GOVERNANCE - 06 JAN 2017

Modern Day Journalism

Modern Day Journalism
National theater, Iganmu Lagos

Earlier this year, Peter Oborne delivered a scathing attack on The Daily Telegraph while tendering his resignation as the paper's Chief Political Commentator. He told the story of how the paper had self-censored itself by pulling articles partially as a response to falling on the foul side of the bank in the past. That letter could be viewed as a metaphor for the current journalism landscape. A lot of premium ticket names have been let go in favor of younger, more internet savvy replacements as the papers seek to downsize to compensate for their falling revenues. 

Simon Barnes, the brilliant writer who graced the Times, was relieved of his duties, as was Tony Gallagher, the Telegraph's last Editor. By all accounts, Henry Winter (the most highly regarded British football journalist - he is the British representative in Ballon D'or voting and has more than 1 million Twitter followers) is off to The Times. Gallagher's exit marked the demise of the Editor title at the Telegraph with an American Head of Content coming in. This marks an obvious change in strategy from the traditional newspaper model to a more "digital model" in the hope that online revenue can be maximized. In a sense, this is natural in evolution; more people can be reached online as they receive a free service as opposed to opting in by purchasing the paper. This means that the goal then becomes to maximize reach which in the case of The Telegraph involves a switch from the serious journalism normally attributed to broadsheets to stories like that of the woman with the "third breast", a story Oborne suggests was already known to be inaccurate. 

Looking at the figures released in June last year by the ABC, the Telegraph stands as the fifth most popular paper in the UK and the highest circulating amongst the broadsheets. Declaring pre-tax profits of £57million falling from £57.2 million the year before, the suggestion was that print advertising revenues had fallen and the compensation for this had come from a "marginal increase in circulation revenues and continued growth in digital revenues". The digital revenue is being honed into more and this explains why the paper owned by the Barclay twins (owners of Littlewoods, the Woolworths and Ladybird brands and the London Ritz) is clearly evolving its strategy. The shame lies in the manner in which it has allowed the revenue drive to distort its editorial coverage.

 

It's a Daily Mail world

This trend is largely explained by the rise of the Daily Mail and Mail Online. While the paper and the website are separated, the online version has taken prominence as the most visited news site in the world. Identifying the gap for celebrity journalism on the grandest of scales, Mail Online has become a pop culture phenomenon and a truly formidable global media outlet. Its financial results released in August last year puts the advertising revenue the site generated in the leading 11 months at £53million. Note that this is not far off what the entire Telegraph media group generated as profits. Its print operation is second only to the Sun's. 

The Mail's model allows the online platform to bolster the print model, the right reward for the credibility and economies of scale provided by the print model during the website's teething stage. As a result, it's been able to make some key recruits. Piers Morgan has come on board as Editor at Large (no pun intended) of its American outpost. Tony Gallagher, the man whose exit from the Telegraph in January 2014 marked the beginning of the end for that paper was given a job as Joint Deputy Editor at the Mail. Paul Dacre who has overseen the Mail's rise is one of the modern day greats. The best paid Editor on Fleet Street, Oborne captures his greatness as lying in the way "he articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the suburban middle class" describing it as a "daily performance of genius".

 

High Standards without Success: The Guardian story

This has been a huge blow to a paper like the Guardian whose strong digital presence is built around a core of strong and diverse range of writers and columnists. Its Comment is Free section particularly stands out. Guardian, who are led by the soon to depart Alan Rusbridger, regarded as the Patron Saint of modern British journalism, have a strong strand of integrity and public interest in their dealings as encapsulated by their investigation and breaking of stories on deplorable media conduct that eventually led to the demise of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World. On a global front, as the paper tries to expand into the lucrative Australian and American markets, the manner in which it broke and navigated the Edward Snowden story via Glenn Greenwald earned it a lot of credit and goodwill. The downside is that this failed to translate to its bottom-line. 

Guardian, despite its prestige and high standards continues to hemorrhage money. Of the 12 national dailies, its circulation figures are third from bottom. It doesn't succumb to the type of journalism Mail Online advocates which surely undermines its hits and profits. As a result of the pedestal on which it places itself, it refuses to adopt an outright paywall or metered one like The Times, Telegraph and New York Times do. One belief is that the Guardian's unique model is what has allowed it to take this stance: The paper is owned by the Scott Trust via the Guardian Media Group which holds about £1 billion in assets partially bolstered by the sale of its stake in car site, Auto Trader. It is unlikely that that money would run out anytime soon but there has to be a point at which it stops being used to buttress a failing operation. Doubts also stand about the wisdom of allowing Rusbridger (a personal idol) take such a prominent role on the Scott Trust in his retirement. Will his successor, Katharine Viner (who aims to set up a Nigerian based Guardian bureau!) have the necessary conviction in her ideas when her ex boss who was in office for 20 years is still hovering about?

 

Nigerian Media: An Interest Economy

Looking at the Nigerian media landscape, one of the first points to note is the benefactor model at work. For instance, Punch is owned by the Aboderin family, Tribune the descendants of Obafemi Awolowo, Guardian by one of the Ibru's, Thisday by Nduka Obaigbena, whilst the likes of Sun and Nation are owned by renowned politicians, Orji Uzor Kalu and Bola Tinubu. Vanguard belongs to veteran journalist and Punch co founder, Sam Amuka Pelu. It is to both papers' (Sun & Nation) credit that their affiliations are not so blatant but the general feeling is that a lot of Nigerian journalism is interest based.

Case in point: In 2009, the serving Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi carried out some banking reforms that ousted Bank CEO's like Cecilia Ibru and Erastus Akingbola amongst others. Thisday's coverage was famously muted because it had been guilty of honoring those disgraced bankers. The other case in point coming when Thisday crowned Lagos state Governor, Babatunde Fashola as its Governor of the Year and Fashola felt compelled to reject the award because he saw it as an attempt to compromise his integrity as the paper was in dispute with the state government over the construction of its event centre in Lekki, which had been built without the necessary regulations in a residential area. That centre was eventually demolished. This interest base is further encapsulated by the fact that because of the diversity of the country, popularity is measured in blocs. Punch is the paper of choice in the South West, Vanguard in the South South while Leadership is the most popular  paper in the North.

Punch stands as the strongest Nigerian paper in that they have a cultural ethic based on high standards and a low tolerance for inadequacy. It also helps that it is the most widely circulated paper in the country. Punch have a no credit policy which suggests that they are a very profitable operation. Some other papers are notorious for not paying staff thus serving to encourage brown paper journalism which explains the spate of badly edited, hatchet jobs and puff pieces. Thisday's Nduka Obaigbena is particularly guilty of this as captured by investigative British magazine, Private Eye.

 

High Standards without Success: The Next story

One paper attempted to redefine Nigerian journalism but ultimately failed. Next, the brain-child of Pullitzer Prize winner Dele Olojede, arrived to much fanfare as it was backed by some financial heavyweights (Fola Adeola, Tunde Folawiyo and Keem Bello Osagie are believed to have made significant investments). It debuted on January 4th 2009 and ran as a weekly publication (going on sale on Sundays). This coming because the paper was printed outside the country. In August of that year, armed with its homemade press, it evolved to a daily. It was presented as a glossy broadsheet (rare in this part of the world). It also recruited some credible writers and columnists in Teju Cole, Tolu Ogunlesi, Kayode Thomas, Niyi Osundare, Molara Wood, Pius Adesanmi, Lola Shoneyin, Ikhide Ikheloa, Lanre Idowu and Kadaria Ahmed to enhance its standing. 

At the time, the pay packet Next was offering was dwarfed only by the traditional big 3 of the banks, oil and telecommunications companies. Reporters were handed Blackberry phones to aid strands of on the go and citizen reporting culture. Its neat website became popular with Nigerians in the diaspora as it was presented in fashion that resonated with what they were more used to, the ultimate compliment to what Olojede built. The comment section was one of the more interesting parts of the internet and it was no surprise that certain commenters gained notoriety, even inspiring columns dedicated to them. Coming in the era of social media and virality, it doubled as a chatroom stimulating some interesting debates. 

Next broke a lot of stories but its coverage of President Yar' Adua's health, the CBN polymere notes scandal and its publication of secret cables via Wikileaks particularly stood out. It gained credibility. However, the paper ran into problems when columnists who were already nervous about their irregular pay were given the choice of writing for free or terminating their agreements. A couple of them took Olojede and the holding company to court and won. In no time, it went out of print and the website was pulled. The symbolic significance of Next was that it whetted the appetite and created demand for quality journalism operating from a technologically advanced base. It also highlighted the importance of a sensible revenue generation model. Ultimately, Next's demise came because it failed to strike a balance and this resulted in a model that was rich in fizz but lacking in its grasp of reality. It could be suggested that this is the future that faces Rusbridger's Guardian.

 

The Daily Mail Green and White Edition

The Nigerian media have generally been slow to accept technology. The newspaper websites are pretty poor and this played into the hands of a generation of bloggers who were able to find financial success with little to no overheads. Linda Ikeji is one who would probably not exist if City People had the foresight to venture online. This vacuum helped the likes of Nairaland, Linda Ikeji and Bella Naija to set their stalls. While it is unclear how much they make (short of calling their Bank managers, it's near impossible), one report suggests Ms Ikeji's blog is worth ₦1.1 billion. A look at her ad rate card shows that a background takeover (a package that has proved popular with the political class in election season) costs ₦1.6 million a month. Bella Naija's most expensive ad (its homepage mast head ad) goes for ₦262,500 a week. These websites have aped the Mail Online strategy of easily clickable celebrity stories and articles and reaped the rewards. Platforms such as Sahara Reporters, Premium Times and The Cable have proven popular while offering some serious journalism but there is a lack of clarity to their revenue generation.

 

What Next?

As technology continues to impact the media industry, the key challenge lies in getting people to pay for what they are now accustomed to receiving for free. Another key challenge stems from the fact that most people today are familiar enough with how the media operates not to accept everything at face value. What happens is that they sample the different platforms and then curate their interests around the ones they find most reliable. For instance, a readermight enjoy the Guardian's political analysis, the Daily Mail's football transfer gossip and the BBC's economic coverage. As all this can be accessed at his pleasure online, it's highly unlikely those outlets would get money off him. The ideal response to this, a Paywall, is a strategy that has worked for those who have adopted it (The Times, The New York Times, The FT, The Wall Street Journal) as they are in good financial nick and have a decent subscriber base.

Were I tasked with devising a solution, I would suggest that a platform like the Newsstand on your iPhone charges a set rate on a weekly/monthly basis and the money is then split to the relevant newspapers whose content you have accessed over said period. This is essentially for the millenials I reference in the earlier paragraph who mix and match for news.

Looking at a paywall in the in the Nigerian context, the first point to make is that because the online market here is filled with so many relatively new players who lack entrenchment with the audience, it's a risky strategy to place a paywall which tends to hinder growth. Most platforms who operate paywalls do so because they know they have an audience for it. The business publication, Business Day is the only publication paywalled on this side. Then again, it caters to a niche audience.

*That American Head of Content, Jason Seiken has recently left the paper.

 

Follow this Writer on Twitter @MayowaIdowu. Subscribe to read more articles here.

Oluwamayowa Idowu

Oluwamayowa Idowu

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