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It was captivating and inspiring, talking with the warm and highly intelligent Eniola Bello, the Managing Director of ThisDay newspapers. He has worked in Vanguard Newspapers, African Concord and PMNews, and joined ThisDay a month after it started publication. He has been ThisDay’s Deputy Editor, Editor Saturday, Editor Sunday, Editor Daily and was the first to edit all the titles. He was appointed Managing Director in 2005.
Bello has attended an executive programme at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in United States as well as Print Media Academy Summer University, Heidelberg, Germany. He is a Fellow of the Foreign Press Centre and was a member of the Nigerian Government Vision 20:20. He is also a member of Nigeria Institute of Management, Nigeria Institute of Public Relations, Nigeria Union of Journalists, and Nigeria Guild of Editors. The seasoned journalist, who cites Ngugi wa Thiong’o as his favourite author, talks about his journey into the world of journalism, pitching his pen in ThisDay newspapers, his defining moment at the newspaper house and challenges he’s faced. He also airs his views on the effect the emergence of online newspaper editions have had on the print editions. Chatting with Bello was a whole lot of fun and we hope you have fun reading this piece, but above all, draw some inspiration from it.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born on July 21, 1964 in Ayetoro Gbede, a village in Kogi state. My primary and secondary education were from schools in Kabba. I went to Kwara College of Technology in Ilorin now Kwara Polytechnic for my A-levels, then to the University of Ilorin where I had my BA in English. After that, I came to Lagos and attended Times Journalism Institute where I got a PGD in Journalism. From there, I started working in Vanguard Newspapers and while I was there, bagged a Masters degree in English Language from the University of Lagos. From Vanguard, I moved to African Concord until the June 12 election crisis when the newspaper was closed down by the military, then I joined PM News, and worked there for about 6 months, before finally moving to ThisDay and I’ve been there since then.
Why did you become a journalist?
When I was a child, I was arrested by the written word. I love reading books and was fully captured by anything in the printed world. My father was a teacher and I used to pick up his paper from the local vendor. I would have read a few stories on my way back home from the Vendor’s and when I returned from school – I was in primary school then – I’d come back for the paper and read up. That was how it started and since then it had just been natural to me. I wanted to be like the people writing the articles…and that’s how I fell in love with journalism.
As a journalist, what topics interest you the most?
Why? Why not, say, sports?
I love sports, but not up to the point of writing about it. When I started in journalism, I started from reporting general stories. As time went on, I got involved in following political development, power, and everything politics. You can only impact the society if you are involved in politics so I follow political stories, political development, and how decisions of the people in power affect the society, the people, and the country. So when I was given my own column, these were the things I was interested in writing about.
You joined ThisDay a month after its inception, and are still on the ThisDay ship today. What would you say is the reason you have stuck with the newspaper thus far?
When I joined ThisDay, it was very challenging. It is a newspaper that is characterised by constant innovation so there was no aspect that was boring, it was completely different. We were constantly being innovative and we were all young – almost all age-mates – so we enjoyed a certain camaraderie. We would harass each other, challenge each other, cry on each other…and so along the line, I just became part of the newspaper.
I’m sure you’ve had many defining moments, working at ThisDay for over 15 years. Which one stands out the most, for you?
Hmm. It’s difficult to say. The one that I remember is when I got married…I was in Thisday when I got married. Then, I was the deputy editor and about six months before I got married, I was offered editorship of the Saturday newspaper but I asked the proprietor not to move me out of daily because as the deputy editor, I was the charge of everything – we had really not settled down and were just starting to grow – and moving me out would disrupt the flow. So he went to look for someone else to edit the Saturday newspaper but things didn’t work out. Six months later, I got married and when I did, the proprietor didn’t even bother asking anymore, he ordered me to be the editor for Saturday edition. It worked out for me as someone starting a family, because the pressure wasn’t as intense as when I was the editor of the daily edition. Since then, I have edited the Sunday, daily…I was the first person to edit all the titles before becoming the MD.
What is the greatest challenge you have had to face in your career as editor at Thisday and how did you overcome it?
I believe it was during the hosting of Miss World in Abuja, when one of our reporters wrote an article in which there were one or two sentences that the muslims found offensive and it fuelled a riot in Abuja by the muslims. In the run-up to the contest, northerners were against having that Miss World contest in Abuja, they said it was irreligious and true muslims couldn’t have that kind of thing happening in Nigeria. Unluckily for us, there was that article by one of our reporters and it got them upset, and was used as an excuse for the terrible violence in Abuja and some parts of the North. Because they said the reason for the violence was the article in our paper, it was traumatic for all of us who were in the editorial/managerial position of the paper. We did a lot of running around to douse the tension and quell the fire but that didn’t help. So we called on some muslim leaders to help us appeal to the people and issued an apology pointing out that we had a Friday column on Islam and muslim staff members, so we had immense respect for Muslims.
What changes in your industry have been the most terrifying for you over the course of your career?
I wouldn’t call it terrifying, really, but there’s this development of online journalism or what we call citizen journalists. The problem is that these people work outside the boundaries of the profession and don’t care about confirming stories or balancing stories. They publish whatever they want to, without validating stories. Whatever they hear, they publish and as far as they are concerned, everybody is a criminal. The onus is on you, not on them, to show that you are not a criminal. So that has gone beyond the bounds of journalism as we were taught in journalism school, you should get to hear from both sides, let your story be balanced, let it be objective, and let it be fair. They ignore all the rules, and you cannot get a body to control them because these people work from the convenience of their laptop, anywhere. But then, this is what the world has come to, it’s technology, so what do you do? We have to adjust to it.
With the advent of the internet and a lot of newspapers having online editions, what do you think the future holds for print newspapers?
Print will always be there, really. Yes, the online edition has affected print in some fundamental ways, but the print will always be there. There are still people who prefer to read their newspaper in print. Yes, sales will go down, as it already is, there’s no question. However, what we see in our environment is not so much because of online editions as much as people not having the purchasing power to buy as they used to in the past. Yes, the online edition is a factor, but more than anything, I think that the purchasing power is the reason for the decline in sales.
Why do you think the purchasing power is the reason for reduced sales?
It’s a question of priority these days, not like those days. I’ll give you an example: there was a time in this country when one newspaper used to sell half a million copies, but today, all the papers combined, don’t even sell up to a million copies, so you can see sales have gone down considerably. As a student, I used to buy newspapers, but I don’t know how many students can afford to buy it now. In those days, companies used to buy all the brand of papers for all their executives, however, what they do now is that the executives will pick any two of their choice or they’ll buy one set of all the newspapers and put them in a central area so if you want to read, you go there and read. So to cut down costs, they don’t buy for individual executives the way they used to. Now, you go to news-stands and see people reading, so it’s not as if people don’t read, it’s just that they are not buying. This has affected sales a lot and because of lack of employment, and the poor state of our economy, newspapers don’t make it to the top of people’s priority list. Also, I would say newspapers are not doing enough. Now when you take the newspaper and look at the front page, you have seen everything. Plus, almost all papers have the same stories on their front pages. Perhaps, it could be that we are not presenting a variety of things to excite the readers. You could look at ten newspapers and they all have the same story as their lead story.
Are there some sections of the newspaper that are harder to substitute online and, therefore, help keep the paper edition afloat?
It’s not possible because there are other papers that all they do is online, they don’t have print edition. Printing newspapers is a headache; you have to print, you have to buy chemicals, you have to buy ink, etc. You don’t need all these for the online edition and there are papers who are not bothered about print editions, but are solely focused online, afterall online newspapers are newspapers too. So, if you don’t do it, they’ll do it and if you are not putting some sections online, they’ll put them online since they are doing a full paper online, anyway. Ultimately, all we want to do is meet the needs of the readers, so if you are not meeting the needs of the readers, they’ll meet the needs of the readers and you’ll be out of the market. Crossword puzzles can be put online, there’s no part of the newspaper that can’t be put online.
If newspapers switch their revenue model to put more emphasis on online revenues, do you think that it will be enough to sustain them?
We have not reached the optimum use of online editions in Nigeria, it’s just developing in the country. Internet is a problem because of our peculiar infrastructure problem; lack of power, telecoms, and so on. Now that all these things are developing, the more we have access to the internet, and the more people have access to the internet and are online, the more advertisers will want to key in. Advertisements and sponsorship will come in, because when they see more people are online, they will know that to reach them, they will have to advertise online.
Would you choose journalism if you could turn back the hands of the clock? Is there anything you would do differently? Well, I don’t believe in turning back the hands of time because I’m already here and getting here has taken a long process. There are no regrets, I’ve enjoyed being a journalist. Yes, if you are looking to be rich, it’s not in journalism but in terms of impacting the society and getting to know people, and there is more to this life than being rich. I’m very satisfied in what I do. There’s nothing like when you have self-contentment.
Tell us one thing people don’t know about Eniola Bello. Give us something shocking.
(laughs) Hmm…okay, let me tell you what people see me do that gets them shocked. When they see me dance. When they see me dance, they are shocked. I’m a good dancer.
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