Mr. Bayo Onanuga is one of the giants of the journalism profession in Nigeria. Soft spoken and simple, the Editor-in-Chief of TheNEWS magazine and P.M. News, on Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at their office in Ogba, Lagos, shared his journalism experiences with YES INTERNATIONAL! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. Unhappy about some of the things going on the profession, the Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State born veteran pen pusher warned that it may soon be all over for the media except we all adjust and also make some amends.
What are the ingredients of a good story? What makes a good story?
From my experience, a good story must contain all the basic elements of news – the who, the what, the how, the where; every basic thing. Any good story must still contain that. So, you cannot just write a story in the dark or keep someone floating without pinning it down to specifics. What is the story all about, who is the central focus of this story, where did it happen and things like that. You have to answer all these questions. So, a story must have all those ingredients.
What makes a good journalist?
First of all, he must have a passion for the profession. That’s what I find missing today. Most people who are there, they are not so passionate about it. So, the first quality is that a journalist must have passion for the profession of journalism; you must have a passion for news, you must have nose for news to know that you can squeeze water out of stone and it all comes from being passionate about journalism.
What makes a good editor?
A good editor, to my mind, must be a Jack of all trades. He must know something about everything. When you are talking about Nuclear Physics, he’s not totally lost; he knows what it’s all about. Whatever is the most arcane subject in the world, the man understands it. He may not understand it deep enough, but at least he has some knowledge of it. So, you cannot just come and bamboozle him. He can ask you questions and say, but this is not what I read about this thing before and so on and so forth. An editor in the military terms is like a Generalissimo, and he must have knowledge about almost everything under the sun.
What makes a good publisher?
(Laughs) A good publisher? His job is to look at the bottom-line of the business and to personally check whether the publications are derailing. His job is to be the whistleblower when you are doing what you are not supposed to do or you are not doing things right. A good publisher must also not just say because he’s a publisher, so he’s totally removed from the business itself. I mean, the core business. If he goes somewhere and he sees news or hears about news, he can call and say look, I just heard about so, so and so; it’s a story that you can follow up or he himself can even write the story and send it. But I think his function really is managerial and trying to make sure that the papers make money and continue in business.
What is the best way to come about good stories?
Some of them come by way of routine. Maybe you attend a press conference and you listen to a speaker and he says some things and you say oh, this is profound; what this man has said is profound or this is good. When somebody is telling you, even though he’s a medical doctor, that the incidence of tuberculosis in Nigeria is getting worse and he tells you that probably in the last 2 years, we’ve had one million cases of tuberculosis, but 2 years ago, it was only about 50,000 and you say oh, this is a remarkable gap. So, that’s news. That’s one aspect of it. It’s about having nose for news. I remember when I was a young reporter and I attended a seminar in 1985 by Federation of International Women’s Lawyers(FIDA) in Nigeria done in conjunction with National Council of Women Societies. They did something at TBS, the parliament building and it was towards 6 O’clock in the evening.
The president of NCWS, Hilda Adefarasin – the mother of Pastor Paul Adefarasi said something about the NCWS pushing through a bill at that time. Nigeria had set up a Law Reform Commission and she said they were pushing through a law that will make men give women, in case of divorce, 50% of whatever they have. She spoke extempore. In fact, I was dozing off when she was speaking and I just woke up and said ah-ah, 50%? So, I woke up and wrote down what I thought I heard. But there were other journalists there; they didn’t hear what I heard or maybe they just thought since the woman did not give them a speech or something, it was not news. But to me, I was looking at 50% divorce asset sharing. It was in the evening, around 6pm, so from there, I went home.
But the following morning, I went to the office and the Editor was asking me: Do I have a story for him? I said I have a story, but that story – I told him I was dozing off; I was not too sure whether I heard the woman properly, but this is what I thought she said. He said that’s news. I said yeah, I know it’s news. He now said let’s call the woman. So, we called the woman and she confirmed that that’s what she said. So, we wrote the story. It was lead story of National Concord in those days. So, that’s news. People generally make mistakes when they go to maybe a press conference or some other events ; they are waiting for just the press release. But the story may not be in the press release. The story may be in what the man said off hand; you must have the ability to decode what is news worthy in what the person says. There’s another time; it was the late Augustus Aikhomu ( former Chief of General Staff). The Nigerian leaders then, the military leaders, just moved to Abuja. I think around 1992 or so. And he came to attend a public lecture in Lagos and he was telling the audience that he likes leaving Abuja for Lagos; that anytime he leaves Abuja, he feels relieved and bla, bla, bla and that while they are in Abuja, it’s like they are in a kind of prison.
The man again was speaking extempore. It was news! You know, he was kind of coming out, giving us his inner feelings. We think maybe they are enjoying, but here’s the man saying that their life is like that of prisoners in Aso Rock and something like that. I said this is news. But you know what, I opened the papers the following day, nobody wrote about it, and journalists were there. At that time, we were not publishing, and we had no bloggers at that time; the internet was not so pervasive then. Otherwise we would have put that one in the blog or something. That’s the kind of things that a journalist should look for. You have to open your eyes, open your ears, because you will find that news will not come from the normal run of things .
What is the biggest mistake that most journalists make?
We are human beings; we make mistakes all the time. I always tell people that our business is not rocket science. We make mistakes. Sometimes, somebody is speaking, you don’t have him on tape, you thought that you heard him correctly, but you didn’t hear him correctly and you went ahead and you wrote something and then you find out that you just messed up. I always tell reporters that if somebody tells you, maybe he mentions a name and then you didn’t get the spelling, why don’t you go and ask him: Please, can you help me to spell that name you just mentioned? But journalists sometimes feel that they know it and they don’t know it. Or the man uses a term at a press conference or something that you didn’t quite understand, why don’t you say excuse me, can you please explain to me what you mean ? Because our job, first of all, is to communicate to the public what the man said, either in technical terms or whatever.
Our job is to break it down to the readers at the end of the day. So, if you don’t understand what the man has said, the readers outside there will not understand. Our job is to ask him, please, can you explain what you mean by this one? Don’t assume. Don’t think you understand when you don’t understand or that when you write it, the readers out there will understand. They will not understand, because if you don’t understand, how are they going to understand? So, in our business, we need to be humble, we need to be very patient and we need to really ask questions, when you don’t understand.
Why do we have too many journalists who are poor?
It’s simple – because the profession itself, the business itself, is not so lucrative; like if you are in the oil sector, like if you are selling crack. It’s not lucrative! It’s not a place where you produce a paper today and then if you don’t sell it, you can sell it the following day. No! Immediately you are coming out of your press, the paper is running stale. If it rains that day for instance, you won’t be able to sell and you cannot go and put it in the store like they put Coca cola in the store and sell the following day or the day after or even two weeks after. Your own, as you are producing it, you are already stale. So, the business does not bring much money and even in terms of street sales, even in terms of advertising; not even now that advertising budget is being competed for by the social media, by all manner of media. So, the print is not getting a fair share of it. The money is going elsewhere. So, that’s the reason. And that is why most journalists live in penury.
Why is it difficult for people to attain success and be able to sustain it?
Hmmm! That’s a philosophical question. Well, the road up is not so easy, even in the physical terms. If you want to ascend the stairs, it’s not so easy, but when you get there, falling down is easier. I believe that every success you want to achieve in this world, it must come through hard work. Don’t be arrogant about it, be humble about it. That’s the only way you can sustain it. If you are humble about it, if you know that you are lucky to be able to ascend to the level where you get to, you will last. But if you are very arrogant about it, you will soon fall and I think that is even the easier part of it.
Getting to the top is more difficult than descending. So, that’s the only way I will put it. It’s difficult attaining success, but if you attain the success, you have to be humble about it, and you have to constantly innovate, because things are not static. If you are Mr. Steve Jobs, you made Apple computers and all those gadgets and you are not constantly innovating, you won’t be able to sustain your success. If you are not planning for the future, putting money aside that oh! Let me put this one aside in case tomorrow my computers or hardware become obsolete or some new things come and overtake them, make them useless or irrelevant, what will I do? If you don’t do that, you can’t sustain success.
Besides the coming of the social media, what are the other reasons papers no longer sell?
I think the economic factor. It started from the economic factor. If you look at the country, from 1986 till now, the economy has not been a friend of the newspaper publishers and it has not been a friend of the consumers of newspapers either. When I was in secondary school, in 1970 to 74, as a student, I used to buy two papers a day. At worse, one newspaper a day. When I left secondary school and when I finished my university education, I could buy two, three, four papers a day without injuring my pocket. But remember I said from 86; in 86, Nigeria had a structural adjustment programme which led to the devaluation of our currency. That devaluation devalued Nigerians themselves. It devalued our pockets.
It made it impossible for us to do a lot of things. In 1981, I was employed by the Lagos State Government when I just finished my NYSC and my salary was N360 a month, as a university graduate. N360 in 1981 was 720 Dollars. So, multiply 720 Dollars by today’s exchange rate, it means that I was earning as a graduate about N120,000, if not even more. But Babangida devalued the currency, so that N360 became nothing. By 1992, it was officially 1 Dollar to N22. And they didn’t increase salaries. So, somebody whose salary was N360, which was equivalent to 720 Dollars, by 1992, that N360 was less than 20 Dollars. Newsprint that we use to publish newspapers is imported; ink – imported; machinery – imported. Everything – imported. So, papers began to increase their cover prices. Papers that we used to buy for 5 pence, 5 kobo, today turned N150-N200 and magazines N400.
So, that programme by Babangida impoverished a large majority of Nigerians. Where’s the middle class today? IBB’s SAP destroyed the middle class. So, who will buy the papers? Today, most people, when they have money, there are other things that are even competing for it – they want to buy credit for their phones. They want to buy food. So, the newspaper becomes the least important to them.
For those who still publish, what is the best way to checkmate the social media?
No, they cannot checkmate it. The social media will continue to flourish. It’s now left for the publishers, those who still print newspapers, to see how they can benefit from the social media. So, it is necessary that they must register their presence there and still publish their news. I remember that last night I was on Googleplus and it was saying what do you have to share? So, I just quickly put a PM News story there and I know that those people who are following me or me following them, they will see what I have sent. If they are interested in the story, they will click first on what I’m sharing, go back to PM News site and read the story.
What it means is that the traffic to my site will increase and if I continue to get good traffic to my site, the PM News site will become a destination for advertisers. That’s the benefit that I will derive from it. So, that’s why I said the social media will continue to flourish. There are so many of them now. They will continue to flourish. It’s now left for us, the publishers, to see how we can use it for our own benefit. You can’t turn back the hand of the clock. It’s a revolution that is going on that the media can never reverse. In fact, the revolution going on will wipe out the media the way we know it today.
I was in a Google seminar; was it last year or two years ago in this Lagos and they were telling us that the last newspaper will be published somewhere in Africa in 2028! The last one! The most resilient of them! It will be published somewhere in Africa in 2028! That’s about 14 years to come. But my own prediction is that even before then, many newspapers would have died. Because things are changing. People are reading in a different way. More people are even reading, but a lot of people reading now are not too familiar with newspapers any more. Rather they are familiar with their smart phones where they get the news from.
What got you interested in journalism?
Passion! It was passion. Most people, if you ask them, they didn’t get into journalism by accident. They must have done something in the past that directly led them to where they are today. In the secondary school, I was the editor of the students’ magazine we were producing that time. In fact, when I entered, in class one, and they asked us to contribute articles for the school magazine, the two articles that I sent in were published. In class one o! So, in the school, I used to write very good essays and so on. The same thing in my A-levels. I kept writing, contributing to newspapers, magazines and everything. At the university, this didn’t change. Of course, in the university, I read journalism , Mass Communication. It’s the interest, it’s the passion from day one.
Can you recollect the first ever story that you wrote?
The first ever story as a newspaper person? Whaaooh! Hmmm! Let me say it will be difficult to recall because as a reporter, I had the opportunity while in the University of Lagos of doing a 3-month internship with Punch before I now came back to do this thing full time. So, I cannot say precisely; I cannot recollect it.
In your entire career as a journalist, can you recollect the best story that you have written?
Hmmm! Best story that I wrote? I think the best story I ever wrote was the story I wrote in Concord then. It was the story of the unpreparedness of Nigeria in case of foreign attack; in case of any emergency. At that time, I was looking at whether Nigeria then – had strategic reserve for petrol, whether if we had a foreign invasion, or a major disruption of our oil flow or electricity transmission , whether we had a capacity to survive. I found out that this country was very vulnerable in all areas. This was about 1985 or 86. More than 29 years after, we are still very vulnerable.. It’s a story I reckon as one of the best stories that I ever wrote.
Can you recollect the worst story that you have ever written and why?
The worst story? Whaaooh! (Laughs). It’s difficult, because you know, I’ve been in this thing for almost 30-something years. The worst story? I must be honest, I cannot recollect.
In your career as a journalist, you have interviewed a lot of people. Who would you like to interview but haven’t been able to?
Well, the person that I wanted to interview and I didn’t succeed in interviewing him was Nelson Mandela. And I actually went to South Africa that time when he was out of jail. The day he was coming out, I was travelling from UK to South Africa. But I never got the opportunity. Instead he referred me to his lieutenant, his deputy, the father of Thambo Mbeki, that I should go and talk to him and that’s what I did.
Can you recollect the best interview you have ever done?
Well, I will mention my interview with General Domkat Bali (rtd). Very short interview, but it was in the days of the military. It was a short interview, but to me, it was a good interview.
What do you like most about being a journalist?
I think journalism confers on you privileges, it opens doors for the practitioner to meet the shakers and movers and it gives you access to a lot of people that ordinarily you would not have met in your life. I think those are the things that I like about the profession.
What don’t you like about being a journalist?
It’s the material side of it. When you think you have put in long hours on your job and then you find that the reward is very small. The reward that journalists get is not always commensurate with the long hours we spend. We don’t have a weekend for instance, we don’t have closing time, we don’t have opening time. We can go to work anytime we like, but you will not close any time you like.
What kind of satisfaction have you enjoyed practicing journalism ?
I think from the little space which we occupy, we have effected some changes in our society. It may not be the big changes you expect, but at least we’ve been able to influence certain things in this country. At least, we have contributed our quota. Don’t forget that during the June 12 crusade, we were there; we tried to fight the military with our pen. The democracy that we are enjoying today is the fruit of the heroic struggles, heroic efforts of most of the journalists.
That’s one thing I think journalism has done that I enjoy. And when we had democracy, some of the early things we did was to expose some of the fraud that our leaders perpetrate. Like the Salisu Buhari fraud – a man who was not qualified to be Speaker and who was elected a Speaker at that time. Our story was able to remove him from office and we have done quite a lot of such things, trying to make some corrections in our society. I think for me that gives me a lot of joy, that gives me some satisfaction that our efforts haven’t been in vain.
You’ve been arrested a couple of times, which would describe as the most harrowing?
I think it was my last detention in 1996 or 97. We had an office then at Ogba (Lagos). And these people came, I was hiding somewhere and they broke all our doors just to get to where I was hiding. Somebody told them I was inside there, so they broke the doors, they got me and they held me by the collar of my shirt, dragged me to a car and sped to their Shangisha office. When we got there, they stripped me to my pants, because they were very happy to have arrested me. They had been looking for me and they didn’t get me, because when they came the first time to arrest me for what they wanted to question me about, I disappeared. And they couldn’t understand how I disappeared (General laughter).
I learnt that they told their superiors that that because I am an Ijebu man, I used juju to disappear. So, when they came the second time—that was why they held me by the collar; they were saying, ‘you won’t disappear today’. And to ensure that I didn’t disappear, when I got to their office in Shangisha, they stripped me to my pants and they threw me inside a very cold room. I was wondering: Do they want to kill me or something? The first day they didn’t even bother to feed me; they didn’t ask me anything. It was the following day that they now offered me food.. I spent about 2 weeks there. They took me from there to Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos where they continued their questioning.
I think the story then was about Maryam Abacha and they wanted to know where we got the story. I asked them: Did you see my byline on the story? It was Seye Kehinde they really wanted, but Seye had run away. So, when they couldn’t get him, they got me. They were telling me you must tell us how you got the story. I told them unless you get Seye, you can’t know where’s the story came from. I think it was the longest time they held me and at a stage they told me ‘you are gonna spend a long time here’. But I said, ‘If you people are God, I will spend a long time here’, but shortly after spending about 2 weeks with them or so, they finally asked me to go. And as I was leaving, I swore not to let them arrest me again. And when they came again, they didn’t succeed, because God just protected me. That was when they arrested the wife of my colleague – Mrs. Olorunyomi (wife of Dapo Olorunyomi) and detained her for a long time. This time, the story was on Abacha, how he was stealing money and I’m very sure, if they had gotten me, they would have killed me. After that one, I left Nigeria, because I was warned by some top people to leave.
Has there ever been a time that you felt like quitting journalism, maybe due to the incessant harassment?
I think I thought about that in 1998 after Abacha sent us on exile. I remember Nosa Igiebor (of Tell) also ran out of the country. He was in the UK and he came to the US and we were discussing and we said look, is it not time we left this profession, because at that time we were getting some dispiriting stories from Nigeria. It was the time you were hearing stories that people were doing 5 million man march for Abacha and so on. So, at that time, we were distressed that there’s no point in continuing with this profession if you are not getting any change. One is also dispirited with some events happening under our democracy: the impunity by public officers, the mind-boggling corruption and so many atrocities.
Away from work, what do you do for relaxation?
I’m not a club person. I know it’s dangerous as a journalist, as a crusader, to say you are going on nightclubbing. They can trail you from there to your house and if they want to kill you, they will kill you. So, I try to keep away from such places. That’s why even till today, I’m not a night-clubber. I don’t go out at night. I spend my time reading. There are so many things to read now that you don’t even have time for all those carousing. So, mostly, I spend my time reading, watching football. Occasionally going to parties – our local parties; I’m from Ijebu (Ogun State). Those are the things I do. As a person, I don’t do what most people do. I’m not even a member of any of these social clubs, except the one in my town.
A lot of people read what you write, who are those you read what they write?
I read a lot of people, I read so many things, but what I really love reading are biographies and autobiographies. I think I learn a lot from that.
Do you mind telling us about your family?
My family? I have a small family. I have a wife and a daughter. A small family!
Tell us their names…
My wife is Toyin and my daughter is Tobi.
Partnerships rarely work in Nigeria, why do you think that that of The News has lasted?
I think in our case, from day one, we set the rules. For instance, we said at the beginning that all of us must put in a minimum of 5 years in the partnership before you can go and before you can also be entitled to anything. Those that left before that forfeited their shares. But I think in partnership, the partners need to have a lot of understanding and then you also need to tolerate one another. I’m not a saint and I may have certain behavioural traits that my partners will not like. They can call me and say why are you doing this, what is the meaning of this? So, I think the key for me to making partnerships work is you need to tolerate each other, you need to understand each other; if maybe a partner is doing something on the side and he’s making some extra money, you don’t need to be jealous of that partner. Just focus on what binds you together and try to put in your best.
Lastly, why do businesses fail in Nigeria?
Businesses fail for a lot of reasons. In Nigeria, the environment is not so friendly to businesses. Look at the case of Dunlop. They had a loan of about N4 billion or so and nobody was willing to help them. But if Dunlop was operating in America, a company that was employing about 2000 workers, government will not allow it to go under. A very enlightened government will say okay, Dunlop, N4 billion, we can loan you that N4 billion, continue business, give us shares and if the business stabilizes, government can take back its investment. The big picture the government should be looking at is 2000 workers. Today Dunlop, a company that was manufacturing tyres in Nigeria is now a trading company, importing the same Dunlop tyre it was manufacturing from South Africa. Look at even the media business.
You know our business is a social business. It’s not a strictly for profit business. This is the only business where you print your magazine or your newspaper and then agents will come and take it to sell, and then it starts raining, you cannot sell it again. What you are doing is that you are providing some vital information to your community, to the society. That’s why I said it’s a social business. In the Francophone countries, their governments subsidize the media. But here, you are left on your own. And upon that, you will find the tax people harassing you. Whereas, the nature of the business, you should even be exempted from paying tax. So, the environment is not friendly. This is why the media will fail.
.This interview was first published by Yes International Magazine