Mr Bayo Onanuga is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief of The News magazine.
In this interview, he gives reasons why magazines go under. Excerpts:
What do you think led to the evolution of magazine production in the Nigerian print media?
In Nigeria, magazines have been here for a long time. I recall the days of The Drum magazine, then later magazines called The Trust and The Spear. Those were the old days, when some of us were still school boys. I am talking about the 1960s. There was also a Federal magazine. We had the Nigerian Voice or something like that published by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
But in terms of news magazines, the foreign news magazines held sway more. The Economist has been around for almost a century, The Time magazine, Newsweek – they are very old magazines—they have been here. What I know is that in the 1960s or, let me say, the 1970s we had a lot of magazines emerging. African magazines emerged in the 1970s. They used to come from London. One of them was published by Ralph Uwechue. It was called AFRICA NOW.
Then locally here, we had African Spark , published by the late Ohanbamu. Chris Okolie published New Breed and he later added The President to his stable. Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, formerly of Daily Times started with The Nation or something like that.
That was how magazines were springing up. After that, of course, Abiola started the Concord Weekly, which came before Newswatch. Then Tell magazine came. There was one published by Malam Mohammed Haruna, called Citizen, and we came finally in 1993.
Today, what do you think should be the focus of news magazines away from normal reporting?
With the way news is evolving, even with the way news is reported, I must say that the weekly news magazines are endangered because the information they want to pass to the public on a weekly basis has already been used and over used by the daily papers, radio, television, the new social media and things like that.
So, for the weekly magazine, you must really dig deep to be able to publish something that can grab the attention of the public. And it must be fresh, the perspective must be fresh and so compelling to force the reader cough out N400 or N500. If you don’t have such great perspectives for news that is not ordinary, that must be extraordinary, then you have no chance. That is the way I see it. It is not as easy as it was before.
Do you think the current news magazines have the same orientation to news as those in the old days?
There have been challenges. We are living in terrible times where the average reporter out there is concerned more about survival. Let me illustrate. Look around Nigeria, how many newspapers now publish cartoons? Unlike in the 1970s and 1980s when cartoonists were very popular, how many cartoonists can you mention now? It is a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere.
Even the humour that our people used to have has gone, so you don’t have creative cartoonists anymore. They are no more there. So, humour has died and what people are more concerned about now is survival. Out there, you see frowning faces—someone is thinking about what his children are going to eat, thinking about school fees and so on. So, they don’t really have time for the job anymore.
These are some of the challenges we are facing—challenges of staffing, challenges of proper pay so that workers concentrate on their jobs and do them well.
And the general challenges in the country are not being properly tackled. Where people are not sure of having three meals a day, they are also not even sure of their security, they are not sure of having shelter. The news media houses are just operators in that system—everybody is caught up in the web…it is a problem. What affects this country generally affects us and it affects our output, it affects journalists as it affects everybody.
What do you think is really responsible for news magazines not lasting long on the news stand in Nigeria?
Well, we have to look at it at various levels. It could be that they didn’t do enough market research. They didn’t segment their readership very well. And it could also be because of the terrible economic situation we are in. Even if they had done all the necessary researches and they have the necessary segmentations, but if the economy is not doing very well, that may finally affect the fortunes of that paper.
I always tell people that there is a hidden factor that affects the survival of publications, what people will call luck! The Muslims will say it is Allah. Christians say God, but I say luck. It is a factor that people don’t factor into this thing when they are starting up. You can have the best concept in this world, but if you don’t come at the right time you may fail. You have to really hope that your outing is the right time to do it; that it is not the wrong time.
To take you away from this a bit, look at the fast food outlets coming up now. There were fore-runners of that industry, the Chicken George of this world, the Eddie Burger of this Lagos and others, but where are they today? They have been replaced by Mr Biggs, Tantalizers, Sweet Sensation, and they are thriving in the same area the fore-runners faded out.
Amidst these challenges in the industry, how has The News coped for almost two decades now?
Well, I will say the first thing that has kept us going is ideology. A newspaper and even a magazine must exist for something. If you don’t have an ideology, you will not be focused, because today, you will be on one side and tomorrow you will be on another side. Our own ideology has kept us going, an ideology that we spelt out from day one—that this magazine shall be on the side of the Nigerian people. From Day One, we said so and we said we are going to propound or promote ideas that will uplift the Nigerian people.
We set out all those ideas from Day One: a magazine on the side of people, a magazine that will be for the free market, that will be for democracy and that will be for free enterprise and all kinds of things. We clearly spelt out those things.
And if you know our history, you will find out that when we started, we ran into problems in focusing on those things, in implementing those ideas. We said we are for democracy so there was June 12 and where did they find us, on the side of June 12. Abacha came and we kept pushing for democracy, that our country needed democracy at that time. So that is where they are going to find us.
Even today that we have democracy, we still come out to promote other values that we believe our society should have. Those are the things that have kept us going. Any time, if you say something has happened, where are you going to find The News? On the side of the people because any paper that is not on the side of people, such paper will not survive.
If you are always backing the establishment, you are not going to survive because generally, all over the world, the people don’t trust those who are in government. They believe that they are charlatans, they are fraudsters, so people should be as skeptical as they are until government proves otherwise. Until then, you have to be safely on the side of people and that is what we have been doing.
How do you think news magazine can survive in the current economic situation?
Nothing is impossible! Any news magazine coming up should do its study very well, to know what the people out there really want to read. It is a difficult time out there because of the erosion of over a decade of the purchasing power of Nigerians in the market for printed materials, not just for newspapers or magazines. Even books purchase is dwindling.
The print market is in a serious recession because people don’t have money. Who will buy the books, the newspapers, the magazines when people only contemplate about their lives? They don’t have surplus money to buy educational materials. They know that they can use them to elevate their minds, but if they have not fed their stomachs, how can they buy books for the minds? They need to keep the body and soul together before they can keep the brain functioning. So, more than that anybody coming to do it, whether as a news magazine or as a news publication, should study the market well and if they believe in prayers they should pray for luck.
How can Nigerians be encouraged to imbibe reading culture?
In the Francophone countries, what government does is to subsidise newspapers. In France, government, I learnt, pays newspapers to supply free newspapers to people between 18 and 25 years. The whole idea is to ensure that the younger generation keeps reading. Because in this age of internet, wireless telephones and all kinds of things, in the age that people can actually read their papers in electronic form, there is the tendency that they will not patronize the printed ones anymore.
Don’t forget that the home of the enlightenment age, the age of philosophers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and so on, was France, so it is not surprising that they are still keeping the reading culture alive to ensure that people actually read. Any government that really wants its people to be enlightened must find a way of encouraging the younger ones to cultivate the reading habit, even if they don’t have the economic power to do so. Government must make information available to them. It can pay this money directly to publishers and ensure that young people are supplied the newspapers free.
What can the news magazines do to tap into the advantages of digital era?
Yes, we are already in it. I don’t think any publication worth its name does not have an online version. For us here, we have www.thenewsafrica.com and www.pmnewsnigeria.com, so we are on the online formats.
The ones we have not done are those of the i-pad, but we are readily available on the net because the way the world is structured, newspapers are going to have the print version and the electronic version and they are separate brands. For instance, our PM News electronic version is far more superior and far richer than the print version in terms of interaction, and feedback, but the two editions [the electronic and print] interface because the materials we load on the electronic are also reloaded back to print.
We are reaching the younger people through the social media because when we load our stories you will see them appear on Facebook, Twitter and some other social media platform. We are part of the digital world. Even if you are 15 or 16 and you are subscribed to my twitter group, you will definitely have alert on a story from PM News or The News and once you click on it you read it.
There is a lot of interconnection. Our reporting, our publishing business has changed because of new technology and all of us just have to find a way of tuning ourselves to that reality.
Based on your experience in the business, what advice will you give to potential publishers of news magazines in Nigeria?
I will say publishing is like a drug. People who get involved in it are intoxicated and they love it passionately. But just like we tell drug addicts, what we have to tell them is to tread carefully. I will say they should do research before they venture into it. In fact, it is a very difficult business to do. If one treads carefully and studies the market very well, one should also watch one’s circulation very well because that is where one loses a lot of money.
If they do their work very well, God will sustain them. Advert patronage will come. The market is well regimented and if the paper is well circulated, it will survive, but one must realise that this is a very difficult business.
Interviewed by Nahimah Ajikanle Nurudeen, and first published by Sunday Trust on 03 June 2012