column in the Sun Newspaper will be able to attest to this. What I found interesting was that from time to time, I would write about him in the column and he would get in touch with me on the phone and we would discuss it. He was often full of gratitude. I actually did not get to meet him in person until about 2009. In 2013, he pleasantly surprised me by attending the christian service for the funeral of my mother. I had sent him an invitation, but had no idea he would attend. He sat through the entire service. And that was a man some people had wrongly labelled religious bigot.
I’ve taken the time to lay out this context in the hope that it will provide some background to the circumstances that triggered my decision to transit from being a journalist and editor and ‘newspaper-man’, to a presidential spokesman. I have always believed that President Buhari would be a great President of Nigeria. I have always been impressed by his qualities – his personal incorruptibility and strong desire to see Nigeria break free from the curse of corruption, his commitment to Nigeria’s teeming poor, the lowly, and downtrodden.
And so for me, getting a chance to work for and with him has been a privilege, and an opportunity to support a man I have long admired, to enable him implement his vision for the country.
One question many of you will be asking is this: Did I ever imagine that I would one day find myself on the other side of the divide, the proverbial ‘Other Side’?
No and Yes, I would say. Let me say that I never really had any desire to work in government. I had, at the time of my appointment, two high-profile and influential jobs, one as Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Sun newspapers, as you all know one of the highest-circulating papers in the country; the other as the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. My hands were full, as they’ve always been throughout my working career. I had also actually just been re-elected for a second term as President of the Editors’ Guild, having already completed one term of two years. It is easy to see why I can say I was not looking for another job, and certainly not in the uncertain waters of politics.
But – there had always been a caveat to this stance. Never say never, the old saying goes. It had always occurred to me that there was a possibility of shifting my position regarding serving in government – on one condition, and no more – that the government in question was one headed by President Buhari.
On the day he was declared the winner of the Presidential elections, I got a surprise phone call from him, during which he thanked me for my support over the years. Yet another pleasant surprise. I had elected to stay away because I knew that in the post-election euphoria, he would be under a lot of pressure both from well-wishers and from people seeking one favour or the other from him. But I could not escape for long. I got an offer, thought much and consulted widely about it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Here I am working for the only man with the power and moral authority to draw me from the newsroom to the presidential villa.
I have touched on two seemingly disparate themes – one about the survival of newspapers in a digital age, the other about moving from the newsroom to the corridors of power. Seemingly disparate, but only on the surface. You only need to scratch a little deeper, and realise that both narratives share a great deal in common: they are about transition, about the inevitability of change, and the importance of seeking to always adapt to changing times and circumstances.
If there is one thing the newspaper and I share in common, it is that we are both trying to do our work in an age that has been ‘disrupted’ by social media and digital technologies. Earlier on, I quoted Alan Rusbridger: “We all currently do our journalism in the teeth of a force-12 digital hurricane.” Every government spokesperson today could easily – and accurately – rephrase that as “We all currently do our communicating in the teeth of a force-12 digital hurricane.” Just as printed newspapers have to struggle to cope with mobile devices and applications and changing habits and news consumption patterns, government spokespersons also have to deal with staying on top of their game in a world where everyone has a means of expressing their sentiments and opinions directly to the world.
As a government communications person in the 1990s, you only had to deal with a finite number of editors from the print and electronic media. Even the underground media, in the vanguard of the opposition to military rule, could be counted on your fingers.
In 2016, you’re dealing with a vastly changed world. With the profusion of digital publishing tools, one now has to deal with an unlimited number of publishers and editors and bloggers and citizen journalists. The traditional gatekeepers of news have got and are still getting a massive challenge from the new kids on the block. The publication conventions of print newspapers and radio and television bulletins have been upended by the ceaseless 24-hour news cycle.
There are upsides to the revolution, but it also has its downsides. We are in an era where –as a recent profile of President Obama’s communications strategy, written by Michael Grunwald and published in Politico, put it – “conflict is the click of the realm, where lies travel at the speed of tweet while the truth is still annotating its Medium post.”
While government is still crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on a press release, falsehood is already trending on social media. Unfortunately in most cases there are no consequences for online irresponsibility, but that is a discussion for another day.
In one sense it is easy to argue – and only half-jokingly – that the newspaper and the government spokesperson are both endangered species. But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side of the story is that there is no better time than in situations like this, for reinvention. We need to constantly be asking ourselves – how do we continuously make ourselves relevant in changing circumstances. As the president’s spokesman, I have had to become a lot more familiar with social media. I had no choice in the matter; it’s the reality of our age. I have had to balance my thinking like a newspaperman and newsroom editor with thinking like a digital ‘native’ – how might this press statement be mis-interpreted once it makes its way into the public square that is Twitter or Facebook; what kind of reception should we be anticipating for this announcement.
Twenty years ago, City People burst on the national scene as a unique celebrity magazine. It has made strides, and done good business, bringing returns to the investors and stakeholders. But is the business model today the same as it was 20 years ago? It can’t be. Are the stories that excited the market 20 years ago the same as today? No. Therfore, my conclusion is that the printed word is under a heavy barrage. But just as it survived the onslaughts of radio, of television, it will also survive the digital media. But that would not be without great creativity from the professionals and stakeholders.
Thank you for listening.