‘Media organisations should put structures in place to support their female staff’
Dr. Yemisi Akinbobola is the Chief Executive Officer of Stringers Africa, an outfit that connects freelance journalists in African countries with newsrooms worldwide. She also runs the African Women in the Media group.Akinbobola is also an academic, media entrepreneur and joint winner of the CNN African Journalist Award 2016 (Sports Reporting).Her media work is Africa-focused, covering stories from rape culture in Nigeria, to an investigative and data story on the trafficking of young West African football hopefuls by fake agents. In this interview with Kehinde Olatunji, she bares her mind on journalism in Africa and the way forward.
You were freelancing for publications including the UN Africa Renewal Magazine, why did you choose journalism as a career?
I REMEMBER from a young age my siblings and I always talked about setting up our own news channel. We’d grown up with CNN being a permanent fixture on our television set. So, after my first degree in Creative Arts from the University of Maiduguri, I did a Master’s in Media Production at Birmingham City University, where I stayed on to do a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies. Whilst studying, I did an internship at CNN. It was a dream come true, and I would say that I did a lot of growing up during that internship. I became more self-aware and certain that I wanted to pursue a career in journalism. So I set up a blog called IQ4News, which then developed into a media business.
I learnt a lot while running IQ4News, particularly through things I failed at. But one of the biggest challenges I faced was recruiting the right journalists from the African countries that we covered. This then brought me back to an idea I had when I was looking for my first freelance job: developing a platform that will make it easy for newsrooms to find freelance journalists in African countries, and for freelance journalists to pitch to newsrooms. That’s how Stringers Africa was born.
The proudest moment for me though was winning the CNN African Journalist Award for Sports Reporting in 2016. It was special, because I had just had a baby when my team and I got funding to do the investigation that won us the award. It was difficult nursing a six- week- old baby while also trying to do a good job with the project. Lucky for me, I have good support at home so that helped a lot. But for a lot of other women in that position, they are often faced with having to choose between their career and their family life. It also helped that I owned my media organisation, and I think it is important for media organisations to develop policies and put structures in place that could support their female staff.
What is your view on the future of journalism in Africa?
I can’t necessarily speak for the whole continent. I would like to see journalism in some countries on the continent and embrace the full potentials of new technology. There’s so much we can be doing with things like virtual reality and data – though for us to really explore the full potential of data journalism, we need more open data, and better application of the Freedom of Information Act. We had a recent case in my hometown, Akure, where a journalist’s request for the audited report of the Ondo State government was rejected. The judge quite rightly ruled that the state had no power to reject a request made under the FOI Act, especially when the purpose of the request is to scrutinise how those in office spend public funds.
The industries as a whole needs to have more diverse investment put into it, so that journalists can be better paid, and have better opportunities for continuous professional development. The need for new business models and revenue streams in the news media industry is a conversation being had worldwide. In Nigeria, it’s a conversation we need to pay more attention to, if we are to move away from issues such as partisan influences, which can interfere with our ability to fully play our role.I would also like to see more women in leadership positions in media, and there are certainly a lot of women paving the way like Mo Abudu, whom I admire so much.
Why focus on women in Nigeria and not people in the media?
The African Women in the Media group is for female African media content producers from all over the world. And they can join our Facebook group at fb.com/groups/africanwomeninthemedia.
Why are you bringing the conference to Nigeria?
The first event for AWIM took place in Birmingham, UK. But the conference is meant to be a touring event. The natural location for it is Africa, my country, Nigeria. I will be announcing the location of the 2019 event at AWIM18 in June.
What do you hope to achieve with the conference?
Simply to empower delegates with the skills and support they need to be more visible. And that is the theme for the African Women in the Media 2018 Conference (#AWIM18): Visibility. “Be Visible to Inspire”. We are doing this through four industry panels, three academic panels, eight workshops training sessions on topics ranging from digital marketing to data journalism, and reporting in conflict zones. I am very excited to have CNN’s Nima Elbagir as our keynote speaker. Her investigations and rise in her field has been so inspirational to me. I am also excited about the AWIM/NRGI Award, which will award a $1,000 production grant for the best gender focused natural resource story idea.
When I talk about visibility, it needs to happen at various levels. Firstly, we need more women in leadership positions in the media. We need better understanding of the gender representation across media genres. If we are not present in the construction of the narrative, if, as the International Women’s Media Foundation discovered, women represent only one third of the full-time employees of more than 500 media organisations across 59 countries, how can we effect change on representation?
As African women in the Diaspora like myself, there is an additional role as women in the media, to ensure that women of colour are presented as the hardworking, entrepreneurial figures that we are, and to challenge the Eurocentric editing of successful black women like Beyonce and Lupita Nyong’o.
In television, we can learn from women like Shonda Rhimes, whose portrayal of black women in leading positions in her drama series like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, are countering the stereotypical narrative. We also need more economic empowerment of women in the media, so the goal of African Women in the Media is to Inspire, Support and Empower,
How did your Nigerian education prepare you for the challenge you met in the UK?
I lived most of my formative years in the UK so I would describe myself as someone that tries to find a synergy between both cultures. When I relocated to Nigeria for my undergraduate degree, I did take some time to orientate myself to our social norms, and deciding what aspects I wanted to conform with, and what I would not. I was particularly resistant to any suggestions that I would take a subordinate role because I’m a woman. There are great things in our culture though that does prepare one to be resilient to whatever life throws at you. But I think having that mixed cultural background has made me someone that can easily adapt to new environments and new people.
I am the Programme Leader for the MA Global Media Management at Birmingham City University. By the very nature of the course, all my students are international, from the USA, to Barbados, France, China, Kenya and others. My cultural background as a Nigerian living in the UK means that I am able to offer a level of cultural awareness that can help the students adjust to a British university system.
How have you been able to combine your career with marriage?
Yes! My husband and I see ourselves as a team, supporting each other, and allowing our roles at home to be more fluid and adaptable to each situation. That’s the key, to not get bogged down by other people’s ideas about gender roles, and to just do what works for you both.I try to have some hours during my day where I do not do any work apart from spending time with my children. Sometimes, this works out and sometimes it’s all a bit crazy. Effective time management is definitely important, and I spend the first 15-30 minutes of every working day setting up my action sheet and organising how I will manage my priorities for the day. I use the Eisenhower matrix alongside my action sheet. My calendar is literally my favourite tool. Once it is in my calendar, it gets done.
Certainly juggling family life and a career has its challenges, especially when I have to travel, but it by no means suggests women can’t do both. It’s interesting that this question comes up though, because it is almost suggestive that women have to choose between having a family and having a career. Unfortunately even in 2018, women are still being made to feel guilty for having career ambitions and not being the domestic heroine. When Theresa May became the second female British Prime Minister, people were asking about her recipe for scones! What did that have to do with her job as a Prime Minister?