The original idea behind establishing the New Nigerian was that it should be a newspaper which would be qualitative, well written, well designed, well marketed and commercially successful. Its guiding philosophy was that it would be produced with conscience, based on the best values the Northern Region could offer, and it would tell the truth to power. Its huge success within a few years of its establishment was owed to its sticking to that vision, and its eventual collapse was due to the abandonment of the esteemed mission. To retrieve its glory, therefore, it must go back to that pedestal on which it was put by its founders.
I will suggest a two-pronged approach towards this end. One is what its present management can – and must – do, and two is what its owners can – and must – do.
What Management Must Do
• Management should first of all wake up to the reality that going cap in hand to the owners – the 19 northern state governors – virtually begging for alms is fruitless. The reason is that the corrosion of northern cohesiveness across the years has severed the emotional bond that kept the communal ownership of institutions like NNN a priority. Besides, the governors have their own media houses to contend with. They are also pressured by private media houses for expensive “special projects.” A northern governor would rather pay a privately run newspaper in Lagos a N10 million grant for “political” reasons than fullfil his N15 million pledge to the NN.
• Rather than press the governors for cash, it is better for the management to lobby them for approval to raise the much needed recapitalisation fund through the selling off of some of the company’s fixed assets. Knowing that such approval would not touch their own budgets, the governors would find it easier to grant.
• Management should raise not less than N800 million from the selling of both the staff quarters at Malali and the property on Isa Kaita Road. Taking a bank loan should be only the last resort. If absolutely necessary, a loan can be accessed using Nagwamatse House as a collateral.
The money is for the purchase of two modern printing presses to be installed in Lagos and Kaduna (N500 million), the settling of the backlog of unpaid salaries and other entitlements and the purchase of consummables such as newsprint and computers. What is the use of those landed assets while the company is virtually in its last gasps?
• Initiate and execute a new business plan aimed at making the company profitable and competitive within very few years. Remember that it is already a global brand whose glory is only fading. Such a plan will include an aggressive rebranding campaign aimed at retaining and reclaiming old clientage as well as capturing a new generation of readers and advertisers.
• A new editorial policy should be made, consisting of the paper’s old values of being ethical, sedate, qualitative, bold and fearless, as well as new ones of fierce competitiveness in a brave new clime of modern newspaper management. To achieve this, the company must recruit a fresh crop of writers and editorial managers whose remuneration is not below the industry standard.
• Redesign the paper from the masthead to the back page.
• Create new sections in the pages and even recreate some of the old ones.
• Increase pagination from the present 40 to a minimum of 56.
• Increase the print run to a modest 20,000 for a start.
• Discard what some critics regard as the praise-singing culture by becoming bolder in “telling the truth to power.” The pervasive self-censorship regimes that have been defining management control across the years, indicative in reluctance to admit non-staff columnists, has eroded the paper’s credibility. Under the new clime, the paper should not be a toothless bulldog or a megaphone of officialdom. However, this does not mean it should be reckless, dishonest or even given to blackmail in its coverage of issues and events and commentaries. In its editorial of September 9, 1975, soon after its takeover by the federal government, the NN vowed to remain courageous and independent, saying, “We intend to continue (because) no paper worth its name will be contented to sing the praises of incumbent rulers incessantly.” Those teeth, which were lost in the years to come, must be put back.
• Go for real colour printing. The NN was a pioneer in this regard. The present printing press is too old and does not give value for money because it was not manufactured for modern colour printing; it generates the “patch patch” colours we are seeing today only through the amazing ingenuity of the production staff. There is need for a new press.
• Why not transfer the NNN headquarters from Kaduna to Abuja, the new capital of the newspaper trade in northern Nigeria? In 1964, when Mr Charles Sharp, the Briton tasked with the onerous responsibility of establising the NN after the near-collapse of the Nigerian Citizen, arrived in Kaduna for the purpose, he realised that Zaria, where the Citizen was based, was no longer suitable for siting of a daily newspaper. One of his seven reasons, as captured in Malam Turi Muhammadu’s history of the NN, titled Courage and Conviction - New Nigerian: The First 20 Years, was: “Zaria is no longer a major commercial centre – an essential requirement in the background pattern of the town chosen for the location of a daily newspaper. Because of its importance as the centre of Government, its growing commerce and its communications with Lagos and the rest of the country, I would unhesitatingly nominate KADUNA as the best Northern location for a daily newspaper.”
There is no gain saying the fact that the move from Zaria to Kaduna had helped the NN’s growth and made it effective as a leader in intellectual discourse. Kaduna, the home of the fabled “Kaduna Mafia,” was the capital of northern intelligentsia. Today, that fame has all but gone. A tectonic shift on the political scene has since occurred. Members of that “mafia” are either no more or are in winter. They are being replaced by a new northern intelligentsia located in the nation’s capital. Above all, Abuja is the hub of the nation’s policymakers, diplomatic community, political parties and second only to Lagos as a hub of business. It is easier to meet any governor in Abuja than in his state capital.
Today, the NN and the Nigerian Tribune are the only major national dailies located outside Lagos and Abuja, hence their being considered provincial. Their managing directors are always on the road to these key cities in search of revenue, and their editors lack the critical access to major news sources. This has a telling effect on their effectiveness.
The NN has dithered too long at the crossroads. Moving it to Abuja will solve many problems, including its present limited access to sources of adverts. It can be done in phases, but prevarication is costly. Start by moving the editorial, administrative and commercial departments, leaving the printing press in Kaduna for the time being. The management staff and the editors should live permanently in Abuja. The internet has solved most of the technical problems that could arise from such move. Most dailies today are being printed at more than one location.
What the Owners Must Do
In the long run, the northern state governors must have to hands off the ownership of the NNN by selling majority of their stakes to private individuals. Their 100 percent ownership of NNN does not confer on them any special or strategic privileges. Instead, the NNN is bad PR for them, reflecting their failure to salvage one of the major legacies of the founding fathers of the Northern Region. They are too busy playing politics and funding their own media houses and the private ones as to bother about the moribund NNN. They are also so disunited amongst themselves as to consider the NNN a commonweal that should be sustained through communal effort.
The NNN has, throughout its history, relied on subvention from its owners, first the Northern regional government, then the six northern states and, from September 1975 the federal government. The situation no longer works nicely. The NNN can no longer be sustained through a committee of disparate governments, each with its own priorities. Therefore, it is in the governors’ interest to embark on a privatisation excercise of the NNN. It can be done in phases.
• First, sell of at least 80 percent of the shareholding to a group of patriotic, business-minded Nigerians of diverse backgrounds (e.g. media, business, legal, religious, political, and academic), who will regard their ownership of the company as a business concern motivated by profit and patriotism. Majority of these investors should be northerners, reflecting the region’s religious and ethnic diversity. To avoid the kind of fate that befell the Daily Times today, the shares should not be sold to one person or company.
• The private investors should execute a purposive business plan aimed at recreating the NNN’s editorial glory and commercial prowess. Their plan should include recapitalisation.
• After five to ten years, the governors may choose to divest completely from the company, its private investors having put it on the path of growth.
I am sure there are some other ways of moving the company forward. But whatever they are, they should not include full ownership and control by government. That business model no longer works in the modern world.
Published in the current issue of BLUEPRINT, on sale from today