In this interview, the Publisher and Managing Director, IC publications, Omar Ben Yedder, talks about his vision for the publishing industry in Africa. He shares entrepreneurial nuggets on how his ‘New African magazine’ has survived over 40 years despite the rigours of publishing in Africa. He emphasises the need to create fresh content that will give the fervour of novel news reporting to print publishing, the necessity of technology and social media platforms in disseminating information today, and how technology has helped to drive his magazine.
Ben Yedder also shares his thoughts on the abduction of over 200 Chibok girls by Boko Haram and the role of the media in this saga. He also sums up his guiding principles in life – ‘humility, integrity and doing the best that you can.’
SU: New African has been in existence for 48 years now and it’s still running. Considering the recent economic situation where a lot of media houses are folding up, what has kept New African going?
OBY: Rule number one of this business is sustainability. My father has always said a lot of great African publishing houses have come and gone. They have come with great publishing ideals and great editors. The reason they are no more is because not enough time and effort was spent on the core business; for example, how are they controlling costs and bringing in revenue? So, you can’t forget the sustainability aspect of publishing. That is what my father has been very good at, making sure that costs have been kept tight and in difficult times, that has allowed him to sustain the magazine. But what he also did was to diversify. He had a company in France which was looking at directories and because of that, when times were tough in the advertising market, as they were in the late 80s and 90s, other uncorrelated parts of the business managed to keep the magazine up and running. Also, what we have depended on is the loyalty of our staff, including our editorial teams who have in general done it as a labour of love rather than for monetary or personal gains. So, it has been a team effort in that respect.
SU: Another challenge that the media seem to be facing in recent times is the advent of the new media, people are talking about the dwindling fortunes of magazines in terms of readership and getting necessary advertisement. Has that been a problem for your organisation?
OBY: It’s never been a problem. On the contrary you can call it an interesting problem, a challenge and an opportunity. For me, ultimately, technology offers a different platform for our products. It actually allows me to reach out to a whole lot of people at a reduced cost. At the moment, in terms of my business model, it’s a funny little business model we run here. It is one which I question on a daily basis. We run a pan-African media house: this means we don’t cater for any particular country or region but for the whole continent. And one which is proud to celebrate its diversity today. But we are selling the whole continent. If an advertiser or a client is not interested in what’s happening in another country or may not be targeting that particular audience, they may not come on board with us because they see us as too general and that our reach is too wide. And our costs are extremely high because we are distributing in about 45 African countries. Outside staff costs our main costs are printing and shipping. Other magazines may not necessarily have those shipping costs which we are exposed to. So, new technology allows me reach a bigger audience at a much reduced cost. So, in that respect, technology is a great opportunity, and allows me to extend the reach of my magazines; offering my product across different platforms. In terms of print publishing at the moment, we will be investing in content. We have some new ideas on how to adapt that content for the different markets, for example, on your mobile phone you may not be interested in reading a 10,000 word essay, which should be more pleasant to read on paper. So we are going to have different formats in terms of our content – short and adapted text, short videos, short podcasts for those who are consuming our content on the go on mobile devices, longer format, investigative journalism for those who want to consume it in their leisurely time and really want find out about a subject in depth; in sum, with more analysis and investigative reporting. In terms of print publishing, we feel there are many opportunities still. But we are going to have to think of how we are going to be presenting this content and what sort of content we will be putting out there. We want to be more on the analytical side, longer form essays and human interest angles. So, ultimately it’s still about content. In terms of new platforms, with the advent of these various devices such as the tablets and mobile phones, we will be offering some content which is adapted to these devices. So rather than being a threat, we feel that the advent of all this new technology and products provide a great opportunity. Although we haven’t been early adopters of the new technology, we feel we can benefit hugely from it. In many respects, we have taken a back seat and let others try out what works and what doesn’t. And we have been somewhat lucky because most of the advertising revenue in Africa has been geared towards the legacy media, but we will see a considerable change over the next five years and would be ready when those revenues migrate to new media, and they are starting to migrate at a fast rate.
SU: This may sound a little academic but there has been this argument in media circles that the advent of new media seems to signal the death of the print media, do you see the print media surviving in the next 10 years?
OBY: I think there’s room for the print media but it’s about how you present your content. Our magazine in 10 years time would be different from the content of the magazine today and the content today is different from that in the magazine 20 years ago. Twenty years ago would have been newsier but today our content is much more analytical. In the next six months to one year, we plan to have longer form articles, more investigative reporting and more visually rich content as well. So, we are aggregating images from across the continent on new platforms, which would present a continent that is visually more engaging. We are adapting our content to make sure it is still appealing. Also our competitive advantage is making sure the magazines are within everyone’s easy reach, so that people don’t need to make a large effort to buy the magazines but they can find it within easy reach, whether it is on a plane when they travel, or in their hotel room, clearly exposed at a newsstand, at conferences or through our network of street vendors which we are establishing in certain markets. That’s how we are adapting to the new market or changes in the new media space. I still think there’ll be room for print media and there’ll be room for consuming our analyses and content on different platforms. I still believe in the role of media in a philosophical and theoretical sense. In terms of social media we have seen a lot of citizen journalism and the non-traditional media breaking news stories, commenting on new stories and offering an analysis on new stories. That is fine because no one has a monopoly on thought or analysis. We are saying that there is also room for professional media houses to ensure that the information out there has been properly fact-checked, to ensure that they contextualise the story. There’s a curation and editing aspect to it as well. The fact-checking is also very important because there’s a lot of wrong information out there. The reputation of the media house will be what differentiates it from citizen journalism. The media houses will have to build that trust with their constituency. This means that they need to make sure it’s not about being the first to report the news but that it is factually correct, within a context.
SU: Having visited many African countries and met several thought leaders, political and business leaders, what do you think is the biggest challenge on the African continent?
OBY: The challenges are multiple. But there are a lot of challenges facing the whole world, not just Africa. In the past five years the west has had to deal with the economic and financial crisis, the effects of which they are still feeling today. In Africa, we have numerous challenges; in health, infrastructure, education, governance; and these need to be tackled one by one. But ultimately it’s all about governance, we need to make sure that in all spheres of life we have strong leaders and good governance, that there is discipline, rigour, as well as the right implementation of our grand ideas because ultimately, it’s all about implementation. Occasionally, we confuse policy with execution. In many respects we don’t execute the policy in the right way.
SU: What’s your leadership style?
OBY: I’m not sure if I’m a natural leader first of all. I’m at the head of an organisation, but ultimately if I had to describe the style, it’s consultative. Nowadays, I try to be a little more decisive in my decision making. It’s a consultative leadership style whereby you try and get people’s opinions and from there make a decision. We operate a very flat structure here, it’s not about egos but it’s about doing the right thing and getting it right. It’s not about pointing fingers, apportioning blame or taking the credit. It’s about making sure that we see a problem and try to resolve it together and come up with a solution. Because it’s a flat structure we all get our hands dirty. So, I’ll call it leading from the front or leading on the battlefield.
SU: Who are your role models or heroes?
OBY: When people talk about heroes there are heroes who you see and read about, admire and respect, but don’t necessarily know and there are those people who you see, admire and respect and you have a relationship with. In general I’m attracted to people who have an intellectual analysis to the world. So, I am more attracted to intellectuals rather than the successful businessman, even though the two aren’t always mutually exclusive; for example, the Sanusis, the Nkosana Noyos and Kaberukas of this world. I like the way they analyse problems, the way they break a problem down and come up with different solutions. But within my family I have a lot of role models – my uncles are leading businessmen back in Tunisia. I have grown up around them and I’ve always liked the way they deconstruct problems. They’ve remained humble as well and are very down to earth people; they are not ostentatious in any way. They’ve always been my role models. Also, I’ve always been a big fan of US President Barack Obama. Maybe he wasn’t experienced enough when he became president. And when you are President of the US you don’t have time to learn on the job. But I have always liked the way he thinks and how he deconstructs certain issues. I have always thought him to be someone with principles and integrity, which are attributes I admire. I enjoy people who can challenge one intellectually and analyse problems from an intellectual perspective having thought it through.
SU: Recently, about 230 girls were abducted from a secondary school in Borno State, Nigeria. There has been a groundswell of support as a result of the global attention drawn to it through the social media and the media has always been seen as an instrument of social engineering. Do you see social media platforms, such as Twitter, taking over that role from the traditional media?
OBY: I think they are complementary. But I don’t think it’s a story that had been ignored. The Boko Haram story may have been ignored by the international media. And there are many stories in Nigeria that are ignored by the international media. I didn’t see coverage by the international media on the story on the stampede in the stadiums where thousands of Nigerians came for recruitment tests, which is appalling, or the kids who got burnt and killed at the school last year, 56 of them; and all the stories which have been happening in the north but haven’t been reported by the international press. What social media does is to quickly make a story go global. So, cyber activism can be effective in that respect and it can highlight certain important issues to the global community, which is great. The social engineering isn’t just the job of the media, but of individuals and families as well, we all have our role to play. It’s the pyramid effect. The media had a very wide reach, whilst toady the social media also has that reach. So, ideas and news stories can be spread to the whole world very quickly.
SU: Do you think positive strides made by African countries have been under-reported, especially by the Western media, and how do we change the narrative?
OBY: I don’t know if our stories are under-reported or over-reported. The complaints I hear is that the media is ignoring certain issues and focusing on others, and when they are talking about your country you feel that it is unjust. I understand the anger which this can generate, but I think that a lot of positive stories about Africa get reported on international news channels. I see more African stories on CNN and BBC than I see about Asia or Latin America for that matter. I think we get our fair share of reporting and I think it’s relatively fair as well. Obviously, it comes from a certain mindset and they don’t understand us the way we understand ourselves, and that’s fine. I suppose our fear is that these international news channels have got reach and influence and we are worried about how they perceive Africa and the picture of Africa they are putting out there. But overall, Africa gets a relatively fair share of positive coverage. They aren’t the ones who are creating the wars or the scandals which we have seen on our continent.
SU: What has kept you going in terms of running a successful organisation like yours?
OBY: It’s not always plain sailing and often it has been a question of survival. On a day to day basis we have certain responsibilities and the responsibilities we have are to many people, first and foremost our readers. I tell my people here who work with us that we are here for our readers. Ultimately that’s our number one constituency, the readers are our number one clients and we are here to give them a useful product, one which they can trust, to give them something that’s educative, informative and a pleasant read. Hopefully, they come out of it feeling enlightened from content which has been well-written and well presented. So we have a duty to serve them and that’s what keeps me going. Secondly, we have influence. This has been drilled into me within the last 10 years: when you are in a position of power and influence you have got to use that positively. So, we take our responsibility towards the African continent quite seriously. As a group our ambition is to ensure we help shape the African agenda, and that’s what drives us. We are a service company and we are trying to serve the African continent. About the team itself, we have a flat structure and that’s about humility, always trying to do more and do better; that is also what drives us. We work in a competitive environment, which is great, that drives us to push the boundaries. We feel we have only done half of what we are capable of doing, so there’s still a lot we have to achieve. From that perspective it’s the knowledge that we can do more that drives us on a daily basis. There are a lot of opportunities out there. The African continent is finally getting the right headlines and we are very excited about that. And the guiding principles are those of the people I mentioned; so it’s about humility, integrity and doing the best that you can.