Named among Africa’s Next Generation of Leaders by The Banker, Simon Kolawole has done more than just being a leader. He has pioneered the current generation of witty writers- a form of writing that keeps the readers engaged. His provocative write-ups have stirred discomfort even amongst the Nigerian politics’ finest.
Now a fellow of the Mo Ibrahim Governance for Development, this has always been the dream, “I always wanted to be in a position to take part in influencing the development of the Nigerian society and journalism offered me that privilege.”
Right from the earliest stage of education, secondary school, Kolawole has always nurtured the idea of changing the world the little way he can and with his God given abilities,“I developed interest in journalism as a little secondary school student in 1983 when the elections were held. There was a general belief that they were rigged. My grandmother told me so! I remember doing a mock newspaper from my exercise book and writing all kinds of gibberish to criticise the electoral commission for rigging.”
That became a habit for him and so did this,“It was not surprising then that I ended up studying Journalism and here I am in the newsroom today still talking about rigging,” He said.
He went ahead to take a job with THISDAY Newspaper, one of Nigeria’s leading media firms, that gave him a platform to properly kick off his dream of a better Nigeria and that he did for another five years before he left to join the rest of the Globalised world. Why did he do it? “The world has gone digital, so a lot of things have gone digital too. You have digital Bible now that you can read online. You buy music online. You do online transactions with your bank and shops. It is only natural that newspapers will also go online. The reader is getting similar value at little or no cost.”
TheCable came to life barely two years after his exit from THISDAY. It was launched in April 2014 and so far has garnered momentum that only a true expert could muster. He knew his onions and that created a following and as suit they followed his every move and were thirsty for his every information he fed them. TheCable became a voice a lot of Internet users yearned to listen to.
But comparing it to what he was always used to would spark a little stir. For him, it was a welcome development, “It is like the traditional newspaper but it is not printed. It is entirely online. So you can call it a newspaper without the newsprint. The idea, really, is to preserve the old-time values of journalism in terms of professionalism. I was trained as a journalist. I have lived all my adult life as a journalist. There are certain values that go with journalism that I believe strongly have to be preserved in the rapidly changing world.”
But why choose an online medium upon leaving. A lot of veterans have gone ahead to start up their own newspapers or even magazines even if they have fairly succeeded in doing so. That in a way becomes by default what is expected to happen but not for Kolawole and his reason for doing so will keep you even more bewildered, “I’ll be honest about that: it is far cheaper and more affordable for me. It costs a lot of money to set up a printed newspaper and I don’t have that kind of resources. I also didn’t want to get funding from anywhere, mainly to protect and preserve our independence. Also, newspapers are not selling the way they used to do while the costs keep going up. Most people now get their news on their mobile devices. It was not a very difficult decision to choose an online platform to practice our journalism.”
Picture it as a child who just acquired a new toy. TheCable has become Simon’s new toy. He devotes all his time and energy into giving people information and the right one too. TheCable has gone ahead to be one of the sought after site to getting news first hand and breaking too, “the experience has been very interesting. Just as it is cheaper to start an online news outlet, so also it has become an all-comers affair.”
With every sweet thing in life comes a bad tooth to give you a little discomfort. Kolawole’s challenges started when he came to the realisation that a lot of people couldn’t tell between an online newspapers from a blog, “they group everybody together. Blog is basically a one-man affair, perhaps with the help of one or two hands. It is like a kiosk. An online newspaper is like a departmental store. The organisation is different.”
And then the sequel to that challenge- the ‘money bringers’. Advertisers inch more towards whoever is making the most traffic. So in their creative plan, they don’t necessarily have an table outlining what an online newspaper is and what a blog should be, which in a way goes back to the point of ‘grouping everyone together’, “advertisers and the less sophisticated readers want to compare you to blogs and other sites who simply steal content. We produce original content at a great cost.We brand ourselves as a quality website.”
This in a way relates to a third challenge. Because the online platform is an all-comers’ affair, advertisers do not see the value of difference and end up offering peanuts, “the same people that will pay N600, 000 for a one-page advert in a printed newspaper for one day wants to pay you N200, 000 to have an advert on your website for 30 days! It is incredible. There is also this funny stuff of advertisers offering to pay you per impression or per click. That is, they will only pay you on the basis of how many users clicked or viewed their advert. They pay millions to newspaper and TV stations without asking how many people flipped the newspaper to the pages where their adverts are or how many people stay glued to the TV watching their commercials. But the real issue is that since online is an all-comers affairs, it has also led to dilution and under-pricing. Many websites will be glad accept a N200, 000 per month advert. We avoid such adverts.”
However, there has to be that light at the end of every tunnel and a rainbow after every storm. Regardless of the many problems that come with life and every thing general, there is always a reason to smile and for Simon, nothing beats the joy and comfort of running an online newspaper, “it’s been an exciting experience for us [regardless]. The ability to report news as it breaks is an enjoyable experience. Putting perspectives into stories, doing live blogging, being relied upon for authentic information in a matter of minutes ─ all these make online journalism worth the while. Of course, you can also quickly correct your mistakes!”
Inspirations vary amongst human doing the same thing. For Simon it is the zeal, “I am inspired mainly by the need to do something new, something creative, something that will bring smiles to the faces of the people. When something becomes routine, I lose my drive. I am also inspired by advancements in technology and other fields of human endeavour. They make me feel there is a lot of grounds yet to be covered, a lot of opportunities yet to be born.”
Starting a project at all takes a lot of effort and courage. A lot of people start and fall, most fail even when they’ve started, most go all the way up. Not knowing your fate or which of them you’d swing towards can be the ultimate killer of ambition and that itself leads one to be overtly determined, “I was overwhelmed with the preparations. I wanted a perfect start, a flawless entry into the market. I put in all my hours. Along the line, I went to Harvard University for a course. This was very close to the launch. I started panicking because I felt I wouldn’t be ready. With all the publicity that went into it, I was scared that it might be a flop. It was also difficult recruiting quality staff. Online is new to most journalists who would rather work in the mainstream media. Most of the applicants had no journalism experience at all.”
But he almost gave up, “there was too much to do. I will always remember the role played by my wife, who kept asking me to calm down, that all would be well. She would hold my hands and pray. My 11-year-old daughter asked me to assign some work to her to help me do. She helped address the invitation letters. All these calmed me down and I was able to get my focus right.”
It seemed like all was going to go well from that point on and with everything in place, what could go wrong? Something did and it was the most crucial aspect of the entire project. The major crux of it and it happened on the very day of launch, “technology failed us. The website did not come up because of some serious technical issues. We battled it for days. I was a sorry sight. But I went away with the lesson that no matter how prepared you think you are, there are certain things beyond your control. If you know where the problem will come from, you can prepare. But we are mere human beings. Challenges can come from anywhere without serving you notice.”
Simon was made Features Editor of THISDAY in 1998 and the Saturday Editor from 2002 to 2005 before becoming the Editor of the daily newspaper from 2007 to 2012 and then left after to start his own company. However, having left quite a while ago, Simon still maintains a column in the newspaper. As to why he juggles both, “I tell people that TheCable is digital while THISDAY is printed. So I am present in both worlds! Most importantly, THISDAY has played the biggest role in my career. I feel part of THISDAY. Up till today, I still talk as if I am an employee of THISDAY. Mr Nduka Obaigbena, the most intelligent and creative human being I ever worked with, is like a father to me. I instinctively call him “my chairman”.”
The major problem of online publication may be brought down to copyright infringement- plagiarism- but Simon says, “It generally comes as one of the problems with journalism. However, “they are more pronounced online because it is an all-comers affair. I have no problems with people taking material and attributing to the source. That is honourable. But many don’t. There is a particular website that takes stories and uses as its own. Even exclusive interviews that we published, they would take and say the interviewee spoke with them. This is criminal. This website has no masthead. No physical address. You cannot even get a name to associate with it. Yet they are rising rapidly on Alex.com and advertisers will soon start flooding them with adverts.”
A lot of young wannabes are in existence and he is well aware of it. And to them he says, “they should first ask themselves what they intend to do with journalism. If you don’t see journalism as part of your purpose, as a service, as a calling, you will be frustrated because the challenges are enormous while the pay is not enormous. Those who see journalism as a calling should improve themselves a lot through reading and continuous training. Self-development is very, very important. Financially, journalism is not going to transform you. In my case, I was never under financial pressure because I had a little graphics and printing business that I set up about the time I started journalism. It has always paid my bills. Good enough, I never had any moral conflict because the customers did not have to know me or seek favours from me. But this is more of a privilege from God than my own making.”
Corruption is a global menace we know but somehow, it is said that in Africa, it is more pronounced in Nigeria being the giant of the continent. Having had a dream to influence the development of Nigeria via his ability, which in a way means the abolishment of corruption t enable a further healthy and stable country, Kolawole has had a few ideas on how to go about the latter, “I have done a little bit of study of corruption in Nigeria and my conclusion is that it will be extremely difficult to tackle corruption. The society has a pro-corruption attitude, even when they are shouting at the rooftop against corruption. People are even bribed to demonstrate against corruption! In my opinion, what we should focus our primary attention on is how to tackle the corruption carried out with impunity: the open, blatant corruption. Someone getting rich overnight without explanation, a governor buying houses in London and Paris, a civil servant owning a whole street in Abuja, a bank MD buying jets and yachts while declaring one kobo dividend for shareholders. The large-scale corruption should be our focus for now. Unfortunately, these guys are so stupidly rich they will get the smartest lawyers, bribe the prosecutors and the judges and escape justice. So we are in trouble.”
Journalists play a great role in achieving this as well, which is strengthening the country’s democracy, and also a major role in marring the entire dream, “Our role as journalists is to inform and educate the public about democracy and its links to development. We can do this with investigative and analytical journalism. The only problem is that economic and political patronage will always hamper an honest practice of the profession in Nigeria. Most newspapers are either owned by politiciansor their publishers are owned by politicians.”
Journalism might be his forte and the blood running through his veins but Kolawole’s pastime has nothing to do with it, “I love watching football in-between writing and I always listen to music a lot.”
By: Ada Igboanugo