Her foray into journalism was accidental, but she has made the best out of the unintended career. Looking back at her professional journey, Yemi Kolapo, founder and Managing Director of The Point Newspaper, feels fulfilled and happy plying her newspapering business. She talks about her life and profession, in this encounter with Raheem Akingbolu
Unlike most graduates in Nigeria, who are usually unsure of what the future holds after graduation, Yemi Kolapo knew her future was bright in terms of employment when she was leaving the University of Lagos two decades ago. As a result of her outstanding performance, the Department of Economics, where she graduated from, had written to the National Youth Service Corps to request that Kolapo and another student be posted to the department for their national service. The implication was that the two would eventually become lecturers in the department.
Kolapo grabbed the opportunity and remained in the department after the compulsory one year national service. Within two years, young Yemi Sowunmi, as she was then known, completed her Master’s degree, and just as she picked the form for a PhD programme, the urge to change environment set in.
Change of Course
“I felt the urge to explore other things and pursue my PhD on a part-time basis; It was like my whole life was built around UNILAG, and I had become so popular in the department,” Kolapo said. “So, I decided to test my brain outside the university. Perhaps, if I had served outside the school and only came back to pursue my Master’s and PhD programmes, I would have been more comfortable.”
She explained, “It was around this time that Punch was planning to recruit business reporters. I had known the managing director of Punch as a little girl even before I went to the university. He was fascinated by the number of distinctions I made in my WAEC and encouraged me to hang in as a trainee in Punch while I awaited my JAMB result. Then, he was Editor.
“I resolved to leave UNILAG; he dropped the hint about the recruitment and also said the pay was worthwhile. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I went in for the test, performed very well and got the job. The rest is history.”
According to Kolapo, “Within a few months of joining the newspaper my interest in journalism blossomed and I was putting in my best. I started writing a relationship column, ‘Eve’s World’ that soon became a must-read for many Nigerians, especially young ladies and men who were interested in matters of the heart. In fact, I still have the record of how the column helped some people to get their preferred spouses.
“Along the line, I was given greater responsibilities in Punch, including the handling of a back page column on the economy, called ‘COMPASS,’ every Monday. When the then Chairman of Punch, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, a stickler for excellence, saw that ‘Eve’s World’ was interfering with my primary beat, he directed that I should concentrate on my back page column and the business/banking beat.”
Speaking about the feedback she got from readers of her back page column, Kolapo said she was shocked that within a short time, COMPASS had become like a Bible to economic policy makers and analysts because of its incisiveness, style and depth.
She rose to become the first female Group Business Editor of Punch. It was a bigger responsibility, a challenge that put her on her mettle. She acquitted herself well.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the then Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, appointed Kolapo Senior Special Assistant on Communications and Strategy. Though the job took her away from mainstream journalism, she remained in good touch with the profession and her colleagues. Perhaps, this was why she was able to write and launch a book while in office.
She said regarding her appointment, “I won’t say the decision to serve under the Honourable Minister took me away from the media business because, as I used to say while in office, I was a journalist in the ministry as well as a go-between the ministry and media professionals. In fact, it was also a good opportunity for me to serve my colleagues in another capacity, as they relied on me for accurate information and, sometimes, scoops that enhanced their reports.
“You could only have worked as hard as I worked in Punch to have been able to work successfully with former Minister Aganga. He was a workaholic. I put in my very best, like I have always done, and that was why the ministry, which had, hitherto, been almost irrelevant, became like the main ministry, during Aganga’s tenure.
“Besides, I had always wanted to have the experience of the other side before settling down in media business. I remember that in the farewell card we signed for Chief Ogunshola, I had dropped the hint that I would one day start a newspaper, and he remembers this.”
In December 2014, Kolapo made good on her dream to start a newspaper, though she began with media consultancy. She had built a formidable media team in the ministry, which continued with the handling of the minister’s media needs under her supervision until Aganga left office in May 2015. Then, Kolapo returned to her base in Lagos.
Though, her father, Alhaji Tayo Sowunmi, was National Vice Chairman of All Progressives Grand Alliance, Kolapo did not join politics. She went into the tough terrain of newspaper publication. This led to the birth of The Point Newspaper.
As at August 2016, when she started the paper and called one of the daughters of the late Chief Moshood Abiola, Hafsat Abiola-Costello, and Alhaji Nojeem Jimoh, a former editor of Punch, to join her, the newspaper publication business looked unreasonable. Economic recession was at its peak and was already affecting the fortunes of many businesses in the country. Another challenge was that the paper came at a time many Nigerians had started embracing the social media as their preferred platform for news.
“Agreed, print media is a tough terrain, considering the challenges facing the industry,” she said. “But almost three years after, I still believe my decision to start The Point when I did was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Unlike when people just come in, pump in the money and expect returns immediately, ours was driven by passion and that’s why we will always remain in business by the grace of God.
It was a tough time in1995 when THISDAY was established because it was a period when the military was suppressing the media and clamping down on media houses. But because he has the passion, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, damned the consequence and came into the business. As a professional that is full of ideas and innovation, he used his creativity to drive all the THISDAY titles and they all became a success story.”
Kolapo said, “Anyone who has followed the story of Punch would know that it takes passion, commitment to integrity and a sound business plan to remain in business successfully. Those who turned the story of Punch from grass to grace are my role models any day.”
She said, “Though the indications had always been there, even under former President Jonathan, that there would be recession, we never expected it to last as long as it did. That aside, one thing that I knew when we started The Point was that the gap was there. There was market and there were opportunities, which we thought we could key into and that was what we did.”
Kolapo said “exclusivity” was the attribute that had kept The Point newspapers going.
“From the word go, we set a goal and the goal was to break news and this has not only helped us to grow, it has helped us to command respect in various quarters,” she said. “We know that the sky is big, but we were committed to fly faster and farther, hence the need for originality and exclusivity. Overtime, newspapers like THISDAY, Punch and Guardian, to mention a few, have excelled in the market place because of the exclusivity of particular stories.
“Let me cite two recent examples of how filing in exclusive stories can reposition a newspaper brand. Our edition on, ‘Herdsmen Attack: Benue Goes for State Police’, changed the conversation around the recent herdsmen attacks in Benue. Some of our previous exclusives, like ‘I won’t beg OBJ again – Atiku’, almost crashed our website. Copies sold were also very impressive. We have also broken many business stories that kept companies’ media handlers running helter-skelter every Monday.
“Outside The Point, the other recent example was the THISDAY cover of Monday 5, February, 2018; ‘IBB Speaks to THISDAY, Affirms Statement, Says Nigeria Needs New Breed of Leaders’. As a result of that exclusive story by THISDAY, the controversy over whether Babangida issued a statement or not on the leader Nigeria needs was laid to rest.”
Asked why The Point has not gone daily, despite crossing initial hurdles, Kolapo explained, “Let me answer your question by borrowing some words of wisdom from my big brother and one of my advisers, Pastor Tunde Bakare, who told me during one of our discussions that ‘big masquerades don’t come out daily’.
“I had gone to Pastor Bakare on a visit and I mentioned to him our decision to go daily and he asked me why. In a few minutes, he convinced me on why we should continue with our weekly publications.
We have since found out that the weekly publication strategy has somehow become a winning strategy. We will, however, soon roll out our daily plans, different from what obtains in the market.”
Kolapo does not believe digital media poses a big threat to the traditional media. She sees online publications, instead, as playing a complementary role, saying print media still remains the most credible and trusted source of information to readers.
But she said the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria and other promoters of print media platforms should buckle up and encourage newspaper owners to “provide robust online versions of their newspapers that would complement the hard copies.”
According to her, “My friend, the publisher of the 100-year-old Gongwer News in Michigan, once told me that information is key and should not be received free. NPAN still needs to go back to the drawing board to reassess the issue of free news online with a view to arriving at a win-win position.
There is a need for all stakeholders to pursue a common goal that would further make newspaper business profitable.
“Though there are many challenges, the print media is definitely more respected, especially when you do it right. No discerning reader will give regard to a story posted at the corner of the room of an unknown blogger more than the one written by a trained journalist and produced through a standard process. Even at that, newspapers must follow the emerging trend and compete on the social media.”
Speaking on how she combined her responsibilities at home with her business, Kolapo stated, “A hard working journalist or any full time female employee should be able to strike a balance between her job and her family. There are full time housewives who have not been able to manage their homes. So it is really about striking a balance. Personally, I’m happy my job has not in any way impacted negatively on my family.
“Let me add this, I was further inspired recently when my undergraduate daughter innocently declared that she wanted to be like me in every way.”