July 5, 2020

Book Review: Journalism and Business-My Newspaper Odyssey

Title: Journalism and Business-My Newspaper Odyssey

Author: Isiaq Ajibola

Pages: 179

Reviewer: Dirisu Yakubu

Publishers: Hapicom Nigeria Limited

Year of Publication: 2016


Newspaper publishing, no doubt is not a lucrative business in Nigeria today. A combination of dwindling fortunes and poor reading culture make investment in publishing a risk, not everyone investor is prepared to take. This is not just a function of the economic recession that has been rattling the economy in the past two years as not a few media houses closed shops in the last couple of years, owing largely to low copy sales and incremental drop in advertisement revenue.

But as 2016 was winding down, Isiaq Ajibola, an economist, journalist, media tycoon and a co-founder of Media Trust Limited, publishers of the Daily Trust Newspapers, presented Journalism and Business-My Newspaper Odyssey to the public-the Nigerian public.

In Chapter one (In the Beginning), the author traced his first romance with journalism to the JustPolitics Magazine, an unsuccessful weekly tabloid with focus on politics and the economy. This was in 1989 and Ajibola, a fresh graduate from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria had just completed his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Employed as Advert Executive, Ajibola had to settle with all manners of chores passed on to him. “Even though I was employed as an Advert Executive, I did almost all the work-including typesetting of stories on the tedious desktop publishing software that was just acquired by the company,” he recalled, adding that this was the sensible thing to do as adverts were literally not coming the way of the tabloid. “Adverts were not forthcoming because the publisher himself found it difficult to get them and it didn’t take long before the company folded,” he added.

Determined to soldier on after the initial setback, Ajibola joined the Citizen Magazine also in Lagos and for three years, it competed with the likes of Newswatch, African Concord, TSM and Tell Magazines. The hurdle in marketing Citizen Magazine in the south according to the author stemmed from a bias against the north as the brains behinds its establishment were all northerners-Mohammed Haruna, Adamu Adamu, Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf (of blessed memory) and Kabiru Yusuf. But something had to give way and in Ajibola’s words, the challenge was turned into opportunity. How?

“The company therefore engaged very talented journalists like Ike Okonta, Bolaji Adebiyi, Yinka Tella, Aliu Akoshile and Oji Onoko as core editorial team for Southern operations,” a development that changed people’s perception of the tabloid in Lagos and other parts of Southern Nigeria.  However, it was not until the magazine published “Igbos (sic) Are Angry” that its fortunes began to change for good in that part of the country.

Ajibola, having worked with a quite a few tabloids, began to think of ways to establish his own or in collaboration with others. In 1996, he met with Kabiru Yusuf, with whom he had worked in the Lagos office of the Citizen magazine. This was how Media Trust Limited came into being and the story is vividly narrated in chapter two.

However, the author insists the need to have an authoritative newspaper covering happenings in northern Nigeria informed the formation of the new company, noting that at inception, challenges were indeed legion. He wrote, “Our Modest salaries of N15, 000 for the Managing Director (Kabiru Yusuf) and N10, 000 for the General Manager (Ajibola) were not regular due to lack of funds.” That’s not all as the author recalled instances when sundry thoughts crossed their minds on the best possible ways to go about managing the infant company.

“At a point, we weren’t too sure whether to engage in other businesses outside the media to multiply our income stream,” he recalled.

To stay afloat, the company looked in the direction of small companies for advert placements. “Our first set of business proposals was taken to local industries in Kaduna, Kano, Zaria and subsequently to government parastatals and agencies in Abuja,” he wrote, a move that worked wonders for the infant company.

In 1997, Media Trust Limited toyed with the idea of publishing a weekly Newspaper, with a memo to selected businessmen to invest in the “Newspaper of the Future.” The investors arrived and the media outfit commenced business with Robert Eastbrook’s admonition that “Journalism must be a business before it can be a profession. Before you can register editorial excellence, you need to apply business expertise.” As it were, this singular move was to prove decisive as the author aptly captured in these words: “The coming of new investors, which was a major positive development for the company, provided ample capital to start the paper and constituted a fountain of knowledge for running the business of the company at the board level.”

For those intent on venturing into newspaper publishing, the author counseled on the imperative of starting small and gradual expansion. This was the model Media Trust adopted and it paid off handsomely. “Beginning with a circulation figure of about 2000 copies, the weekly magazine increased steadily to as five –digit figure overtime. Advertisement revenue also increased and steady progress was made on all fronts. The modest circulation figures were minded tenaciously and every copy printed was accounted for, from the printing press to delivery,” writes Ajibola.

Ajibola tells the story of Daily Trust in chapter four and how it became an authoritative voice especially in the north. He shared incredible business insights covering people and systems, editorial independence, outsourcing operations, technological innovation and performance management.

‘Evolution of Business Operations’ is the focus of chapter five and here, the writer laments the legion of troubling challenges bedeviling the media industry in Nigeria, saying “It is shocking that there is no single newsprint production plant in the country that produces raw materials for local newspapers,” a development that has since left publishers with the only option of importing newsprint to remain in business.

Editorial integrity, no doubt is key to the success of any newspaper but Ajibola argues that a synergy must exist between the editorial and business sides of journalism. After attending a World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) Conference on Digital Innovation in Berlin, Germany in 2011, Ajibola, thus convinced of the importance of editorial and business marriage in journalism, implemented the concept in Daily Trust and what a success it turned out to be. “The idea of promoting editorial and business synergy in a newspaper must have been borne out of my personal experience in dealing with issues relating to strict separation of the two most important departments of a newspaper in my career. Taking a historical view at this delicate balance, I found out that it has been deeply rooted in American journalism since the early 19th century,” writes Ajibola in chapter six.

And although, a marriage of the two is significant, the author expressed sadness at the clear lack of separation of the editorial from the business by most newspapers in the land. “Some notable Nigerian newspaper” he notes, “have not only punctured the wall between the two departments in order to make money, they have literarily called in the bulldozer to completely take them down. Some have made efforts to turn editors to advertisement canvassers rather than leave them in the position of newsmen, dealing a rude shock to the journalism profession and thereby compromising the editorial integrity of their newspapers.”

The economist-turned media tycoon therefore advised the two to work together in the furtherance of the fortunes of the media organization. “By and large, just as business people can direct attention of editors to content development, editors can also direct the advert manager to potential areas and sources of advert generation,” he counsels.

Chapter Seven deals with the ‘International Media Landscape’ as the author shares the experiences of offshore newspapers’ operational modalities. His coverage of the G8 Summit in Canada, the success story of Daily Nation of Nairobi, a newspaper founded by Aga Khan, a Swiss migrant and the New York Times played their part in the ability of Daily Trust to maintain a market lead for years both in terms of copy sales and editorial integrity.

Myths more often than not pass for truths in the minds of many but not Ajibola who successfully exposed the weaknesses in some myths surrounding the operation of a newspaper, with his immaculate running of the affairs of Daily Trust. Huge capital is good for the take off of any business, but the author says this has no universal application. The myth holds no water in the story of Trust. The paper also put to lie the perception that the north lacks the market for a successful newspaper to thrive. Thirdly, editorial direction of newspapers is not always dictated by the political interest of the owners. Important as some myths are or appear to be, “It is safe to conclude that emerging companies must constantly reinvent and allow innovation to lead their path.”

A newspaper desirous of making headway must be prepared to step on toes, regardless of their sizes. Infact the bigger the toes, the better! Thus when Daily Trust published some stories linking Gbenga Obasanjo, son of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, to some shady deals with the Nigeria Printing and Minting Company, an obviously infuriated Gbenga instituted a N50 billion libel case against Media Trust. At the end, the case was thrown out for lack of diligent prosecution. This only made Trust all the more trustworthy and reliable.

Ajibola signs off with a cursory look at the new media, urging media houses to embrace the new bride or face the consequences of failing to do so. Copy sales are fast diminishing but the author is convinced a newspaper would succeed if it finds a need and fulfill it.

‘Journalism and Business’ is by every inch, a great offering not only to journalism practitioners, media investors but students of communication desirous of working in the media, particularly the print genre.

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