The Future of the Print Media in Nigeria: Not Yet an Obituary

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Reuben Abati

Aword of congratulations is in order as the departure point for this extended commentary on the future of the print media in Nigeria. It is amazing that it is now 20 years since the first edition of the City People magazine appeared on the newsstands. Within the intervening period, the publication in reporting the city to the people, and capturing the character and the persona, the joys and the foibles, the ceremonies and the traditions, the fashion and the glitz of the people of the city for the overall benefit of society, has established itself as a formidable and successful business enterprise within its genre. It has served as a practicing field for hundreds of journalists, and a compulsory rendezvous for those seeking knowledge and information about the softer side of life as it is lived in our cities.

The founder, Seye Kehinde, and his team and all members of the City People family, including present and old staff, and the faithful patrons whose patronage has sustained the business deserve commendation. I assume however, that if Seye Kehinde were to be asked to reflect on the experience of the past 20 years, his simple, modest answer is most likely to be “It’s not been easy”, or something along that line to summarize the challenges of managing business in an environment wracked by peculiar uncertainties.

The truth is: it has not been easy managing the media, particularly the print media in any part of the world in the last two decades. Newspapers all over the world within the period have moved gradually from a season of prosperity to dwindling fortunes, and in the last decade, many have faced a chronic existential crisis, resulting in a re-thinking of the business model or the adoption of new strategies of survival or the bitter reality of bankruptcy, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions or outright disappearance from the news stands. The world of the newspaper, and the technology for producing it, and even the nature of news has changed dramatically. Globally, advertising revenue for newspapers has dwindled as advertisers seek greater visibility and reach for their messages. Many have had to lay off staff, or reinvent the identity of the newspaper by migrating from the physical print form to the digital space. By far, the greatest factor responsible for the contraction of the print media has been the rise of digital media, or social media which has changed the nature of the delivery of news, the nature of the practice and which has also significantly raised questions as to the true identity of a journalist as a professional.

A consideration of the future of the print media in Nigeria is to be situated within this context. For in every sense, and even more, the global fate of the newspaper has been reproduced in Nigeria, prompting the same concerns as expressed elsewhere, whether or not the print media is likely to survive or disappear as we know it, in the face of the onslaught of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, WhatsApp, and the ubiquitous mobile phone – all of which now deliver news in the form of fast food, in a formulaic manner, with little or no restrictions even if without the substantive thought that offers the kind of education that a newspaper is well suited to provide. Technological advancements and new modes of innovation have also made the radio and the television far more interactive and expressive than cold print. Demographically, the younger population is moving more in the direction of the new media, and its many dimensions, whereas an older population continues to romanticize the unique feeling and pleasure that is derived from burying one’s head in a newspaper and the fresh smell of print.

The Nigerian Situation
For the avoidance of doubt, the newspaper in Nigeria, the first of which appeared on the newsstands in 1859, has served Nigeria and Nigerians well. The print media in Nigeria has been the big platform on which all the big issues of the making and the unmaking of Nigeria as a society and nation have been debated, exposed and documented for more than a century from colonial rule to amalgamation, colonial governance, the struggle for independence, the post-independence era, the civil war, military rule, aborted democracies and the eventual return to civilian rule. It has held up a mirror over time to our society, our trade and commerce, our heroes and heroines, the villains of history and the prospects of our nation. The media is essential to democracy and the definition of commonly shared ethos and values, and here, the print media, its content, practice, and members have dominated major aspects of our national history.

It is ironic however that this once powerful institution is in decline. The newspaper industry in Nigeria is caught in the web of great depression and recession. It is falling victim to a combination of intertwined factors. The first is the dispossessed economic environment, which has reduced advertising revenue, as well as the purchasing power of the reading public, and driven up the cost of production to an almost unmanageable level. With a foreign exchange regime that is unstable, and virtually every input required for production imported from abroad, or sourced locally at cut-throat prices, an average newspaper which used to cost almost nothing in the 70s, is now priced beyond the reach of many Nigerians. Given the poor state of the economy, many businesses have had to cut down the amount that they spend on newspaper advertising, and rationalize the options available to them in terms of reach and impact. Government departments and civil servants of old who used to buy newspapers have had to cut their budgets for such purpose. Circulation figures have therefore dropped.

The second factor is the absence of a reading culture. The tragedy is that the failure of the Nigerian education system has resulted in a decline in the art of reading and a sharp rise in illiteracy. The education system no longer prepares the Nigerian school leaver for a life of thought and rigorous application. There has been a discounting of ideas in favour of a culture of wealth without work and instant gratification. Young people in particular have fallen out of the habit of reading newspapers, partly out of an antipathy towards reading anything that appears serious or extended, but also because of their fascination with the growth of the Nigerian cybernetic space and its contagious speed, attraction, and impact. At the heart of this is a crisis of communal amorality, and the collapse of values.

In the Nigeria of the 70s and 80s, public interest in the print media could be measured by the numbers of persons who besieged the newspaper stand in the morning, to buy copies or to join what was referred to then as the Free Readers’ Association –persons who could not afford to buy newspapers, but spent time with the vendor, chatting with him, keeping him company, and using the opportunity to glance through the newspaper. In some cases, such persons would buy one newspaper, and pay a small token for the permission to read a few more. The vendors’ stand soon developed into a mini-conference centre by the road side or street corner, as the readers ended up debating the issues of the day, often with feigned expertise on various subjects. Such gatherings by the vendors’ stand are no longer as common as they used to be. The vendors cannot afford to be left with unsold copies, the city has even become risky, and there is growing impatience with debate and discussion, but more than that, the news that is offered by the print media is no longer as exclusive or as of urgent interest as was the case in the past.

The third factor is closely linked to this point and it is the manner in which the broadcast media and the social media, helped by advancements in technology have stretched the competition to the disadvantage of the print media. The radio remains to date the most popular source of media information: in the past two decades, there has been an explosion in the number of innovative and interactive radio programmes in Nigeria, in part due to the seemingly corresponding explosion in the number of private radio stations across the country. For the same reason, the television in Nigeria has become a far more powerful media organ, and those who have access to electricity or can afford to run generators know that whenever they need information, the various television stations, public, private and cable, are available to offer detailed service at comparatively relative cost.

The main fare of a newspaper is news. But the news cycle has shrunk radically leaving the newspaper in a lurch. The 24-hour news cycle has been replaced by a news-on-the-go culture, which has become such a strong reality manifesting as the icon of the new century and the wave of the future. Today in Nigeria, as elsewhere, nobody needs to wait for the newspaper in the morning to gain access to any special information about the issues of the moment. With the rise of social media and mobile devices and applications, news has become an open commodity available per second, not even necessarily on demand but as a fact of the new age of media democratization.

A mobile telephone set, a laptop, or a palm top grants just about anyone access to news, either as a receiver of news or as a citizen providing news. People can load news, report incidents, circulate gossips and jokes, upload video on instagram, BB, and whatsApp, and generate a revolution of information within minutes by just taking a picture or recording a video with their phones. No staff may be required and no major investments are necessary. Such expressions as “Trending”; “breaking the internet”, or “going viral” indicate just how powerful the internet media has become. These devices and applications may reduce news and analysis to 140 words or a few seconds of video but the lack of depth notwithstanding, they have turned out to be the true mass media of communication. By the time the newspapers arrive on the stands in the morning, they are often behind the news, offering stale information.

Many newspapers have tried to respond to this by providing a little more in-depth reporting and analysis, but again in this regard, they are up against stiff competition from the various talk shows on early morning TV and the massive proliferation of blogs, where young men and women, who may never have worked in any media house, and have never heard of any code of conduct or style book, supply analysis and information, with such facility and speed that a newspaper may not be able to attempt. The newspapers try to compensate for this in the course of the day by reporting “Breaking News” but the bloggers are usually steps ahead. The emerging stars in the media industry in Nigeria today are mostly bloggers or those they call twitter overlords, and whose qualification is no more than sheer enterprise and an understanding of how the new technologies of communication can be deployed to influence the public mind.

It should not be surprising indeed that in every election in Nigeria in the past decade, for example, the battle for the vote has proven to be much fiercer on social media than on the pages of newspapers. Advertisers are also moving to the social media space. They have come to realize that the audience is on social media, the reach is phenomenal, the cost and the diversity are effective. Whereas a newspaper, projecting itself to be a national newspaper, with no more than a daily circulation figure of 10, 000 can reach just a few Nigerians, social media is global in its reach and the feedback is quick and measurable. Besides, it is the arena of engagement for the young and the middle-aged. Even with the constraints of power supply and affordability of devices and applications, internet penetration in Nigeria continues to rise. It remains the main arena of the future for power, authority, influence and democratic mobilization.

Struggling to Survive
The fear therefore is that print media in Nigeria may in the face of this competition, eventually disappear, or that it may someday in the future become extinct, not just in Nigeria, but globally. It is this that has promoted a resort to survival mechanisms by many newspaper establishments. An analysis of some of the measures in this direction by Nigerian newspapers exposes a genuine concern, but at the same time, the inadequacy of strategy or the lack of creativity and innovation.

The standard response by many of the print houses is to set up a website, or create an e-newspaper. These web sites merely upload nearly every item in the newspaper, with all the sections replicated. The obvious question is: when daily newspapers give their content free in such manner, what incentives do readers have to buy the print version? Besides, Nigerian newspapers online are yet to explore the option of subscription-driven online presence nor do they have any system for tracking the demographics and identity of visitors to their websites, since no registration is requested for. In the absence of strict copyright rule enforcement, content uploaded by the newspaper websites, produced by professional journalists are promptly copied and plagiarized across the Nigerian cyber space by parasitic bloggers, often without any attribution or acknowledgement, and usually without sanction or rebuke. There is an urgent need for a different business model, the type that involves horizontal and vertical creativity, to adapt and monetize digital newspaper distribution in order to attract significant online advertising revenue, and to prevent the theft of valuable material.

There is also a growing tendency by Nigerian newspaper houses to move sideways in pursuit of other revenue generating options. This has been in the form of organizing musical and fashion shows, or awards for Man of the Year or The Best manager of the year, or The Best Act of the Year and so on and so forth. This has become so infectious that even otherwise conservative media houses in the mainstream have joined the bandwagon of organizing such events. While this may promote the brand, attract attention, provide visibility and perhaps some revenue, it may not necessarily be a sustainable means of survival. Many of the recipients of these awards are usually well-heeled government officials or business executives. The diversion of the media enterprise into the business of giving these “chieftaincy titles” is a distraction that should be reconsidered. The business of a newspaper remains what it is: newspapering. The future of the media should include a search for greater integration and convergence: the creation of niche products, a robust web presence, the exploration of the use of online video and radio, and online media applications, to provide for the newspaper a heightened presence, all within the scope of the core business.

In recent times also, some Nigerian newspapers have following in the footsteps of the US magazine, Newsweek, suspended the publication of their print versions and migrated online. Still, there is no evidence that this has been properly thought–through. Changing a business model is not a mere function, the test lies in the viability of the new model, and its management.
In seeking to survive by all means, Nigerian newspaper managers have had to increase the cover prices of their publications as well, but as we have seen, the market for the print media is not infinitely elastic and the reader, confronted with an increased cost for which he or she is not prepared may naturally restrict himself or herself to the cheaper sources of information and analysis.

There is a future, still…
But does this mean that there is no future for the print media in Nigeria? Even now that many of the media houses are owing salary arrears, or cannot even pay salaries at all? Philip Meyer in a book titled “The Vanishing Newspaper” (2004) has predicted that the final copy of the last newspaper will appear some day in 2043. May be not. In the future to come, the newspaper may exist in a part-print, part-internet form but one thing is certain: news will always be relevant in the information age.

To preserve the legacy of the print, what is required as already indicated is a re-thinking of business strategy in a far more creative manner that integrates skills and options. One possibility is a more thorough exploration of the benefits of convergence in a technologically enhanced market, and a clear-headed refusal to hold on to current problematic strategies. The newsroom must become more diversified and the management cadre in our newspaper houses should recruit persons with multi-disciplinary skills and an understanding of the digital age.

At the moment, nearly every newspaper house in Nigeria is a prestige possession, a euphemism for one-man business, and even in the face of economic difficulties, the owners continue to cling to the business, with staff being owed salaries and printers and creditors spitting fire. In a market with over 120 publications, it is about time print media owners in Nigeria began to consider the option of mergers and acquisitions, the pooling of resources, as well as strategic partnerships to reduce waste and ego, unnecessary burdens and to move the print media market from its costly existence to the level of proper collaborative consolidation.

The future also lies in nichemanship. Whereas national newspapers which report on everything and try to be a destination for national news may be recording low profit margins or barely managing to survive, creating new niches may be a strategy to consider. There is a future and a market for specialized publications which focus on specific items such as sports, fashion, community news, lifestyle, professions, technology, agriculture and so on. The Nigerian internet market at the moment does not offer such a broad scope in terms of nichemanship, and so the existing gap can provide better opportunities for the press, presented as physical newspaper or as a website or e-paper.

I also imagine that there is a future for publications in the local languages. Dynamic as the internet and the social media may be, it would be a long time indeed, before they can take over the market for local news in local languages, providing information to an existing variegated market about matters that are of immediate concern to the group or the community.
More radical changes also need to be made to the structure and delivery of news. The print media in Nigeria is in need of reinvention in this regard. The newspaper, seeking survival must become more reader-friendly and seek to cultivate the younger segment of the population, with news and stories that serve their interests, without compromising quality journalism. The stories in our newspapers tend to read and sound alike, the effect of over-reliance on press releases and the spread of pack journalism. Media houses should endeavor to make content more original, and invest more in investigative journalism.

Media houses generally in Nigeria must also do a lot more to rebuild trust. This is urgent. Many newspapers have become rather partisan, serving not the liberal, public interest but the interest of political Godfathers, corporate sector patrons, and political parties with reporters and columnists showing no restraint in slanting the news to please the patrons. In comparison, the social media in Nigeria has shown greater liberalism; hence it is increasingly regarded as the place where free opinion can be heard, and where the reader can find news and information that the mainstream often conveniently ignores. Newspaper readers want to be able to read a newspaper and make up their minds rather than have editors and their teams shoving their own versions of commodified truth down their throats. With the plunging of circulation figures and diminishing impact, the age of the editor as a dictator and controller of high margin monopolies, may have ended.

One other thing is certain though: Our print media may be thus challenged but it has not yet lost its attraction for those who in getting the news, enjoy the physicality and tactile encounter with print, and are interested in professional, organised presentation and the feeling that they are reading materials provided by trained hands, rather than a dilettante or the adventurer, or the ordinary man exploiting the near-boundless citizenship and freedom that the internet offers. As newspapers strengthen their resort to convergence, and online operations, and tone down their political partisanship, they can reinvent that same professionalism and rigour that once made the Nigerian newspaper, a platform of trust and record – a major deficit in the online sphere.

What this last point projects for our reflection, is the cautious realization that whereas the social media may be interactive, conversational, democratic and liberative, its capacity, in theory and actuality, to result in the death of the print, is grossly countermanded by its own deficits: the reduction of significant thoughts to sound-bites, the accommodation of offensive and defamatory material, limited credibility, inevitable conflict between culture and technology, openness to violation and orchestration, and its permanent Karmic memory. Credibility and legitimacy are crucial factors in the complex interplay of forces, which govern media systems and the public communication process. The online sphere offers much liberation from the restrictions of the offline sphere, but what William Dutton calls “the Fifth Estate” also stands to benefit more from the traditions of the Fourth Estate, thus fostering a symbiosis.

So, in the same manner in which the onslaught of radio and television has not resulted in an obituary of the print, the newspaper as we know it, should survive the rise of the cybernetic Fifth Estate, even if in a different shape and design.