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At 33, The Guardian retools for better offering

By Kabir Alabi Garba
04 July 2016   |   4:54 am
The coincidence in the dateline is instructive. On Monday, July 4, 1983, The Guardian hit the newsstand as a daily newspaper, therefore, clocking 33 years old today, which is also a Monday.

The coincidence in the dateline is instructive. On Monday, July 4, 1983, The Guardian hit the newsstand as a daily newspaper, therefore, clocking 33 years old today, which is also a Monday. Five months earlier, February 27, 1983 precisely, the print media company, which had undergone over five years of painstaking incubation, began the journey of “providing the best and most authoritative newspaper” as it pursued its philosophical underpinning as “an independent newspaper, established for the purpose of presenting balanced coverage of events, and of promoting the best interest of Nigeria.”

Perhaps 33 years in the life of a company or even an individual should not command any attention, let alone provoke celebration at whatever scale – low key or outlandish.

But what makes the case of The Guardian different is the wave of restructuring blowing across the operational architecture of the media organisation, which began to take definite shape last Tuesday with the elevation of  as the Executive Editor presiding over the three titles: Daily, Saturday and Sunday editions of the publication. 

Interestingly, the new template represented by Ogbodo appears like the reinvention of the old order, as it is similar to how the newspaper outlet started 33 years ago. Stanley Macebuh who led the founding editorial staff of the newspaper served as Executive Editor/Managing Director. But while the then Associate Editor, Lade Bonuola was the one signing the paper, the modification in the new arrangement is the appearance of Ogbodo’s signature in all the three titles.

Other personalities in the pioneering team were Eddie Iroh who was to be the Editor of the magazine (African Guardian) but due to some hiccups, the content of the magazine was published as a supplement in the newspaper and it appeared in the first edition as The Guardian Sunday supplement; Femi Kusa, assistant editor, who also provided some shaping for the content of the paper; Ted Iwere, Features Editor; Dr. Onwuchekwa Jemie, Chairman, Editorial Board; Femi Osofisan, member, Editorial Board; Dr. Chinweizu managed the Business and Economy desk; Sonny Ojeagbase, Sport Editor; Godwin Ofuru, Aerospace correspondent; Sonala Olumhense, member, Editorial Board; Adigun Agbaje, Political Correspondent; Alade Odunewu, the first columnist; Doyin Mahmoud, Chief-sub-editor; the late Mac Alabi, the Production Editor; Sunmi Smart-Cole, Photo Editor; and Bisi Ogunbadejo, the first cartoonist.

The team was largely responsible for what the late revered expert on press history, Prof. Fred Omu described as “dynamic influence” The Guardian brought to bear on Nigerian journalism.

In his scholarly article titled Journalism in Nigeria: A Historical Overview and published in 1999 in Journalism in Nigeria: Issues and Perspectives, Prof. Omu wrote further: “The Guardian calls itself the flagship of the Nigerian press and so it really is. It has been indisputably the best newspaper ever produced in Nigeria and its brand of journalism has had a profound and provocative impact on Nigerian journalism.

“The principles which it exposes and the standards which it represents set it out as a national institution. In the poise and polish of its language, in its cultivated and intellectual approach to argument and controversy, in its penetrating and persuasive analysis and interpretation, in its promotion of ideological pluralism and in its endeavor to place events in their historical perspective, The Guardian has achieved great esteem in and outside Nigeria as one of the most authoritative newspapers in Africa. Its journalistic achievements are bound to influence the newspaper industry for a long time.”

Though the media industry, over the years, has gone through turbulent times, with so many publications before and after the birth of The Guardian, going down, the publication has continued to be on the newsstand, providing scintillating reports for Nigerians and non-Nigerians.

The publication started as a 16-page paper but today publishes on the average, 64 pages and sometimes, over 100 pages with increased advert sales. Over the years, the paper has provided the refreshing pattern for the practice of journalism in Nigeria, which has been attested to by media stakeholders and reward systems such as the Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME); the Nigeria Media Merit Award (NMMA); and many others. The publication has won awards locally and internationally.

Before the mantle of the editorial leadership fell on the shoulders of the new editor, Abraham Ogbodo, The Guardian had been edited by great journalists such as Lade Bonuola, Femi Kusa, Emeka Izeze, Debo Adesina and Martins Oloja.

At 33, what has been the message of The Guardian? How well is it delivering it? The Trustee of DAME and Managing Director, Media Review, Lanre Idowu who also had a brief stint at the newspaper on the Sub-Desk in the 1980s said, “In the early days and in a number of ways, The Guardian transformed the news business, serving the public with rich content in an enriching way. Temperate news presentation with elaborate backgrounding replaced sensationalist news packaging.

“An engaging style ensured that the length of stories was no disincentive to pleasant reading. Depth acquired expanded meaning. Elevated prose found its way into news reporting, banishing the staid style some had associated with news reporting. The front page was no longer the exclusive preserve of politics and political actors.  Aeronautics, conservation and other less dramatic subjects found access there. There was noticeable effort to woo the discerning reader who enjoyed news beyond the headlines.

“Opinion writing enjoyed a renaissance that brought in specialization and elevated it beyond the exclusive headache of the title editor. Even as the concept of the editorial board as we know it today had started at the Daily Times under Dr. Dele Cole, The Guardian perfected it, attracting egg heads from our campuses to its editorial board, and enriching the art of informed commentary.”

Idowu recalled how the excellent impact of the newspaper has continued to garner medals from the DAME staples and other reward schemes. “When a deliberate scheme of rewarding professional excellence such as that offered by the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence (DAME) began, The Guardian was one of the early stars, winning the Newspaper of the Decade in 2001 and joint winner of the same prize in 2011 with The Punch,” Idowu said.

However, Idowu identified some gaps in the pursuit of the publication’s cherished values, saying, “the deep research, engaging prose, and informed analyses that characterized its editorial output in the first two decades have declined.”

Insisting however, “the paper is still a respected brand in the market, but it is playing catch up in a number of areas. It will need to overcome its internal contradictions, refocus, retool and reinvigorate its work force with renewed vision for that culture of service delivery that lent some credence to its claim as the flagship of the Nigerian press.” The journalist attributed the dislocations to “the same problems affecting the Nigerian state of gap between potential and achievement, available resources and their deployment.”

Another ex-member of editorial staff of The Guardian who later joined the Punch and grew through the ranks to become Editor, and later, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Punch, Gbemiga Ogunleye said the introduction of The Guardian to the newspaper market through the teaser, “Sooner or later, you will read the Guardian!” worked the magic for the suspense that trailed its arrival on the newsstand on February 27, 1983.

“As a final year and undergraduate student at the university, I waited to read The Guardian, and of course, the publication kept to its words. It was a new and strong voice that changed the standard of journalism in the country. And for a very long time, The Guardian tried to fulfill that mandate. It gave voice to the voiceless and became the conscience of the nation.”

Ogunleye, who is now Provost, Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), Ogba, Ikeja, Lagos believed that the proscription of the paper on August 15, 1994 by the military government of the late General Sani Abacha had negative effect after its de-proscription in 1995.

“But after the Abacha’s proscription of The Guardian, I wouldn’t say the publication returned to that era of its cherished philosophy. But overall, we must salute the founders of The Guardian, they came at the right time. They changed the face of journalism in this country,” said Ogunleye.

To the former Chairman, Editorial Board of The Guardian and Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to the former President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr Reuben Abati, “In 33 years, The Guardian has established itself with the reading public as a newspaper of record and influence and as one of the major platforms for promoting the interest of the voiceless and the disadvantaged in society.

“Many will recall the newspaper’s principled struggles against military rule, the courage and professionalism of its staff and the heavy price that both its owners and many of the staff have had to pay for their insistence on truth and justice. Everything about this newspaper is worth celebrating: the institution that it has become, the worthy legacy of its publisher and the tradition of enduring service that it has established.

“There may have been challenges along the line, but present and old members of The Guardian family will certainly be happy to be associated with such an institution which continues to be highly regarded for its balanced editorials, its political independence, and the promotion of the public good and human conscience as necessary compass.”

On what the future holds for the media industry generally, the great columnist said, “my take is that as technology gets more sophisticated and diversified, we are likely to see a lot of innovation and convergence in the media industry. The signs are already evident with the rise of digital media, and what can be called The Fifth Estate.  The newspaper will continue to survive, but media managers must learn to operate as innovators and knowledge workers to enable them cope with the challenges of relevance and communication in an emergent new age. What this means is that every department in the media industry will require a new set of skills as well as much deeper levels of creativity.”

At 33, with a new Editor and a wave of restructuring blowing across the operational architecture of the media organization, The Guardian brand, no doubt, must find a way not just to keep up the good work for which it has been dubbed the Flagship, it must take the game to a new height setting the pace in the media industry in Nigeria.

The birth of the newspaper on February 27, 1983 with the publication of The Sunday Guardian was a product of a painstaking incubation that lasted for more than five years. This is because the idea to launch a newspaper started in 1976 and Guardian newspaper as a brand in 1978, but due to economic recession then, the idea was shelved but realized later when it finally hit the newsstand on February 27, 1983. Five months after, the daily edition hit the streets of Nigeria.

Perhaps, what gave The Guardian edge right from the start was the clarity of vision conceptualised by the late Publisher, Mr. Alex Ibru, which he narrated during the 16th anniversary and productivity award ceremony of the company in 1999.

He said, “The Guardian was started when I was very young, a little over 30 years old. I found I was blessed by the Almighty God. Not only did I come from a family of a good father, a good mother, good brothers and sisters, God gave me money and I asked Him what to do with the resources He had given me. He said I should do for the people what will be of immense benefit to them.”

As a liberal newspaper, committed to the best traditions and ideals of republican democracy, The Guardian believes it is the responsibility of the State not only to protect and defend the citizens but also to create the political, social, economic and cultural conditions in which all citizens may achieve their highest potentials as human beings.

Wanting to live by what he stands for, at the fifth anniversary of the Daily Guardian, an annual lecture was introduced in 1988, which was delivered by Rt. Hon Michael Manley of Jamaica. The topic of the lecture was Third world debts and structural adjustment. Subsequently, the annual lecture featured very prominent personalities who were global figures with national and international issues at the centre of discourse. In the 1989 edition of the lecture, Professor Ben Nwabueze was the guest speaker and the topic was, Our march to constitutional democracy. The following year, the then Secretary General of the Organisation of African Union, Salim Ahmed Salim spoke on The European Economic and Monetary Union Scheduled for 1992 and its likely Impact on Africa. The late Emeritus Professor J. F. Ade Ajayi delivered the 1992 lecture and he spoke on The national question in historical perspective. Besides the annual lecture, the Guardian Financial Weekly at a time organised Export Finance Exhibition.

At 33, The Guardian, no doubt, is returning to that old order as arrangements are being perfected to host conferences and master classes. The first of such efforts has been scheduled for July 14, 2016. Tagged The Guardian Conferences & Master Classes, in partnership with Akintola Williams Deloitte, the one-day Economic Forum Series on Tax has Unlocking Nigeria’s Tax Revenue Potentials For Sustainable Development as theme.

The conference is expected to feature high-profile speakers, and some of the confirmed speakers are Dr Teju Somorin, President, Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (CITN), Seye Arowolo, Tax Partner, Akintola Williams Deloitte, Mr. Muda Yusuf, Director General, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) and Rotimi Omotosho, Registrar/ Chief Executive, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

“We are extremely pleased to announce the launch of Guardian Conferences & Master Classes,’ said Executive Director of The Guardian, Mr. Toke Alex Ibru. “With our goodwill and strong brand reputation, we will leverage our networks to provide audiences with market-leading events across industry sectors. Not only will this provide our existing and potential readers with opportunities to learn and network at these events, it will also allow us deepen our engagement with sponsors & advertisers, as they seek to get value and maximise returns from commercial partnerships.”

In the early 1980s, the Guardian had a long-running campaign against the use of traditional chieftaincy titles, calling for Nigerians to be addressed simply as “Mr” or “Mrs”. During the administration of General Muhammadu Buhari, reporters Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were both sent to jail in 1984 under Decree No. 4 of 1984, which suppressed journalistic freedom. On August 26, 1989, The Guardian published a long letter by Dr. Bekolari Ransome-Kuti, a human-rights activist, entitled “Open Letter to President Babangida”, in which he criticized what he saw as increasing government suppression of free expression of ideas.

In the last three decades, attestations abound that The Guardian has remained faithful to its philosophical underpinning as “an independent newspaper, established for the purpose of presenting balanced coverage of events, and of promoting the best interests of Nigeria.”

Certainly, the on-going restructuring dictated by the economic reality and global trends in the new information dissemination order is being piloted to ensure that the “Conscience” of Nigeria and Nigerians, continues to be “Nurtured by Truth”.

For the Publisher, Lady Maiden Ibru, the restructuring is as a result of the realization that The Guardian is not immune to the challenges facing newspapers around the world; the rise of digital media and pressures on circulation and advertising revenues.

To meet these challenges therefore, “the newspaper is undergoing an organisation-wide transformation, focusing on growing its digital footprint while ensuring that the newspaper meets the needs of both readers and advertisers. We are very excited about the progress we have made and the direction we are taking this wonderful newspaper,” Mrs. Ibru noted.