By Bamidele Ademola-Olateju
Those questions raced through my mind as I saw the front pages of the Punch, the Guardian and Sun newspapers on Monday, January 19, 2015. The Sun prides itself as a tabloid, maybe it can be forgiven. Has the Punch and the Guardian gone tabloid? Those are newspapers we credit with some level of seriousness and journalistic responsibility. What does it mean to run a newspaper on the ethical plane defined for others, in public and corporate life? What does “corporate social responsibility” mean for a media organisation? How can it be measured or does it even matter? I grew up reading the Punch until I left Nigeria. The Punch for me was a newspaper that reflects liberal and progressive ethos with an attachment to high journalistic and ethical standards. The Punch was serious, politically independent and credible. The Guardian though a later entrant, was christened in a climate of intellectual rigor, editorial vigor and independence, with a very vibrant group of writers. What happened to them? Drive for profit?
Seeing the advert placed by Ayo Fasose, the dislocated brute of Ekiti state, the words of C. P Scott in his famous 1921 essay on journalism rang ceaselessly in my brain: “It is a mistake to suppose that the business side of a paper should dominate, as sometimes happens, not without distressing consequences. A newspaper, to be of value, should be a unity, and every part of it should equally understand and respond to the purposes and ideals which animate it. Between its two sides there should be a happy marriage, and editor and business manager should march hand in hand, the first, be it well understood, just an inch or two in advance.” How I wish the controllers of mainstream Nigerian newspapers have sufficient appreciation for the last phrase in the quote above? How I wish they held advertising ethics higher than profit. How I wish they learn from the outrage their decision generated.
We know they don’t make money like they use to given how the rise of new media, social media and the culture of free has impacted the bottom line of Nigerian dailies negatively, like their counterparts everywhere in the world. Newspapers are losing money everywhere except a few who have invented a digital model that makes money. For those who understand trends, newspaper print sales and revenue are going to continue their decline in the near future. Digital readership will rise faster and revenue will rise slowly. But has public service journalism ever been about enormous circulations or huge profits? As things stand today, no newspaper sells above 100,000 copies daily in Nigeria and it can only get worse with mobile telephony and fast Internet penetration.
In the age of new and social media, only the newspapers with values, a long-term vision and belief in journalism will survive. Putting that Fayose’s ad on the front page of their newspapers might be commercially rewarding in the short term but it accelerates the death of these newspapers. While the newspaper houses are racing for the Naira, it is going to be even more difficult going forward. We are in a new world where the likes of Punch and the Guardian are heavily dependent on the fast declining world of text and still pictures at a price as opposed to a bold new world of text, pictures, audio and video as defined by emerging new technologies for free.
That is why the stampede of the newspapers into tabloid format in a bid to further a political agenda is a sorry descent. A descent that is oblivious of the growing trend especially among the young demographics who wants unbiased, ubiquitous news (not in your face ultra negative ads) and on demand. The ground rules have changed: the mainstream media no longer have the monopolistic power to make or break people; the power to sit as judge and jury on people in public life and to determine who is allowed a voice in public debate, and who is denied. It is the assumption and arrogance that they still do that led them to publishing the insensitive Fayose advert, thinking they have the playing field to themselves. Unfortunately, the emergence of new technologies has empowered readers to challenge, criticise, interrogate, expose and even by-pass mainstream media. The inciting front page ad showed the newspapers as terrible short term financial planners who think little about self-interest. Otherwise, they should have thought about trust issues and the fallouts from that singular ad.
What sort of advertising do people find unacceptable? An advert can be lucrative but does it fit with the values of the society in which the newspaper operates? What is a newspapers responsibility to its readers? The decision of the media houses to accept and place that ad, especially on its front page, teaches us that freedom is lost gradually through small and simple actions taken a little at a time. Sadly, the result of the little action is as detrimental to the overall health of the society the same way it would have being had freedom been lost in one fell swoop. At this critical time in Nigeria’s history, and given the rot and naked ambition of politicians, we expect newspapers to provide the content and context for the citizens to make decisions. We expect them to present elaborate menus of accurate, complete and relevant information to Nigerians. These are the pillars on which enlightened self-government stands. That ad, among many other slant towards government patronage, presents new threats to the independence and public utility of newspapers and it must be condemned. It shows that Nigerian mainstream newspapers are encouraging and requiring their editors to jettison journalistic concerns and put “business” first. Otherwise, that ad would not have been on the front pages, if at all.
The eye needs to be shown its unhygienic ways when the rheum it produces is shown to it. It is unbecoming when newspapers abandon their responsibility as gatekeepers of information for immediate gain. At this critical intersection of fate that Nigeria finds itself, it is important to make sure that Nigerians can find out what it needs to know about itself not what it needs to know or do to divide itself. There is a special obligation on newspapers to do their job patriotically. Nigeria deserves the very best newspapers we can produce. Those who determine what gets published or not should know there exists a synergy between good newspapers and enlightened public policy. Nigerians want media houses to uphold the public good above all else, even if it constrains your profit margins.
Bamidele Ademolaq-Olateju via Twitter @olufunmilayo