After 26 years in newspaper publishing business, Isiaq Ajibola, Co-Founder of Media Trust Limited, publishers of Daily Trust newspaper, documents his experience in his forthcoming book, My Newspaper Odyssey. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, he speaks on his experiences in the media industry and sundry related issues
You have been in journalism and publishing of Newspaper although you read Economics?
Yes, I read Economics at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in Kaduna State. I graduated in 1988 and also have an MBA from the same university. I have in addition done other courses and I have worked in the media all my life, starting from 1990 in Lagos with the Just Politics magazine and the Citizen magazine based in Kaduna. From there I moved on to work at the Sentinel magazine which was set up by the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. I worked there till the time I co-founded the Media Trust Publishing Company, publishers of Daily Trust in 1996. First at Media Trust, I worked as the pioneer General Manager! I later became the Director of Operations and the Managing Director of the company for eight years. So, I have been in the media for about 26 years now.
What motivated you to venture into media ownership business and co-founding Media Trust?
I was not sure I had the capacity to run the media business alone. I knew my limits in terms of capacity, because it was not just about having the idea but also you needed people with experience and good will and you needed capital. I think a combination of all these were the reasons why we had to join forces. I think it would have been fool- hardy for one to just set up a media company at that time alone. One of my senior partners, together with who we eventually started the business, Kabiru Yusuf, and who is the current chairman of Media Trust Limited, had tremendous goodwill and I suggested to him that we should form a media company together, to be based in Kaduna. Looking at what was in existence then, the Lagos axis dominated the media business. So Kaduna was a very perfect choice. Yusuf is a gentleman who had a lot of goodwill and experience in the media and he is an experienced journalist also.
But where did your funding come from at the on-set?
We did not start with a lot of money. It wasn’t money, but ideas that drove the concept. These ideas propelled and sustained the media company for about two years, up till the time when we wanted to start the newspaper publication and we invited some more people to join us and they invested in it.
So it wasn’t just two of you?
Yes, but we later had more people that invested in the company. We brought in more people with whom we owned the company.
Did you have experience as a journalist before eventually venturing into the business or you just went straight into the business?
You see, I have always loved newspaper business; you would see in the book that I am launching next week, you will see it there that I have always loved newspapers. I had a chance of working in the bank when I graduated in 1988 but I never liked it because I wanted freedom and I wanted the newspaper. So all my life I have never worked outside publishing and media and of course I saw the business opportunity in it. One thing you would see in my book is setting up a newspaper purely as a means of welding power; political power. Politicians set up newspapers to have political power, government set up media to influence the people, but you see the only way any newspaper can survive is if it is set up for the people; for the people to have input in political and economic discussions in the country. So it is a platform where people can share ideas. So if you set up your newspaper for that reason it will eventually become a business venture because you are carrying everybody along, everybody is talking, it isn’t owned by one big politician or the government that is holding it and giving you money. So once you do you that you are in business. I think one of the experiences I have gained in all the newspapers I have worked is that the reason you set up the newspaper matters a lot and if you look at the evolution of newspaper in Nigeria in those days, the pre-independent newspapers were dominated by the government and they monopolized the business. Daily Times was printing about 500, 000 copies in Lagos, New Nigeria was printing about the same 500, 000 copies in Kaduna, and they were a monopoly. The main reason they were set up was clear, although they were independent in terms of editorial policies but then they were government controlled somehow. In those days, independent newspapers struggled to survive because a lot of things inhabited their growth: the level of the political economy and the general economic and business opportunities inhibited their growth. But our own was different because we came at a time there was democracy and there was economic boom and the experience was different. But the book tries to look at the evolution of newspapers from around that time, linking it to other businesses and looks at the workings of the newspapers themselves; the relationship among the departments; editorial, business and all sorts of things. What should be the ideal way of sharing power and the running these different units in the organization. So the book looks at the newspaper business from the industry point of view and relating my experience in all these newspapers that I have worked.
I know from experience that the book would have also talked about what happened to newspaper business over the years which you are part of. What do you think made the difference between Daily Trust and some other newspapers that haven’t been able to catch up with the tides of the business?
I think it is the people and the system that make the different. The circumstances of any two newspapers, in terms of the orientation of the managers and the management style determine whether the paper would succeed or not. The people you have engaged, are they quality people? Will they compromise? Do they have integrity? Are they people that will compromise your editorial standards and start collecting bribes? I am talking about the journalistic point of view now and of course on the operations side also, you must develop a culture whereby there minimal waste and control of cost. Also, you engage people that can deliver results at all time. The people and system you have set up matters. Right now, Daily Trust is an auto pilot system because you can’t do anything without having a basis for doing it; everything has a rule and policy, there is nothing anybody can do without having a basis for doing it. As a Managing Director I couldn’t collect N10,000 from the account department without a need for it. When we were building this system it was difficult, some of them we did unconsciously, it took almost 10 years before we could actually articulate them to becoming our system. So, now we have policy on business, we have policy on marketing, we have policy on advertising, we have policy on editorial, manner of account, manner of audit and all that. It took us a long time, we didn’t start with all those things, it took us some time before we got it right and articulated them into a document. Of course I am not saying they are not subject to change, of course they are, but that was the system. Essentially, the difference between a newspaper that is making it and the newspaper that isn’t are two; the people and the system.
Daily Trust came to fill the gap in media presence in the North. Do you think that really helped Daily Trust?
There was a business of opportunity and Daily Trust took advantage of it. I am not saying Daily Trust was set up purely for business but also it is one of the reasons why it was set up. We found a need and we fulfilled it. There is something we call the anaphase principle in management. There were so many newspapers in the South and none in the North, and people came together and said let us set up one. I think it was a smart move but like I said it was also a time when the country really needed more newspaper. But many people didn’t take up the opportunity. This was during Gen Sani Abacha’s military regime, many people didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and there was a serious clamor for democracy. Certainly it was a time people needed to talk whether you were from the North or the South. People needed platforms where they could talk and express their views and clamor for democracy. It coincided with that time so it was a big opportunity for the paper to be accepted by majority of the people, not just people of the North but also people of the South.
Did you benefit from patronages from State governments and politicians?
Of course everyone was our customer; government, individuals essentially from the North and also from the South.
But did such patronages influence the paper’s editorial policy?
No it didn’t! That is another thing about Daily Trust. The editorial policy is such that nobody can influence the decision of the paper, it was impossible. Right from day one, there were times when politicians wanted to influence stories and we didn’t allow that to happen. We had a stiff policy against political influence or any influence whatsoever from any quarter. Editorial independence is one of the cover notes of the company and of course that is one of the reasons that made the newspaper to succeed.
Welfare of journalists in the media industry has been a very touchy issue and one which most media organisations have been found wanting. How has Daily Trust been able to deal with this?
I have talked about that before I don’t want to dwell so much on that. I think we should focus more on my book. I have talked about the situation in the past. I know in the past the newspaper I worked we never had problems with things like this. I wouldn’t know the circumstances of other newspapers because the circumstances might be different and I won’t know why they are not paying but in the case of Daily Trust where I worked we never had problems of paying salaries, we paid on the 25th of the month but the circumstances of others maybe different like I said.
Why did you decide to retire from the company at this stage?
It has been our policy from the beginning that we; the founders at some point are going to have to leave the stage for new set of managers. We did that for 20 years and we thought that those that found the paper should leave the paper today. Just like I am sure you know the story of GT bank. Fola Adeola was the Managing Director and he left at some point probably his age was younger than mine. There is what we call succession planning. For serious organisations, who take succession planning seriously, I think it happens.
How is the media industry grappling with the challenges of hard times and present economic recession?
You know I have left there. But I know that every sector, not just the newspaper industry, is been affected by the recession. Even before the recession we started to feel some pinch about the downturn of the economy, but the recession must had added serious crisis to any business management not just newspaper because when you look around us here everything is imported. The newsprint that you used to import around N150, 000 per ton is now about N300, 000 per ton. So it is double and these things are in my book. Some of the tragedy of publishing in Nigeria where we had Oku Iboku, we have other opportunity of being able to have newsprints in Nigeria but we are not having it. Every newspaper imports whether from Sweden, all over the world we import our newsprint. So when you look at the dollar rate, it is going to be a serious challenge for anybody and on the revenue side advertising is not increasing in the sense that public sector advertisement actually declined except recently when I saw a lot of bidding government advertisement and the rest. The public sector advertising went down and the private sector advertising also went down because the recession is also affecting them. The budget on promotion has also been cut down and definitely it is a situation where you have a decline in revenue and increase in cost. When you have that situation for any company, which usually happens in the circle of any company you have a situation whereby you have a high cost and lower revenue. So you adjust internally and what you also do is to cut cost seriously because shareholders are there, they are going to be on your neck at the end of the year demanding for returns. I am not saying there should be retrenchment but there are some key elements of the cost we call them the major cost centers, look at them starting from your own allowances and stock management and all that, cut them up. See what you can do about newsprint maybe like cutting pagination and managing what you have, aligning your advertising pages to your editorial pages because they have a relationship. So all those things by the time you do them you may be able to cope. I also want you to know that recession is cyclical in any economy after the recession there is always a boom.
When you sit back and look at the last 20 years with Media Trust Limited and its publications, how would you assess your performance?
I think I am personally fulfilled in the last 26 years and incidentally I am also doing a media related job, I have a company that is into media communication and post survey. I am also worried about the future of newspapers and not just Daily Trust because all these things are contained in my book because the online is seriously eroding the copy sales and I am sure most of the news you get them on your tablet, your phones. There is a serious incursion, which is a big challenge because from the survey we did in the CDP pool we saw that a lot of people prefer to get their news online rather than the hard copy nowadays and there are a lot of outlets, a lot of links, a lot of various ways of getting your news without reading the hard copy. I think it is going to be a big challenge for the industry itself but of course what it calls for is innovation even on the part of the newspapers. New York Times for example, which is one of the legendary newspapers in the US recently was able to say it was merging revenue with online to that of hard copy in advertising and it is purely a result of innovation. So newspapers must innovate. And on a personal level I think I am fulfilled that I am a major participant in this even now that I have only one leg in the media.