Several sectors of the Nigerian economy have witnessed changes in the last few years, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What significant changes would you say have been recorded in the Nigerian media space?
I think COVID-19 stamped online journalism in the face of the media. Before COVID-19, many newspaper houses were still, to a large extent, hooked to the hard copy. I remember a few media organisations in the South-West increased their investment in printing presses. They established presses in the East and the North so they could print simultaneously.
But with the coming of COVID-19, online was no longer an option. It became the only available option. The implication was that the operations of the media houses had to change. Those who are smart took advantage of the changes. Unfortunately, those who could not meet up folded up. Some media houses died literally while some struggled to adapt.
By and large, I think COVID-19 was more of a blessing than a curse. It was God’s own way of redirecting the affairs of the world and opening up new opportunities to people. The only painful part is that we lost some beautiful souls in that season.
There have also been concern about the fate of the print media, with many newsrooms shrinking gradually. With emerging new media technologies and the digitisation of information gathering, dissemination and ‘consumption,’ how much of a threat do these pose to this sub-sector of the media?
I think the print media will continue to exist side by side the online media. But it will continue to shrink as time goes by. But I do not believe it will fizzle out. For instance, the coming of photography has not stopped artists from making money from drawings and paintings. Some people still prefer to get artists to sketch their images. The post office is still on despite electronic mail. In fact, the Nigeria Postal Service has had to revive its operations. They have upped their game. In developed countries, people still post letters. Certain things can’t be sent by digital mail. That is why I believe newspapers will continue to exist. But as I said, the market space for it will shrink by the day. I think what will happen is that a lot of new thinking will go into the print media. It will continue to survive but it will come in another dimension. It is now left for newspaper houses to begin to look at how they can still maintain their relevance. I think by now, newspapers should stop reporting breaking news. They should leave that to the online media.
They should begin to do more biographical reporting, special reporting, community reporting, investigative reporting, and reports that will entail a lot of research. Newspapers should produce news and feature articles that would be for keeps. People should not wake up and see the same news item they have read online in the print. I think this is the time to be more creative with our delivery and packaging. It’s a tough one though.
What was the vision behind the founding of Church Times Nigeria 14 years ago?
Thank you for this question. When I left Punch (newspaper) to start Church Times Nigeria, the vision was basically to report the church. Before then I had the opportunity of reporting many programmes organised by churches though I was not specifically assigned to the religion desk. I was with Sunday PUNCH; there we reported everything. I discovered that after doing some of the church reports, they were not given a good mention. It is only when the news was negative or sensational that they got a generous mention. But then, there was a particular year, for instance, we were encouraged to report church events. There used to be about two pages for church news in Sunday PUNCH in those days. Bishop David Oyedepo, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, Pastor Taiwo Odukoya, Pastor Daniel Olukoya of MFM, and a host of others had columns in Saturday and Sunday PUNCH. I guess it was a marketing strategy. But after about two or three years of experimenting with them, the columns were put on hold, perhaps, because the paper does not want to be seen as promoting religion unduly. But then the sales had jumped up at that time. After that regime, church events were not given as much space. That got me thinking. I saw a huge market in that sector.
My idea was not to report church in the conventional sense. My idea was to look at the church from the secular prism. By that, I mean if I want to report the National Assembly, for instance, I would take the report from the Christian perspective. I would interview Christians in the Assembly and get their views. If I want to report education, I would look at schools run by Christians and do the normal report a secular paper will do on education. The same goes for the business sector. The idea was to replicate the beat system in a church paper but take the stories from the Christian angle. But because there was paucity of funds when we started, we had to limit ourselves to reporting pastors and their activities. But I think we are improving with time in our coverage.
Why do you think the church is under-reported, especially when many churches have embraced televangelism and use social media to publicise their activities?
Good question. I think what many of the churches do when they come on the media space by themselves is to do promotion of the lead pastors and publish their programmes and events. That is not journalism. Many of the churches, for instance, have in-house publications, which are not professionally handled in many instances. Those who come to the social media space, for instance, only show what they want the public to know, and not what the public should know. The public wants to know the events behind the pulpit. They want to read interviews with pastors where probing questions are asked. They don’t want the regular Bible quotations and references they have heard in the church.
One of the reasons most church papers don’t survive is because their stories are monotonous and they are written with a lot of self-censorship. I agree that they are using the media, but the question is: how are they engaging the media? That is where professionals are needed. In my 15 years of reporting the church, I discovered that many church journals are not packaged to survive. They may run for some years because they have a captive audience, but with time, the very people who patronise them will begin to lose interest because they are not getting what they want.
You were already an Assistant Editor at PUNCH Newspapers as of the time you left to start your own business. How did you decide it was the right time to leave and be on your own?
After working for 13 years, I was beginning to get bored of the environment and I was craving change. Around that time, I had this great burden that the church was not well represented in the media. I remember attending a few church events. I saw the news possibilities in these events. But the secular paper won’t accommodate such. So I began to think about doing a publication that would capture these events very well. I discovered that the church is a minefield. It’s a whole world on its own. What we are doing presently with Church Times Nigeria is just scratching the surface. There are too many things to write that we can’t write because we don’t have the capacity for now. But I believe as time goes on, we will keep improving and expanding our scope by God’s grace.
Did you, at any point, feel that the decision to resign from your job and be on your own could turn out wrong?
I resigned in March 2007. But I had wanted to leave in 2006. Fear of what to eat kept me till 2007. But then, the vision for the publication became so strong that I could not sleep very well again. I kept seeing the publication and I was picturing what it would look like. So at the point of leaving Punch, I had no fear. I remember going on leave to think about the decision. In the course of the leave, I had a four-day personal retreat to be sure of the project and to hear God properly. The Lord said to me that He had not given me the spirit of fear but of love and sound mind. I came to Punch from the retreat to resign.
Immediately I dropped my letter and was going out of the premises, something within me said to me that I had just committed economic suicide. It dawned on me that I had just N10,000 left in my bank account. But then I could not withdraw the letter. I remember one of the directors called me and was concerned about my decision. It was really tough.
What kind of advice did you get from your family members and colleagues?
My wife was apprehensive. She studied engineering, but she has little knowledge about media. She could not understand the vision. She knew I was planning to resign but she didn’t know when. I only came home to inform her that I had resigned. She was shocked because she did not know it would be that soon. I carried a few friends along. They saw the decision as a great one and two of them were ready to partner me. But the partnership did not work.
What were the other risks you mulled before founding Church Times Nigeria?
It was one risk too many because as of the time I resigned, I had no other source of income. It was a leap of faith. I am not sure I will advise anybody to take such a plunge now. It was like jumping into the ocean and scampering to safety thereafter. I came down to ground zero. When it was clear I could be having some financial challenges, I was about to take up the editorship of a magazine. I had done the interview and I was to go get the employment letter. But God restrained me. I had an inner voice say to me, ‘The vision of Church Times is enough for a lifetime’. That was how I decided to face it with the attendant risk.
How did you fund your first edition?
Thank you for this question. Shortly after I resigned, two of my friends that I said were going to collaborate with me gave some support. I was also able to raise some money from an advert I placed in another publication shortly after I resigned. I had close to N70,000 in all. That was the money we used to print the first edition. I already had the material. It was a 16-page edition. Then we had (Rev. )Chris Okotie on the cover and General Yakubu Gowon (retd.). I gave out a bulk of the copies. Many (people) were excited about it. Some of my colleagues bought copies to encourage me. God proved himself as time went on. After the first edition, a lot of my friends and family members began to show support. We began getting patronage from organisations. Church Growth International Ministry run by Dr Akin John gave support; Ayoola Foods came on board and has remained with us for 15 years now giving us monthly support. We wrote to some organisations and they gave us multiple insertions of adverts. The public presentation of the paper was done by Mr Femi Adesina, now spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari, at Excellence Hotel, Ogba, in May 2007. As of that time, he was the Editor of Sun Newspaper. He has since played an invaluable role in nurturing the publication. We have enjoyed a lot of corporate patronages too. But we can do with more support. We are still evolving.
The first five years were tough. The challenge began after the second edition. We had a public presentation and it was clear the publication was going on. I won’t like to go into details because it will drag this interview to another level. But then we survived the challenges. That episode was put behind us and we have since trudged on.
Media ownership comes with many challenges. What has been your story as the publisher of a Christian newspaper in the last 15 years?
It’s a long story. I will have to write a book detailing my experiences. Many people think as soon as you start doing a church-based paper, churches would rally round you. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As a matter of fact, some churches want the paper dead. Those who are inclined to help you are those who run ministries, not churches. The challenge with the churches is that they can’t stand public scrutiny. There is a lot of competition among the churches too. That is why we hardly rely on churches for support. We still get support from some of them but not in the magnitude we expect. The big Pentecostal churches are the greatest culprit in this direction. Some churches have foot soldiers whose job is to frustrate church publications. Even when the head of the church does not mind, their foot soldiers are always on the prowl.
I remember our third edition cover was an interview we had with Pastor Enoch Adeboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. In the interview, he spoke on his greatest temptation. We were excited and took copies to the RCCG camp. The copies sold a lot. In one night we sold about 3,000 copies. Some of the boys who went to sell for us were going home the following day after the Holy Ghost night when they were arrested by the RCCG security. They alleged the story was fake, that we never spoke with Pastor Adeboye. I had to step in and reported the security men to the senior pastor in the camp who facilitated the interview. When she heard, she was furious and asked the security men to let our boys go.
Apparently, they were acting out of zeal to protect Pastor Adeboye. One of the things that discouraged a friend from continuing with a church publication he started was the experience he had in one of the camps. His publication was seized and set on fire.
We have many strange reactions from overzealous church officials. They ask you to get permission and pay a certain amount to be allowed to sell but even at that, they haunt the people selling. At a point, we had to stop going to sell in church programmes. It was becoming embarrassing. This is just a fragment of the challenges.
Experience plays a vital role in media entrepreneurship. How did your journalism background help you weather the storm?
Beyond the grace of God and His mercy, my 13-year stay at Punch contributed a lot to the success we have recorded so far. The kind of training in the Punch environment is not what one can get in the classroom. The average Punch reporter is resilient and can multitask. That has helped us a great deal. Only a few media organisations in Nigeria have such a culture.
Despite its popularity, many media organisations in Nigeria do not have religion as a beat in their newsrooms. What are the areas journalists have yet to explore?
That was not the case some years ago. In fact, the religion beat was common in many newspapers. Guardian, for instance, had a vibrant religion beat. I don’t know what obtains now. Punch used to have for its weekend titles; the only difference is that the beat is combined with other beats for one person. The truth is that reporting religion is a huge business if it is done well. I still believe it is a virgin field. We are yet to explore it. I think the reason little attention is paid to it is that the print media is not as strong as before.
Beyond religion, there are many beats left unreported. That is why it disturbs me when I see almost all online publications trying to report the same stories. For instance, do we have a special publication for artisans? There are so many things going on in different communities that are not reported. There are a lot of personalities doing great things but are not reported. I think instead of trying to be like the Punch of this world, journalists should begin to carve a niche for themselves.
Some journalists are drawn to other beats because of the various issues like corruption, scandals by major players. Are there issues like that to be reported in churches and Christian organisations in Nigeria?
I think the country and the Church are intertwined. I used to say the Church is a country in a country. The corruption in the country is replicated in the Church. The politics in the country is replicated in the Church and, perhaps, fiercer. What we must know first is that those who are in the Church are human beings. The Church is like a hospital with a lot of sick people. Rick Warren said genuine sinners are in the Church. It is in the Church that you get people who are spiritually sick looking for healing. So, it is not strange that corruption and all kinds of vices happen in the church. The only strange thing is when the pastors who are supposed to provide healing for hurting souls are the ones perpetuating the corruption.
What should a budding or an experienced journalist interested in reporting the church bear in mind?
The first thing is that the journalist must not think they would get support from the churches. If they rely on the churches for support, they wouldn’t be doing journalism, they would end up being their image-maker. That is not to say they wouldn’t get support; they will. But they should have moderate expectations. They should bear in mind that there are several denominations. They should be able to manage their appraisal of these denominations in their reporting.