The late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo once described journalists as the floatsam and jetsam of society when he was asked about his experience as a journalist with The Nigerian Worker long before his famous 1944 sojourn to the UK to study law.
Journalism all over the world is the easiest profession to enter. It is open to all professionals who either have a flair for speaking or writing. The idea of studying journalism in the University is a relatively recent one and it emanated from the United States and Europe in the early part of the 20th century which later spread to all parts of the globe.
Tolu Ogunlesi didn’t initially set out to become a journalist as his first degree was in Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan. He later followed it up with a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. His first job was in Accenture before he caught the journalistic bug which is highly addictive and landed a job at the now defunct Next Newspapers as its pioneer Features Editor.
It was at Next which had a knack for investigative journalism that his talent greatly blossomed as he won numerous awards for his earth shaking stories among which was the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award. He later won the prestigious award for the second time when he was the West Africa Editor of The Africa Report Magazine.
He took advantage of the social media and built a massive followership on Twitter where he freely aired his views on politics, business and culture. He later wrote a widely followed column in Punch on Mondays. He was a role model to many young journalists and was a poster boy for the best of Nigerian journalism.
Having paid his dues in the profession he was tapped by the Buhari media campaign organization in 2015 to be part of the media team and I remember a scathing article he wrote in the London based Economist Magazine which was highly critical of the then Goodluck Ebele Jonathan administration.
When he accepted the offer to be a Digital Media Aide to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016, I knew that he would come out with a bloodied nose and go the way of former brilliant journalists who couldn’t resist the lure of public office. One wonders why he accepted the appointment in the first place as if he couldn’t read and comprehend the signs. It took Buhari close to six months to constitute his cabinet and the names were mostly made up of recycled political jobbers. It was clear at the end of 2015 that Buhari had nothing to offer. Couldn’t he have politely rejected the offer?
In 2018, he was quoted to have said this in response to the criticism by a section of Nigerians who criticized his meeting with controversial British Super Model, Naomi Campbell.
“Naomi Campbell met Nelson Mandela more than once. He hugged her, called her his “honorary granddaughter”. She visits Nigeria for a fashion festival and meets President @MBuhari, and some of you animals are slandering her,” Tolu Ogunlesi said on Twitter Friday, and further emphasised that: “YOU’RE RAVING MAD WITH NOBODY TO TELL YOU.”
The zenith of his complete removal from reality came when he had a recent interview with CNN’s Larry Madowo. He was asked a simple question whether he supported the Twitter ban. He stuttered like a Caucasian trying to learn Igbo and it was so bad that Madowo asked him to either say a Yes or No to which he faltered the more.
It has elicited reactions from many of his now estranged colleagues like Fisayo Soyombo, the popular investigative journalist, Rufai Oseni of Arise News and even Reno Omokri who once held his position under Jonathan. Nigerians watched the shaming and humbling of one of its brightest journalism stars by a foreign news network not known to be too friendly to Africans.
The major challenge of journalists in Nigeria is balancing their public interest work and meeting their financial obligations. The hunger in their bellies makes them see the profession as a mere stepping stone to some juicy political appointment or a corporate job. It is seen as a mere stop gap and many journalists have an inferiority complex which make them grovel before the policy makers rather than effectively holding them to account or speaking the truth to them.
How can we salvage this noble profession so that the best and brightest are not poached by politicians who have nothing to offer? How can we reduce the best brains here from being reduced to nonentities because of ‘stomach infrastructure?’ How can we stop future Tolu Ogunlesi’s from being the mouth pieces for anti-people policies?
The media all over the world is going through a rough patch as a result of the twin incursion of the internet and new media. The duopoly of Google and Facebook has cornered a substantial portion of the advertising market leaving the rest to scramble for crumbs. There are massive layoffs and the conversion of some full time members of staff into freelancers.
Despite the media challenges, there is still the demand for good journalism as the Press will forever remain the Fourth Estate of the Realm. Nigerian journalists should think beyond chasing fading brown envelopes and hustling for declining adverts to taking advantage of the gargantuan global opportunities that the internet offers. Nothing stops a journalist who is an authority in a particular beat or who is popular from getting lucrative paid speaking gigs abroad especially in the United States which is the world’s largest market for speaking engagements. They could engage the services of an agent who will do all the sourcing and ground work for them. The Co Founder and CEO of Red Media Africa, Adebola Williams once had a speaking tour of some Ivy League Universities some years ago. Nothing stops our journalists from following suit. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have democratized the publishing industry. Nothing stops them from writing books on issues of global interest to a foreign audience that will pay for their oeuvres. Media owners can also give a share of the advertising revenue to journalists whose work attracts a huge audience to their platforms as a way of encouraging them to put in their best. Journalists should also be more entrepreneurial and adventurous and can do what they quartet of Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu did in 1984 with the formation of News watch Magazine. There are numerous grants that can be obtained from international donor agencies to support their work. Many media houses in the west have gone under a paywall either the complete or freemium model. The likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal etc are the leaders of the pack. Locally, Business Day and Stears Business have adopted it. Stears Business a barely four year old publication was able to attract a $600,000 investment which enabled them transit from giving out their information free to putting it under a paywall and damning the advertisers. Journalists can learn this new model.
Somebody must be a media aide to a public office holder but we hope that there will be that courage to either say no or to walk away after saying yes so that we do not have a recurring decimal of clones of the tragic Tolu Ogunlesi.