By Tony Ademiluyi
While I worked with the consulting firm Workforce Group, the then Lead Consultant, Bolaji Olagunju whom I was privileged to directly work with used to tell me and my colleagues that the business models of most great companies especially those founded in the 21st century was lean – extremely low overheads with gargantuan profits. He used to ring it in our ears and sing it like a swan song – Facebook is the world’s largest social media but they create no content, Uber is the world’s largest transport company but they don’t own a single vehicle, Air Bnb is the globe’s biggest hospitality company but they don’t own a single hotel.
The acquisition of Washington Post by the then world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos for $250 million made me get extremely reflective. In that same period, Facebook which is less than two decades old – founded in 2004 bought Instagram for a billion dollars, the same Facebook bought Whatsapp for about 19.5 billion dollars and made an aggressive bid to acquire Snapchat running into billions of dollars, Microsoft bought over LinkedIn for 26 billion dollars.
Washington Post which was founded in the 19th century was sold for peanuts in comparison with the other acquisitions underscoring the fact that indeed the cheese has long moved.
It is no secret that most media houses globally struggle tooth and nail to stay afloat financially as adverts have moved to the duopoly behemoth of Google which controls the global advertising market share followed closely by Facebook leaving even the media giants of yore to literarily gasp for financial breath.
The Nigerian media is not insulated from the challenges of the global media and since 1842 when the first media house berthed on her soil – Iwe Irohin founded by Reverend Henry Townsend, it has had its fair of financial challenges.
Media historians recall with gusto that the arrival of the Zik Group of Newspapers with West African Pilot as its flagship on November 16, 1937 sparked a revolution in the Nigerian media. The American-educated Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who went by the alias Zik of Africa obtained a journalism certificate from the world-famous Columbia Graduate School of Journalism at a time when it was rare for Nigerian journalists to have a university education, backed by a first degree from Lincoln and two Masters Degrees including one from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania took the Nigerian media by storm and shook it out of its lethargy. He deftly combined a nationalist group of newspapers backed by commercial interests and dominated the media scene for the next three decades before the ill-fated Nigerian Civil War threw the spanner in the works of the extremely brilliant media project. There is something that modern-day Nigerian proprietors can learn from Zik. He faced stiff competition in the then-British-owned Daily Times that controlled the bread and butter of the industry – advertising.
Putting on his thinking cap, he not only got budding Nigerian entrepreneurs like the Late Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu-Ojukwu who incidentally backed out of funding the newspaper because of a minor disagreement, Sir Mobolaji Bank-Anthony, Green Mbadiwe, his initial financial backer and elder brother of the charismatic Chief Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe etc. Not done with that, as revealed in his autobiography, My Odyssey, his media empire had a very lucrative deal with the British newswire agency – Reuters as their local agent in Nigeria which was terminated when he accused the British colonial masters of plotting to assassinate him in 1945. His masterstroke which provided him with the funds for rapid expansion and acquisition of distressed newspapers all across the country was his co-founding of the now-defunct African Continental Bank (ACB).
The present-day Nigerian media is a highly troubled one as it is no news that most journalists in the country don’t get paid their salaries and even when it is paid, it is a mere piddling that can hardly take them to the bus stop let alone home. Most media houses have abandoned their duty of being watchdogs of the other three arms of government by holding them to account to becoming mere lap dogs through their organizing of questionable awards where all manner of shady characters who cause the hoi poloi or Man on the Clapham Omnibus needless and avoidable pain through corruption and anti-people policies. How then can the same media objectively criticize bad policies of the government as well as abuse of power? The ancient cliché of ‘He who pays the piper dictates tune rings true here.’
Globally, there are divergent models that have been adopted which are being replicated in Nigeria.
There is the reader-funded or donations model whereby the continued sustenance of the media is in the hands of their readers who donate to keep it in existence. It has been adopted by Premium Times and Daily Trust. However, I don’t have any insider information to judge if it is a resounding success here like it is abroad with the Guardian UK being the Locus Classicus of that model. I doubt if it will be a success here because of the low purchasing power and disposable income where a majority of the citizens struggle and grapple with merely providing the basic necessities of life. That aside, most reader-funded models get funding on the basis of their ideological leaning. For instance, the Guardian UK as earlier mentioned is a left-wing newspaper and so will naturally attract readers and supporters who back left-wing causes like gay rights, same-sex marriage, euthanasia or assisted suicide, IVF, abortion etc. The same rings true for American Right-Wing Publication – First Things published by the Conservative Heritage Foundation which is sustained by evangelicals, conservatives, and other right-wingers.
In Nigeria, there is really no ideology in our fluid polity which has a direct negative impact on the media which is only a reflection of society. Hence the reader-funded model is a brutally hard sell locally.
Many media houses globally most notably New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Africa Report etc have gone behind a paywall. Coming down locally, BusinessDay, Stears Business has followed suit. Like the donations model, I don’t have sufficient information to ascertain its success in Nigeria.
Some media houses in Nigeria rely on public relations which in retrospect greatly compromises the profession as objectivity will be thrown to the dogs and the stories will tragically have a huge dose of bias which is unhealthy for society.
What is the way forward so that I am not accused of being a wailing wailer even though the antagonist in Chinua Achebe’s evergreen political satire ‘Anthills of the Savannah’, Ikem Osodi said that writers don’t give prescriptions to challenges; rather they give headaches!
My humble interventions in form of solutions are as follows:
Firstly, media houses should diversify their business of news which is fast becoming sadly obsolete. News breaks faster on social media than even on the newswires like Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg and so readers are already bombarded left, right, and centre with news so concentrating almost exclusively on it is a huge turn-off. While not wholly advocating the paywall or donations model as local peculiarities have to be critically taken into consideration, what about selling information in a well-packaged and organized way to foreign investors and foreign interests who are interested in Nigeria – the largest black market in the world as well as the most populous country on earth which investors cannot ignore as huge population size is an investor attraction? What stops the household Nigerian Newspapers from having foreign bureaus in key countries in North America, Europe, and Asia where they can have a separate website with an avalanche of information that will make these investors make highly informed decisions on different sectors of the Nigerian economy? The information will go behind a paywall and will be in-depth and well-researched with specialists and experts involved in the writing of it. If for instance to subscribe is $5 a month and you capture globally about 10,000 subscribers over time, that will amount to $600,000 annually which though can’t be described as a fortune is decent enough to keep the journalists from starving if judiciously used.
Secondly, many universities and research institutions in the West have a huge interest in Africa. African Studies is being studied as a stand-alone discipline in major educational institutions in the West and Asia. Well-researched information of interest can be packaged to sell to these institutions for a modest subscription fee which will be used on a repeat basis by the students and academics which will greatly add to the revenue base of the institutions.
Thirdly, one of the safest investments which can stand as a sturdy hedge against volatile economic vagaries is real estate. In fact, to rehash a well-known rhetoric, the low-hanging fruit business of Mac Donalds is Real Estate. The former Managing Director of Daily Times, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi revealed in an interview he granted as far back as the early 1990s when he held sway as the helmsman of the newspaper, said that no newspaper had really made a profit in about 100 years. That was revealing and an eye-opener. Note that this statement was made long before the internet disruption that rendered the business models of the traditional media archaic. Daily Times in its heyday had prime real estate in the UK and all over Nigeria. Media houses can adopt that same strategy as the rents generated and mileage it generates which can be used for credit access will make them eternally solvent.
My postulations aren’t a one size fit all but like Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is a labour of love of mine to save our dearly beloved media industry from imminent collapse as I shudder to think of what will happen if that day as predicted by some dooms day Prophet ever happens.
Tony Ademiluyi is the CEO of Buzz Times Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and +2348167677075