“As we cover the Nigerian elections, we should be truthful, factual and accurate”
Dapo Olorunyomi is the CEO and publisher of Premium Times, a Nigerian newspaper. A veteran editor and media executive, Olorunyomi is the founder of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism and the leader of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), the Premium Times nonprofit arm.
In 2020, Olorunyomi was awarded with one of the International Press Freedom Awards by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). During his decades-long career as a journalist, he’s been a fierce defender of press freedom despite repeated threats and harassment from the military government. He was arrested twice and had to go into exile in 1995. In 2017, he was arrested by the police on allegations of defamation.
Today Olorunyomi sits on the board of different media and nonprofit organisations including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). In this interview, he discusses how he founded his media organisation, which challenges he faced, and press freedom issues and election reporting in Nigeria. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Why did you launch Premium Times?
A. In 2010/2011, Nigerian media was faced with two key problems: the obvious problem of trust and professionalism and then the problem of revenue.
The first obvious response to these problems was launching an online newspaper. This would cut out the whole investment in newsprint and a printing press. For most newspapers, this represented almost 80% of cost outside labour. So by cutting that off we brought innovation into our market and saved a significant amount of money.
The question then was how to assemble the best team. The 234 NEXT Newspaper, an exciting experiment launched by Dele Olojede, had just come to a closure due to the pressure of a very hostile government, which ensured that the newspaper didn’t get enough advertising revenue. This offered us the opportunity to hire many young talented journalists and experiment with what we were trying to do.
We got a small office and a partner investor, and the initial response was good. But this was a time in which Facebook and Google were already sweeping off advertising denying local newspapers of most revenue. How did we respond to this crisis? We set up a nonprofit to help seek nonprofit funding to support our journalism. It was important to separate the two entities because this nonprofit not only supported Premium Times' journalism but other journalism across the country. Its not-for-profit nature and independence helped insulate our journalism from any kind of conflict.
In a very brief sense, this would be a history of the origin of Premium Times as a newspaper and certainly of CJID, which is the first nonprofit newsroom in the sub-region.
Q. What kinds of challenges did you face and how did you tackle them?
A. I faced many challenges, but I would stress three.
The first was winning the trust of the people. Looking at it now, with the benefit of hindsight, that was a lesser obstacle to overcome. Attracting advertisers was far more challenging. They were used to advertising in print, radio or television. But they haven’t responded yet to the digital age. Eventually, they did.
The second challenge was clarifying our business model. In the digital age the newspapers’ traditional business model was broken.Advertising was not coming initially and previous experiments with paywalls had failed. So we needed to think a bit more about this.
The last challenge was professional renewal. Nigerian journalism had come to a point where it needed a decent makeover from a professional perspective. If you picked up five newspapers at that time, you would have five different accounts of the same event, which was not just a question of slant and perspective. Many readers were simply disconsolate at what seemed like a sorry slide of a profession that had done so well in the past and simply floundering now.
If we wanted to establish a new relationship with our readers, we would need to deepen the factual elements in our reporting. We hoped that this would attract attention from our audience and build loyalty in the long term. This is why we put investigative reporting at the heart of our value proposition. We then added data journalism to reinforce the analytical thrust of our reporting and incorporated a regular fact-checking component into our storytelling. In all this, we were outliers and innovators.
Q. Back in 2020, you were one of the journalists awarded with the International Press Freedom Awards by the CPJ. What did the award mean to you and which would you say are the main challenges for press freedom in Nigeria today?
A. The award was a great honour. I never lose sight of the fact that when a team leader gets recognition, it’s an affirmation of the sacrifices and the vision of the whole team. Media freedoms have improved in some respects in Nigeria and it’s now better than during the military dictatorship, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We have many constraining laws that make journalism practically impossible. There is regulatory overreach and an emerging surveillance culture. Newsrooms are going through many challenges: economic headwinds, lack of diversity and disappointing ratings. According to the Press Attack Tracker, the safety of journalists has become a far greater issue today than at any time in recent history.
Q. Nigeria's media landscape has some ongoing challenges including poor welfare and broken business models. How do you think that these challenges have affected the country’s media industry?
A. Mostly negatively. Poor welfare and weak business models have made it impossible to attract and retain talent in the way we would have loved to. They have also made it difficult to align our practice with our mission. For if we have to hold power accountable and do it independently and fearlessly, the resources to achieve this will be far more than what the industry currently generates.
Q.What's the funding model of your nonprofit?
A. As a not-for-profit newsroom, CJID is largely funded by the generosity of various donors as well as grants and donations. Our responsibility to them is to deliver quality programmes, products and services to the industry, to be truly and transparently accountable, and to submit our operations to a governing board, which has integrity and the right instincts and confidence to exert oversight.
Q. Trust in news has fallen recently in many countries. How can this problem be addressed?
A. This is a problem that journalism inherited from politics because democracy cannot function effectively without legitimacy and trust. These two elements are what elections try to resolve periodically at the ballot box. What is distinct about trust is that its presence often leads to the expansion of legitimacy and vice versa. Additionally, it comes with a moral quotient: integrity.
The gifted American scholar Robert McChesney puts it eloquently when he says that democracy deteriorates insofar as journalism deteriorates. To rebuild trust in the media, we have to be able to realise those three principal goals that the media always sets out to achieve; promote accountability, set the agenda for democracy and development, and effective gatekeeping through which it becomes a substantive surrogate parliament.
Achieving this requires finding a sustainable business model and a new governance model that ensures accountability and gives a voice to the public, readers, producers and market actors.
Q. Premium Times has collaborated with both other outlets in projects such as the Panama Papers. How have these collaborations changed the organisation?
A. Quite frankly, one would have hoped for a more profound social impact. But however consequential your work is, if it is not accommodating a collection or group action, the impact will run off, which is why investigative journalism must continue to be promoted, and why journalists should be working collaboratively.
Take the case of the Panama Papers, where Premium Times had reported about three dozen public officials on tax avoidance. There was accountability across the globe on this exposé of corrupt practices. For instance, the President of Iceland resigned; David Cameron gave a public apology; some were subjected to rigorous tax audits and investigations and others went to jail. Ironically, nothing happened to the indicted persons in Nigeria. But I have hopes for the future. As the saying goes, yesterday is a story gone, tomorrow can still be written in gold.
There is a collaborative effort of investigative journalists coming together, that’s building on the foundation of leaks.ng, which brings together investigative journalists to work around common coverage and common distribution of content. Eventually, this kind of ground-breaking investigative reporting will lead to public acceptance and action.
Q. Your nonprofit runs Dubawa, which seeks to debunk and fight misinformation in West Africa. What potential risks do you think misinformation poses in the continent?
A. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to democracy today. Here is why. It can systematically feed the wrong information to voters, thereby compromising the integrity of the ballot. It can foment strife and conflict and even cause wide scale fatalities. Misinformation can trigger abuses, reputation damage, bullying, harassment and intimidation. These are the reasons why the work of fact-checkers and media literacy actors is far more important now than ever.
Q. How do you think the media should cover the upcoming Nigerian election as well as other elections in the continent?
A. It is important to ensure that media coverage is thoughtful, credible and accountable; that we are not merely parroting events as they happen, but offer context so that we can achieve accuracy and meaning in storytelling. It is important that we are guided by the central core of our ethics, which require that we are truthful, factual and accurate, that we are providing verification at all times and that the public interest is the dominant consideration in our reporting.
In addition, we must be knowledgeable of the instruments guiding and regulating the electoral process such as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the recently amended Electoral Act.
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance investigative journalist based in Toronto, Canada where he is currently a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Formerly based in Johannesburg as an Open Society Foundation Fellow, his reporting is at the intersection of human rights, social justice, global health, migration, conflict and development in sub-Saharan Africa, and has been published by Foreign Policy, NPR, Daily Maverick, African Arguments, Rest of World, World Politics Review, Global Investigative Journalism Network and elsewhere. You can find his work here.