Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo suggests ways that Gov Soludo can creatively save the National Light newspaper by reviving and sustaining it.
A long worn-out joke about Anambra State is that book people (euphemism for the educated) do not govern effectively; they are mostly theorists who experiment with book concepts. It’s a tired jab at a state that has taken more than its share of punches for its seemingly intractable financial, political and security troubles for electing highly educated leaders to office.
The impactful leaders have been uneducated street smarts who seem to have made mind boggling fortunes. These are people who have controlled the state and its elected, educated governors. They are the godfathers, powers behind the throne.
Truth be told, educated leaders from Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju to Prof. Charles Soludo, have disappointed in many respects. Luckily, the state seems to be on the mend, even as it continues to travel treacherous, fragile, and delicate path to recovery.
There were no smoking guns for the collapse of the state besides bad leadership occasioned by ignorant and egoistical politicians. And yes, ignorant followers. American cerebral comedian, George Carlin said: “If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you are gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders.
Governor Chukwuma Soludo’s order for the closure of the state-owned newspaper, The National Light, in August 2023 may have unintended consequences including the reversal of current progress.
This note is an appeal to save this newspaper and Anambra State. The question is why this interest in a state newspaper? The simple and straightforward answer is why not? But I need to say more to drive home the need and urgency for well-meaning persons to intervene.
The National Light should be saved:
Because local journalism uncovers widespread and unreported abuses, prompts government officials to take action and often, give voice to the forgotten; the closure of this legacy newspaper will be an undeniable blow to the state’s news, social and political ecosystem.
Because when people read news about their neighborhoods, schools and municipal services, they think like locals, when they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.
Because local coverage allows readers to actively participate in the selection of the Igwe, the formation of his cabinet (Ndi Ichie), the election of the Presidents-General of their town union, fight over local taxes and rates and waste disposal, rents and property taxes in their town rather than the latest Supreme Court judgement or political battles between Atiku and Jagaban.
Sadly, bad government — defined by corruption, failed promises, hypocrisy and dishonesty — exists far too much in Southeast Nigeria. And that makes good dogged journalism, especially at a local level, more critically important than ever.
Imagine if we had a robust local journalism, then, perhaps, we would have read everything there is to know about unknown gunmen, their footprints and collaborators. Local reporting would have uncovered all their malfeasance, since it is a local phenomenon.
Because local journalism is where accountability journalism matters most. It is focused on how money is spent and how priorities are set on the local level. It is often that base level reporting that becomes the seed corn for bigger national stories with datelines from the heartland and the suburbs.
Because abundant research has found that strong local journalism builds social cohesion, encourages political participation, and improves the efficiency and decision-making of local and state government.
Because it is vital to democratic society. Accurate, trustworthy reporting on local councils, courts and other public bodies enables people to hold those in power to account for decisions that affect their everyday lives; help people to feel connected and get involved with their communities; increase turnout at elections, create economic value by encouraging people to buy local, and foster a sense of cohesion and pride of place.
And because the absence of local journalism affects civic engagement and promotes political polarization. Studies show that people who live in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they are more likely to do so strictly along party lines.
I am well aware that like other state and national and even privately owned newspapers, The National Light, does not have a healthy balance sheet. And it should, after all it is business.
However, the absence of a healthy balance sheet does not explain the nature of the paper’s crisis. Ignore the government’s propaganda, the newspaper does not have a revenue problem. The correct prognosis will show that it has a culture problem. And as Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant said, culture eats strategy for breakfast, meaning that a wrong culture is a stage four cancer. It will kill its host unless a miracle happens.
A media run as a parastatal of government, devoted entirely to the service of the governor and his acolytes; that shuts out opposition and is not allowed to publish or criticize the authorities, cannot be expected to turn profit. Especially when profit making was not one of the aims for setting it up. Which other parastatal is making profit in the state or in the country as a whole?
Wrong diagnosis leads to wrong disease management. The decision to shut The Light Newspaper is symptomatic of the government’s faulty analysis and decision-making process which grants the people the opportunity to participate in consultation, but not in decision making.
The single biggest challenge facing The National Light Newspaper today is the public’s lack of trust in it. This is not a new challenge, but it is persistent, and it has been getting worse. The Anambra State Broadcasting Service suffers a similar fate. So much so that government officials go to private stations to get listenership. It is comparable to the situation between Arise Television and Nigerian Television Authority.
This is why the current crisis is such a great opportunity. Rather than throw away the baby with the bath water, it is an opportunity for complete overhaul.
Lack of participation in government programs is often the result of the weakening of civic institutions rising anti-governmental populism, wholesale failures of government over an extended period of time; loss of faith in the future and general loss of confidence in national and regional goals.
Secondly, the Internet has destroyed the advertising moat that had protected newspaper revenues for more than a century. The decline of local news has been linked to the increased ‘nationalisation’ of local elections. State off cycle elections have become national events because citizens with fewer opportunities to read about local politics, are attracted to national media who interpret local politics with national political lenses and biases.
Even if you are agnostic about the future of journalism, you have to be worried about the survival of The National Light and other state-owned media.
A pragmatic model for fixing The National Light is to collapse the three state-owned media organisations into a corporation that will be independent and run on leaner resources. These related but separate media outfits already have the infrastructure to support the project long-term. What is needed is to retrain journalists to write across media platforms and to give them relevant technological skills for today’s challenges. New York Times will not hire a reporter without coding skills.
Hire competent media managers – not a job for cronies – and constitute a board of business gurus with a terms of reference to draw up a road map that will ultimately take the newspaper to Onitsha Stock Exchange. A public, independent newspaper in the mode of Daily Times of yore will be one of the greatest legacies Soludo can bequeath to Anambra State. Let’s move beyond block and mortar development mentality that led a poor state like Ebonyi to build a N35billion airport that is still under lock and key. Think of the waste and the cost of money and the debilitating poverty in the state.
Alternatively, the government can transition The National Light into a nonprofit which means residents will receive a free copy of the paper once a week, and stories on its website will be free to read.
Increasing the reach, coverage and circulation of the newspaper will greatly increase its advertising value. It’s just a different business model for the future, one that ensures local news will be available.
Everywhere in the civilized world, the government is fighting for the survival of local journalism because of the huge benefits that accrue from having a robust media ecosystem.
Heritage Ministry officials in Canada, for example, are considering adopting a legislation already proposed in Australia that would force Google and Facebook to pay for media content they carry. More importantly, the ministry has proposed raising tax credit on digital news subscriptions from 15 per cent to 50 per cent to encourage more people to support Canadian media outlets.
The government had last October announced direct cash payments to publishers of magazines and non-daily newspapers through the Canada Periodical Fund.
“A free and independent press is essential to a healthy democracy. Canadians rely on local journalism to stay informed on what is happening in their communities and around the world. The last few years have not been easy for Canada’s news organizations, and today the Government of Canada is taking a further step in its efforts to support them”, said the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez who also announced the rollout of two Budget commitments to support diverse and local stories in the news.
The first was the relaunching the Special Measures for Journalism component through its Canada Periodical Fund with a new investment of $40 million over three years, starting in 2022–23. This funding included a $1.5 million investment over three years through the Fund’s Business Innovation component, starting in 2022–23, for unique new projects that focus on innovative ideas to support magazines and community newspapers. The Government also invested an additional $10 million in 2023–24 for the Local Journalism Initiative to strengthen support for local journalism in underserved communities across Canada.
“What is being announced further demonstrates our commitment and determination to support our local journalism. These past few years have been difficult for our magazine publishers and our community newspapers. We have been there for them and continue to be there for them because we know how important they are to our communities across the country and because they are a pillar of our democracy. Today, we take another step forward and continue our support for a free, strong and independent press,” said Rodriguez.
In 2020–21, more than $45 million was provided to assist more than 790 free, digital and small-circulation periodicals. In 2021–22, more than $23 million was allocated to 765 recipients. The renewed funding will help ensure that most periodicals will continue to create content accessible to Canadians.
In 2019, the Local Journalism Initiative was launched as a five-year commitment with a budget of $50 million to ensure trusted, local perspectives are available and to encourage local community engagement. The Recovery Fund for Arts, Culture, Heritage and Sport Sectors increased the initial funding support to $60 million over five years. The Budget 2022 funding commitments are further strengthening this support to a total of $70 million over five years. This initiative supports the production of civic journalism for underserved communities and provides funding support to more than 400 journalist positions across the country on an annual basis.
Like education, investment in local journalism requires patience, and dedication, especially as there’s a real temptation in our country to blame many of the ills of society on journalism. The dislike for journalists and journalism bleeds over into a dislike of institutions that provide checks and balances such as EFCC, ICPC, etc.
This is a bad decision that should be reversed immediately.