Monday, 22 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (3)

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

Saturday, 20 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (2)

It would be superfluous to list the major achievements of the New Nigerian which made it the most influential newspaper in this country from the mid-1960s to the late ’80s. Suffice it to say that for about three decades after its debut on January 1, 1966, the NN was in terms of circulation, readership, believability and clout the number one newspaper of record in the country. This, of course, translates into its being the second most authoritative newspaper in Africa, after Eqypt’s Al-Ahram. Business-wise, the company owned landed property and other assets that placed it almost at par with some of the leading business conglomerates of the time.

The NN grew in leaps and bounds in its first ten years. On Wednesday, December 31, 1975, i.e. the eve of its tenth anniversary, the then Federal Commissioner of Information, Brigadier IBM Haruna, noted that the NN had won for itself “the reputation of being one of the leading and seriously regarded national dailies in this relatively short period.” He urged the company to strive and improve on its standards, adding that “the ensuing years will bear further record of higher attainments and that your conscience, integrity, wisdom and maturity, coupled with God’s blessings, shall always be realised in the country.”

Haruna’s views proved prophetic. For the next twenty years the NN continued to grow. Up till the year 2000, in spite of its deteriorating fortune, it enjoyed a relative dominance of the newspaper business, though this time in the north rather than in the whole country. But then, a lot happened which broke such dominance and brought down the paper from its high pedestal. Today, many newcomers have surpassed it by all reckoning. Its being seen on the news-stands is a miracle that is due to the doggedness of its management and other staff. Yet, circulation is low; salaries have not been paid for six months, further wrecking the morale of staff. The company is crying for help.

Many ideas have been proffered towards resuscitating the company. The NNN management insists that all it requires is big cash. This thinking, which is erroneous, has made it difficult for the management to look beyond its nose. While money makes the world go round, it does not make it a better place in which to live. Money can be gotten and finished. What the company requires is a strategic thinking of what should be done with money. Strategies are needed to re-implant the NN in the minds of its readers and capture a new generation of readers and advertisers, many of whom were not there in the paper’s apogee. The NN needs a second coming, a relaunch that would purposively put it on the path of competitiveness not only as a major news institution but also as a business enterprise. To me, in order to attain this newness, we must return to the oldness of this northern behemoth. To create a future for the NN, we must return to its past. We must examine the ashes of its faded glory in order to reinvent a solid foundation for its tomorrow.

We must remember that the NN was founded on the ashes of the Nigerian Citizen, a daily owned by the government of the Northern Region. By the late 1950s, that newspaper’s fate had become similar to that of the NN of the late 80s; its glory was crashing in an age of propaganda between the north and the south, one targeted at maximising control of the political and economic realm of the new nation. Meanwhile, as the Nigerian Citizen was going down, more gutsy southern newspapers were having a field day setting agenda for governance. The NN was conceived and set up to replace the Nigerian Citizen as a bulwark against the merciless buffeting the north was receiving from the more funded and better designed Lagos-Ibadan publications. Within a few years, it achieved huge success in its task. The measures taken to make it so are just what the NN needs today to rise from its ashes.

I will mention them (and more) in the final part of this piece, next week.

Published in the current issue of BLUEPRINT

Monday, 8 August 2011

How to save the New Nigerian (1)

Last week, the Blueprint published the story of how the Managing Director of the New Nigerian Newspapers Limited (NNN), Alhaji Tukur Abdulrahman, led his management team to the Emir of Zazzau on a courtesy call. During the visit, the MD revealed what apparently was the main purpose of the visit, i.e. to solicit the emir’s intervention in the financial crisis rocking the company. Abdulrahman was quoted to have told the emir, Alhaji Shehu Idris, that the crisis was caused by the failure of most of the 11 northern state governments to redeem their pledge of N15 million each to the company after its transfer to them from the federal government. He also told the emir that the financial crunch has affected the payment of gratuity and pension, adding, “This crisis also affects our production. Most of our machines are aged, which contributed to the backwardness of the papers.” The emir kindly directed the management to submit a written report to him for onward submission to the “appropriate quarters.”

It is sad that the company which used to be the flagship of Nigerian journalism has slid to this low ebb, forcing its management to be going round cap in hand like the ubiquitous almajirai dotting the north, looking for sadaka. The NNN was from the 1960s to the early 1980s one of the leading lights not only of the journalism profession in the country but also a huge commercial success. Its clout is symbolised in the number of seasoned journalists it produced or inspired, many of whom are still some of the major voices in our journalism, and in its landed property such as Nagwamatse House – the tallest building in Kaduna – and residential houses in Kaduna and elsewhere. Indeed, in spite of the success recorded by latter day media enterprises in the region such as Media Trust and Leadership Newspapers, NNN has retained its lead as the newspaper company with the more landed assets in the north.

The crash of the New Nigerian (NN) is an old story, dating back three decades. Spurts of a rebound and promise of a return to its past glory were shortlived and deceptive. Those of us who once worked at the NN with pride and gusto are left with agonising nostalgia over the poor state of affairs at our “journalistic alma mater.” Anyone associated with the paper, wherever he/she has moved to, looks back with pain at the inability of this bedraggled old cow to get off its hinds and sprint like in the good old days. One is bound to wonder ceaselessly why the NN remains down almost perpetually even with increased knowledge in the profession and new communication technology, as well as more literacy and expansion in social infrastructure. In the past, when it was more difficult to gather news, set it on compugraphic machines, print newspapers and distribute them, the NN had the second highest circulation figures in Nigeria, with 100,000 copies daily. It was easily the most influential newspaper in the country. Today, what one hears in the grapevine is that the company can hardly print 5,000 copies a day.

The NN is still being produced by talented and hard working staff, yet, something is missing; an evil force seems to have held it down, preventing it from rising from the ashes. It glaringly lacks the essential ingredients that made it a must read in the past: articulate writers of reckoning, modern production facilities and new editorial and managerial approaches to compete within its immediate environment in particular and the nation in general. Thus the NN is no longer well-written, well-designed and well-produced. It hardly serves any noteworthy exclusives, scintillating news features, great photography or earth-shaking interviews. Not many readers take its news and views serious, with the consequence being its poor market share in intellectual discourse and advertisement revenue. This beautiful dream of the founding fathers of the Northern Region no longer inspires awe and reverence. With this beggarly mien, it is scarcely surprising that the northern state governors don’t care to drop a coin in the NNN management’s dish to fund the newspaper’s sustenance.

To be continued

Published in my column in BLUEPRINT today.
The above photo, by Bashir Bello Dollars of the New Nigerian, shows Alhaji Tukur Abdulrahman and the Emir of Zazzau, Alhaji Shehu Idris, during the visit.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Why It's Hard to Believe Jonathan

The issue of single term tenure for the president and state governors is a natural divisive factor in Nigerian politics. The reason is due to the mutual distrust and back-stabbing which characterise our type of politics. Both President Jonathan and his spokesman Reuben Abati were miffed by what they described as the opposition parties’s “abusive” and “insulting” reaction to the President’s proposal.

The bitterness in our politics is unfortunate, but it has a history and everybody is guilty. It started right from day one when the colonialists were leaving and the race for political power became a matter of life and death amongst the various ethnic and regional blocs. The trend worsened after the British had gone as the sectional struggle – fanned by the ruling classes – continued to inflame passions among the ordinary people, culminating in death and destruction. Successive governments have failed to stem the tide. We are always pushed back to square one, always talking about “starting anew.”

Jonathan’s move to introduce a single-term tenure is all about starting afresh as he himself indicated during his speech at the Peoples Democratic Party national secretariat on Thursday. Speaking while declaring open the 56th National Executive Committee meeting of the ruling party, the President said, “If you look at the evolution of the political system, the two-tenure (term) is the ultimate. Because even countries which have single tenures, after some time go for the double tenure. So, it is like evolutionary process.”

Many observers have argued that because of the many wrong things about our system, it is better to discard it. The merit, as Jonathan argued on this matter of tenures, is that it will reduce acrimony, cut cost and lessen the desperation that comes with a two-term tenure. This, many also agreed. Where the President is distrusted is his promise that he would not become a beneficiary of the proposed single term, five-year tenure. Most Nigerians are wont to think that there is something fishy about the proposal, which appears set on consuming valuable time and some resources and diverting attention from governance.

Jonathan has the dubious record of being a president who changes the rules in the middle of the game. He is also adept at doublespeak – all with a straight face. It is too early in the day to forget how he rail-roaded his party into giving him its ticket to run for office during the April elections. The party had zoned the presidency to the north, but because Jonathan was desperate to continue ruling, all means fair and foul were employed to make him the party’s sole candidate.

Now, the factors that made him so desperate to contest in 2011 are the same that would make him want to secure a second term. One is his inability to achieve much in terms of developmental programmes during the year he ruled after Yar’Adua’s demise. Another, of course, is sweet, raw power, the prospects of which are almost endless. The third is the crowd around the President, many of whom are permanent residents in the corridors of power.

Jonathan appears deliberately confused about what the constitution provides for him. Clarifying on why he will not run for office in 2015, he said at the PDP headquarters: “The tenure of Goodluck Jonathan and Namadi Sambo will end on May 29, 2015. That is the constitution.” The truth, however, is that it wasn’t the Nigerian constitution which prevented Jonathan from running in 2015. The constitution provides for two-term tenure for the president and state governors. It was Jonathan himself who, during the 2011 presidential campaign, promised the electorate that he would not contest the election after he might have done one term. This promise was made in the heat of the hustings, at a time when victory did not appear guaranteed, a time of desperation, a time when the electorate’s trust was all that mattered. Clearly, we are back to similar times when a desperate cabal can do anything, the easiest of which is changing the rules in the middle of a game – including denying covenants solemnly made earlier – in order to cling to power.


Published in my column in the current edition of the weekly newspaper, BLUEPRINT.