[email protected]: Success story, impact, low points

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By Tunde Abatan

When THISDAY Newspapers made its debut in 1994 at the height of the agitation for the annulment of the June 12 election and the proscription of leading newspapers like The Punch, defunct National Concord and The Guardian by late General Sani Abacha’s regime, it was embraced as a welcomed option to fill the vacuum in the print media space.

But then, for Prince Nduka Obaigbena, its high profile and daring publisher, his ambition was not only to fill a vacuum but to shatter the myths and norms associated with newspaper production and publishing in the country and change the face of the industry.

With a modest beginning in a flat in Ikoyi, Lagos, he was able to hit the streets without some basic facilities and with a few  seasoned journalists, he announced his arrival in the newspaper market with a big bang. He operated without a printing press, launched colour production, achieved singular edition and even with the eventual return of the proscribed papers, he raised the bar in news analysis, political and business reporting.

Over the years, the newspaper has accomplished various milestones that have made it one of the foremost publications and engaged in other related media ventures like media awards, fashion shows and lectures.

At a point, it made an attempt to publish in South Africa but the venture failed at great cost to the company that has unfortunately become known for irregular payment of staff and non-provision of  conducive working conditions despite its large revenue earnings.

Now at 25, with the addition of a cable television station, Arise TV, the company has continued to expand its print and digital operations and restructuring its operations to survive the next 25 years.

We got the views of some editorial staff who spoke on their experiences and perceptions of where  THISDAY conglomerate had taken the industry to in 25 years. Excerpts:

THISDAY

INNOVATIVE, COMMENDABLE, LOW POINTS

By Yusuph Olaniyonu

THISDAY newspaper came in 1995 at a time it seems no new daily publication could break into the pack held tightly by Guardian and Concord, and maybe Punch and Vanguard both of which were not known for real mainstream hard news. THISDAY came with a unique style in which its coverage of any issue, development or event was what we call in law the “covering the field”. In one report, divided into segments, it would provide all the angles.

The newspaper later followed with innovations that were thought to be impossible but were later emulated by all and sundry. The idea of devoting back page to commentaries and later columns, producing an all colour pages, printing simultaneously in different locations, putting advertisement on front and back pages, otherwise known as wrap-around, inserting publications devoted to style, soft news and sports, in the weekend papers, devoting pages to gossip in weekend papers, and many others too numerous to mention.

However, while credit should go to the visionary head man in THISDAY, Prince Nduka Obaigbena, a restless, creative and adventurous thinking machine, for these ground-breaking innovations, there were some decisions that had set the newspaper back. Like the venture to produce a paper in South Africa and the huge funds spent on promoting THISDAY fashion events here in Nigeria and in many cities across the world. These ventures gulp money and deprive the paper of the much-needed money to grow at home.

The fact that THISDAY head office in Lagos has been caught up in the Apapa gridlock and had become a shadow of its old self while the Abuja Office has not been rebuilt since it was bombed some years ago remain low points for the newspaper.

Even then, I see THISDAY continue to be a major force in the Nigerian Media Industry. The company is set to make a huge success with the Arise TV. It is, however, my hope that Mr Obaigbena does not allow too much attention and investment in Arise TV to negatively affect the fortunes of THISDAY NEWSPAPERS, the flagship product of his Media Group.

Overall, THISDAY remains a good training ground for young journalists.

Olaniyonu was Editor of THISDAY on Sunday and Chairman, Editorial Board

THE GAINS, THE PAINS

THISDAY newspaper is unarguably a highly formidable medium whose debut in 1995, altered the status quo in Nigeria’s journalism practice.

The newspaper has since inception recorded many firsts in the media industry. The ambitious media platform founded by the visionary Duke, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, has from inception been setting the pace in the media industry while others follow.

The newspapers came into existence at the time some notable newspapers such as The Guardian, The Punch and defunct National Concord had been proscribed by the then military junta in the aftermath of the annulment of June 12, 1993, presidential election, won by the late business mogul, Chief MKO Abiola.

The proscription of these newspapers no doubt enhanced the acceptance of THISDAY especially with its records of exclusive stories at the time.

However, the circumstances of its debut, notwithstanding, the newspaper went through a teething financial challenge that is often associated with the debut of newspapers in Nigeria.

Newspapering in Nigeria is a very expensive venture because it entails a very high cost of production. In most cases, before a fresh newspaper could gain acceptance among readers, it would have exhausted its capital and consequently disappeared from the newsstand.

Thus, in the last 25 years, no fewer than 40 newspapers had come up and disappeared in no time while those that survived well are not more than five, and most prominent of them is THISDAY.

It should be made clear at this juncture, that THISDAY’s survival was not automatic. The newspaper went through the usual moment of financial crisis often associated with fresh newspapers in Nigeria, but it weathered the storm as a result of the irrepressible and resilient spirit of Obaigbena.

He was determined to grow the newspaper into a first-class brand, a vision which eventually became a reality.

Before the advent of THISDAY, Obaigbena had published THISWEEK magazine in the 80’s. At a very young age of 28, and without equal experience to that of notable publishers of Newswatch, Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu and Dan Agbese, at the time, Obaigbena had the guts to set up THIS WEEK to compete with Newswatch, a leading magazine of the time.

He, however, was forced to rest THISWEEK, in view of the challenge of the time with the intention of returning to publishing later.

Upon returning with THISDAY in 1995, Obaigbena was determined not to allow the newspaper to go the way of THISWEEK. So, he fought the financial challenge contending against the survival of THISDAY with decisively as he had the guts to approach banks to secure loans to remain in business. Eventually, the newspaper became stable in no time to the extent that five years later, the publisher took whooping $200 million to establish THISDAY South Africa. I will come back to that later.

The Gains and Contributions of THISDAY to Media Growth in Nigeria

At the time of its advent on January 20, 1995, the popular tradition was to publish newspapers in black and white from the front page to the back page.

It was inconceivable at the time to dream of publishing newspapers in colour. But THISDAY’s advent with a sense of innovations, changed all that as it became the first newspaper to publish its front page in colour.

This brought glowing beauty to the newspaper, making it more attractive on newsstand than others. It also ignited the existing competition in the media industry, leaving others without option but to copy THISDAY.

Some years later, still basking in the euphoria of setting the pace, Obaigbena again became the first person to publish all the inside pages of THISDAY in colour at the time others considered it an expensive venture.

This feat again compelled others to opt to grapple with the pain of the cost of total coloured productions by copying THISDAY.

The newspaper was also the first to begin the publication of opinion articles on its back page at the time the second set of best stories were published on the backpage.

The tradition by editors in the past was to publish the strongest stories on the first page, stronger ones on the back page and strong stories on page three while others went inside.

But THISDAY changed all that as it opted to deviate from the norm by opting to publish strong viewpoints by different columnists on its page.

The articles soon generated readers’ interests in view of the value it added to reading and knowledge.

Like the previous ideas introduced by the newspaper, other newspapers gradually began to copy the idea until the only fashionable thing to do in journalism practice in Nigeria was to publish long opinion articles on the back pages of newspapers.

Besides, THISDAY was also the first medium to introduce style magazine in its Sunday edition. The style magazine features the publication of notable events laid out with images, high profile interviews and the latest fashion designs in town.

The interest THISDAY style generated in readers became so alarming that sometime, vendors would remove it and separately sold the magazine to readers.

The magazine also aroused the interest of some advertisers who preferred to place their adverts in the magazine not minding the higher rates as result of its popularity.

Again, this idea was soon copied by notable newspapers like Vanguard and The Guardian.

The newspaper was also the first to begin to give awards to people, groups, brands and leading organisations amid pomp and pageantry.

The events of THISDAY awards, which were usually graced by world leaders, were so highly coveted that some intending recipients would seek to lobby the management to be included on the list of the awardees.

That idea also soon became a tradition in the media industry as today, various newspapers yearly organise award-giving ceremonies at the time THISDAY had suspended its own.

In its heydays, THISDAY annual awards propelled political office holders and brand owners to work harder with the aim of either retaining previous awards or making the next list of awardees.

Also, THISDAY was the first medium to launch the publication of a single edition across the country. In the past, only the people of the South-west where newspapers’ corporate offices are located had the privilege of reading fresh stories as the norm then was to produce two editions because of distance.

Thus, it always took three days for people in other zones to read fresh stories in the South-west. But THISDAY broke the jinx of first and second editions by becoming the first newspaper to begin the publication of a single edition nationwide. It achieved this feat by installing printing presses in other zones from where circulation could be easily carried out.

Most newspapers have copied THISDAY by equally publishing a single edition.

In terms of content, THISDAY is very rich, particularly in political and business stories. The newspaper is forceful and authoritative. It often spearheads keen competition in the industry with its penchant to break stories and publish exclusives on which competitors are forced to do a follow-up subsequently.

At the commemoration of Nigeria’s centenary anniversary in 2014, THIS DAY made the list of the top 50 brands in the country.

The Lows of THISDAY

However, a major drawback of THISDAY is staff welfare. Sometimes in the past, salaries and gratuities, until recently, were not only low but also not regularly paid. This often resulted in unrests and strike actions by staff, seeking the just reward for their labour.

This poor welfare often brought a credibility crisis to the medium. But in recent times, there has been a lot of improvement in staff welfare.

In August, 2019 for instance, preparatory to the commemoration of 25 years of its existence on January 20, this year, the publisher, Obaigbena announced 25 per cent pay rise for staff and the implementation took immediate effect.

Payment of salaries and gratuities was also regular in the year 2019 to the admiration of staff who pray for its sustenance.

THISDAY South Africa

A major pain of THISDAY was its failed investment in South Africa.

The investment had fulfilled the desire of the publisher for an international brand. But after gulping $200 million dollars, South African authorities who were unsettled by the newspaper’s success in a brief period, shut down the company before the mid-2000s. One of the problems THISDAY had in South Africa was the country’s xenophobic attitudes towards fellow Africans and their businesses.

Thus, the inability of South African newspapers to match the popularity of THISDAY created anger and jealousy towards it and when the South African authorities found a single loophole in its operations, they quickly exploited it and shut down the company.

Thus, the whopping $200 million investment in South Africa when the exchange rate was relatively THISDAY : The High, Low Points and Contributions in the last 25 Years

By Anonymous senior editorial staff

THISDAY @ 25: Monument to inventive spirit

Louis Odion

The easy business plan will assume that cash – ton f “s of it – performs all the magic. But not in all cases. As anyone familiar with the difficult beginnings of THISDAY will attest, guts and sheer improvisation sometimes prove a far more invaluable resource.

If the earth indeed shook a quarter-century ago when THISDAY emerged, it was largely because it started by shattering a few ancient media myths: the indispensability of sub-desk, running daily newspaper without owning a printing press, big office and deep pocket.

Yours sincerely was among the founding staff assembled in the heat of June 12 struggle when the national space was choking under the stranglehold of Sani Abacha – arguably the most brutal military dictator in the nation’s history.

Where we started in Lagos was indeed only a little more than a room-and-parlour on the last floor of a three-storey building. Furniture was, for instance, scarcely enough to sit everyone at peak hours. But for this youthful army, a passion for the written word and faith in its power to engage the then fledgeling military despotism were comforting enough.

Sometimes, folks had to literally squat on the plush brown rug to scribble reports on sheets torn off stubs of newsprint reels scavenged from a distant printing press. Others didn’t mind standing in the balcony with only a limited view of the Ikoyi skyline.

THISDAY was aspiring to fill a vacuum. Raw talent was seizing a historic opportunity. Existing media giants like Concord, The Guardian, Punch and Sketch had been proscribed by the military over their critical reportage. So, that meant a glut of seasoned but “jobless” journalists available to drive THISDAY from the outset.

I got signed on immediately I was introduced to The Duke (Mr. Nduka Obaigbena) in the corridor by the News Editor, ebullient Victor Ifijeh (who had been my senior colleague at the politics desk of Concord Press).

“Oh, I’m familiar with the name,” he said, offering a warm handshake. “Welcome on board.”

Soon afterwards, folks like us found we had to adapt to a newsroom culture starkly different from where we migrated. The existing orthodoxy would designate the sub-desk as the filter, the ultimate gatekeeper in the newspaper process. Now, the THISDAY template more or less abridged the sub-desk, thus making the production chain compact and more swift to deliver, but imposing greater responsibility on the reporter in terms of the margin of error. The weight of that burden is better appreciated considering that it was not yet the age of the internet or google when information could be sourced seamlessly to background a story while writing.

Even more energizing was the direct involvement of The Duke himself in news-gathering and production. The physical toll that later exacted was enough to knock him down one day such that he had to be evacuated to the hospital and put on a drip. But against doctor’s advice, a tenacious Obaigbena would drag himself up soon after regaining consciousness, conceal the half-empty drip under a flowing Agbada and sneak back to the office, obviously to be sure his absence would not hamper the production of the next day’s edition!

Overall, The Duke’s vast network of powerful sources meant THISDAY reports were mostly in-depth and authoritative. The credit for stampeding Nigeria’s print media at the start of this millennium into the notion of “one edition nationwide” undoubtedly belongs to THISDAY.

I was privileged to be the pioneer Abuja editor in 2002 during that momentous transition. Amid sleepless nights for days on end, the takeoff of THISDAY’s Abuja plant was owed more to sheer human improvisations and adaption than the benevolence of technology. Whenever the affliction of technical glitch struck in the middle of the night (and that was fairly regularly), we literally had to cart desktop computers to Obaigena’s hotel suite for internet connectivity. Even after the teething problems had abated, for several months, I never closed formally from the Jabi office earlier than around 3 or 4a.m daily and then drove to faraway Asokoro to the home “donated” by compassionate Mr. Nduka Irabor (having moved to Apo Legislative Quarters as Reps member).

More, as against the old tradition of reserving the back page for sports exclusively, the daily newspaper opted from the outset in 1995 to devote that space to critical analysis of political issues and trend, handled by the politics desk anchored by Eziuche Ubani (ex-Guardian) and yours sincerely. Our boundless energy to sustain that gruelling routine daily, spiced with the biting “missile” section, led us into being nick-named “The Unbreakable” in-house. And from there evolved the concept of back-page column that THISDAY patented and inspired others to follow in Nigeria’s media sector. Years later, those considered “popular” writers were shortlisted by the publisher to write back-page columns.

Expectedly, the heat radiated by the 24-hour operations of THISDAY now left the hitherto quiet neighbourhood, where the office was located with the sleeplessness and unceasing human and vehicular traffic. Night and day, the lights never really went off inside THISDAY as folks chattered and bantered away in the heat of production, foisting a family spirit, with bubbly Ide Eguabor (General Manager) doubling as the inexhaustible bag of humour. Waziri Adio was unmistakable in the crowd with his contemplative taciturnity. Ditto sardonic Niran Malaolu who seemed in an undeclared competition with the publisher over the wearing of a bow-tie.

Then, it was easy to tell when Eni-B was either making or receiving an “important” call. Whenever you saw him huddled in a corner of the office, momentarily discarding his trademark no-nonsense mien and smiling sheepishly on the land phone (cellphone was not yet ubiquitous), you knew with certainty that his sweetheart (future wife but sadly recently deceased) was on the line. The rest of us would be waiting for him to hang up before pulling his legs.

But for all the relative big impact THISDAY made across the nation within a record short time, the big irony is that The Duke never started with a deep pocket. Insiders would squeal that, almost regularly, the limit of financial wizardry was stretched in trying to meet ever-mounting invoices of suppliers of newsprint and consumables with the poor returns from dodgy newspaper distributors and buccaneering advert executives. Indeed, what The Duke actually had more was a personal charm which he constantly summoned to access high places, open seemingly impossible doors and bewitch the tribe of creditors not to refuse him one more time. Managing workers’ compensation and expectations were different kettle altogether. I remember a hilarious drama that unfolded one Friday in 1995 following a cash-flow hiccup and it became obvious that our weekly BTA (basic transport allowance) would not be paid. It was indeed past the middle of the month with most workers already gasping financially.

Suddenly, tension descended on the newsroom as folks came to terms with the prospects of spending the weekend with empty pockets. Then, it was confirmed that it would be half-pay.

Next, one of the frayed nerves erupted into an open tantrum. Surprisingly, it came from the least expected: Ifijeh!

“What nonsense is this!,” the newsroom headbanged his desk with the full force of his heavyweight. “These are distress signals. If you know you don’t have the resources to run a newspaper, fold it up and let us go home!!”

Populist in content and cadence, Ifijeh (now Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Nation) no doubt spoke the minds of almost everyone. The air literally froze as those subversive words echoed across the gloom of that testy evening. That they were uttered by a supposed “management staffer” in a voice too loud to afford the publisher (just a few steps away in the corridor) any excuse to pretend not to have heard made the atmosphere all the more charged.

“Who was making such a noise?,” The Duke turned around and queried half in jest, half in worry.

“It’s me Publisher,” said Ifijeh, raising a hand to claim responsibility as the rebel leader. “Look, Publisher, some of us are married men. How are we supposed to go home empty-handed on a weekend after working so hard? What are we going to tell our wives?”

Naturally, that elicited thunderous applause from all the workers.

To calm nerves, the publisher then clarified: “Well, we’ve some cash-flow issue. But what the Accountant was going to give each of you is personal gratis, repeat personal gratis, from me. On Monday, you’ll still receive your full BTA.”

Moments afterwards, I went to sign for my own “gratis” as well as Ifijeh’s. Calculating Obaigbena only waited to be furnished with the full list of beneficiaries of the “gratis” that evening before landing a mischievous counter-blow. On sighting Ifijeh’s name on the list, he came to the newsroom and announced jokingly: “With all the yanga you made earlier, I’m surprised Victor that you still went behind to collect the money.”

The entire floor erupted in rapturous laughter.

Such seed of conviviality planted early at the Ikoyi cradle would shape the culture of kinship that has defined the THISDAY family over the years. It perhaps best explains why the door is always left ajar for “defectors” wishing to return after they might have found that the grass was not greener elsewhere, with the task of “reconciliation and reintegration” often left for pacifist Kayode Komolafe irrevocably committed to the principle of “peaceful coexistence”.

At a personal level, no less remarkable is Obaigbena’s instinctive inability to keep malice. Much later after our fierce legal battle over copyright following my exit to Sun in 2002, he would playfully pull me by the ear at the residence of our durable icon, “Uncle Sam” (Pa. Sam Amuka, Vanguard’s Publisher), querying: “Why were you absent at my 50th birthday?”

“I was not invited,” I defended.

“Really?,” he frowned, turning to Eni-B (THISDAY Managing Director). “That’s your fault.”

In retrospect, I believe The Duke was content with winning the landmark case argued personally by legendary Gani Fawehinmi in court against Dr. Amanze Obi continuing with “Broken Tongues” and yours sincerely “The Bottomline” in Sun. Somehow, a “political solution” worked out: there was no fresh suit against me writing “The Bottomline” thereafter.

However, beneath The Duke’s seeming tough outlook is an uncommon tenderness, one that gets emotional at the departure of a staffer with whom he had bonded. We had two such difficult one-on-one encounters. First was at my first exit in December 1995.

The 20-month prescription on Concord and others had just been lifted by the Abacha junta. He bluntly refused my “excuse” of gaining admission to UNILAG for a degree programme (I actually started in Concord with National Diploma from Federal Poly, Ado Ekiti three years earlier at age 18), saying he would not have opposed me enrolling for further studies even while working at THISDAY.

But honestly, beyond my estimation that THISDAY’s gruelling routine would not afford me a breathing space at UNILAG, loyalty to the June 12 struggle made the return to Concord (owned by MKO) irresistible. Other “returnees” from THISDAY included Sam Omatseye, Eric Osagie and Waheed Odusile.

Back in Concord, I remained in touch with The Duke and he would normally ask me each time we spoke or met, “So, when are you coming back to THISDAY?”

Eventually, my second coming in 2000 was literally forced by Segun Adeniyi with whom I had forged a deep bond that transcended work at Sunday Concord between 1996 and 1998. I was Segun’s best man at his wedding to Tosin in December 1998.

When the groom later “defected” from Ikeja to 35 Creek Road few weeks after the wedding, native intelligence must have alerted our editor and big brother, Mr. Tunji Bello, that Segun would soon pull me over. So, the drastic “preemptive” step he took was promoting me three whopping steps on a single day!

But Segun never really relented.

By the time I graduated in the summer of 1999, I really had no more excuse to give Segun not to join him in THISDAY which “is for young people like us.”

Segun’s “plot” finally succeeded in March 2000, leaving me with the difficult task of breaking the “bad” news to Tunji Bello who had given me opportunity in journalism as a mentor and one who counselled me to go to UNILAG and earn a degree instead of returning to Federal Poly to obtain HND and, though of different faith and ethnic stock, virtually adopted me as a younger brother.

Two years later in THISDAY, my restless spirit pushed me to again approach the publisher and announce my decision to go join my former senior colleagues in Concord (Messrs. Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe) to start Sun newspapers.

Sure, it turned out another emotional meeting in the publisher’s penthouse office overlooking the Apapa lagoon.

Like every mortal, The Duke has his own frailties. But all those put together cannot in any way diminish the monumentality of his contribution to media practice Nigeria in the last four decades.

* Odion is Senior Technical Assistant on Media to the President.

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