Sam Amuka, newspapers and death watch
THE Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, witnessed a gathering of the cream of the Nigerian media on Thursday, July 30, 2015 in celebration of an icon of print journalism, Mr. Sam Amuka, publisher of the Nigerian Vanguard. Mr. Amuka, a former editorial executive of the Daily Times and The Punch newspapers, before venturing into newspaper proprietorship, widely known as ‘Sad Sam’, his pen name as a distinguished columnist, was being celebrated by a younger generation of journalists on the occasion of his 80th birthday with the launch of a book of essays in his honour. The book is titled: ‘Voices From Within: Essays on Nigerian Journalism in Honour of Sam Amuka’.
A respecter of time and deadline, Mr. Amuka, a thorough-bred, professional journalist was on seat at the event long before the 11 a.m. scheduled for commencement of proceedings. Chief Segun Osoba, two-time governor of Ogun State, a contemporary of Amuka in their days at The Daily Times, and chairman of the occasion, regaled the audience with their escapades as dashing young men. Chief Osoba revealed that Mr. Amuka is generally disinclined to any form of ostentatious display or being celebrated in a fiesta style; always ‘disappearing’ when he suspects plans to put him in the spotlight. He, therefore, commended the quartet, led by Mr. Lanre Idowu, editor of the book of essays, for succeeding in persuading Mr. Amuka to make himself available for celebration. Mr. Idowu revealed, in his welcome address, that they had told the Vanguard publisher that the celebration will also include a lecture segment on a topic dear to him – the survival of Nigerian newspapers.
The lecture and the intervention by Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a veteran political warrior in the days of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) that fought military strongman, Gen. Sani Abacha, to a standstill, provided food for thought. Against the backdrop of tumbling circulation of Nigerian newspapers, which itself reflects a disturbing global trend, the lecture, titled – Today’s Newsroom, Tomorrow’s Newspaper : How to survive and thrive in the Internet Age – is most apt. The guest lecturer, Mr. Ted Iwere, managing director of Independent Newspapers Ltd. sought to situate the current state of Nigerian newspapers and offers a prognosis for the future.
Newspapers, world wide, are in a state of transition. The poser is: Transition to where? Iwere drew heavily on his experience both as a professional journalist eager to get out the story and a media executive, who is much concerned with the bottom line – the monetary imperative. The lecturer perceives the Internet as not posing a dangerous threat to the survival and prosperity of newspapers, but a development with advantages and drawbacks which requires a creative adaptation by newspaper managers.
Such adaptations will include re-tooling reporters to be media convergence compliant – being multimedia, multi-task competent, writing news reports for hard and online versions of newspapers, editing savvy and photo/video. This implies that newspapers must engage in capacity building for the versatile journalist available for multiple tasks.
A major issue is bringing about the harmonious marriage of hard copy newspapers and online newspapers – which comes first. Iwere eventually settled for Digital First and Hard copy Second, apparently in a surrender to the dictate of speed. The Digital First will be a form of headline ‘breaking news’ service after which fuller details reflecting the content of the hard copy will be available in three possible formats – a pay-as-you-go meter system, membership and what he termed ‘Freemium’, a form of buy-one-get-one free. But does this take into account audience research which shows that a significant percentage of media consumers are headline consumers who are not likely to take the next step to pay for the full story or news feature?
Technological Determinism : It would seem that media managers, both broadcast and print, have become so obsessed by the primacy of communication technology and the fear of being ‘left behind’ that has compelled an unending struggle to ‘meet up’ with rapid advances in technology. This creates a specter of the media being engaged in catch up as the technological signpost gets shifted and current news delivery equipment rendered obsolete, requiring new financial investments in the technological rave of the moment. It signals an unwinnable struggle. Meanwhile, the technology whiz kids smile to the bank.
The Audience and Globalisation In facing the challenge of the Internet, media managers and proprietors must critically address the issue of audience: Who are a newspaper’s primary audience? If the primary audience and news coverage of a newspaper is local, regional or national, what is the imperative of going global, via the Internet, if the move will not significantly boost earnings? Where is the meat, at least for now, in globalisation of Nigerian newspapers? There is need for reconciling fad with finance.
Media Content: A major flaw of the lecture is the lack of emphasis on content of newspapers. The guest lecturer mentioned, rather in passing, the need “for a re-invention of content creation” in the newspaper industry but failed to acknowledge the emergent reality that Nigerian newspapers have lost their primary audience, the Nigerian consumer, due to the poor quality of their flagship product – News. The factual errors, poor sentence structure, idiotic spelling errors, the ‘murder’ of grammar and the rabid partisanship of their columnists are fundamental problems of Nigerian newspapers which have alienated many readers. Chief Ayo Adebanjo had passionately appealed to Sam Amuka to see what he can do, along with others, to call their ‘children’ to order. If the Sunday Times, with Gbolabo Ogunsanwo as editor, had a circulation of 500,000 in the mid-70s while the combined circulation of Nigerian newspapers today is less than 200,000, we need to ask: What went wrong?
Way Forward: The Guest lecturer is optimistic that in spite of doomsday prognosis, “Nigerian newspapers are not going to die”, killed by the Internet. But in a double speak, he had concluded: “Nigerian newspapers must adapt to the Internet, or face the danger of imminent death!” This, to me, is misplaced over-emphasis. Rather than the Internet threat, it is the domestic audience verdict on Nigerian newspapers, demonstrated by their withdrawal of patronage, that has already placed many Nigerian newspapers on death watch. So, for a turnaround in the fortunes of Nigerian newspapers, newspaper managers must re-invent quality content and re-discover their audiences. That is the first challenge to overcome.
Dr. Olawunmi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Bowen University, Iwo, is former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria.