For 32 years, Lekan Otufodunrin practiced journalism and rose to the position of Group News Editor at The Punch Newspaper where he worked for 12 years.
He worked in some other media organisations before joining The Nation Newspaper as the pioneering Sunday Editor. He eventually left the newsroom in December 2018 to run the Media Career Development Network, a media career development training outfit in Lagos.
Otufodunrin, who also founded Journalists For Christ, the association for Christian journalists and allied professionals in 1998, spoke with DAYO EMMANUEL on his career journey and advises journalists to pay enough attention to their career as they go about their duties.
Two years ago you disengaged from the newsroom after 32 years of active media practice. Can you briefly recall your experience in the media?
My experience in the media dates back to my graduating from the University of Lagos where I studied Mass Communication, after which I went for national youth service in the old Sokoto State. I had earlier done an internship with the defunct National Concord Newspapers. But if you talk about my media work proper, I would say it all began around May 1987 when I joined The Punch and I was the state correspondent for the newspaper in Ogun State. I was in The Punch till 1999.
During the years, I was state correspondent, political correspondent, I became head of the political desk, later assistant news editor and eventually Group News Editor. Before I left, I was briefly Lagos City Editor and Group Political Editor. By the time I left in 1999, I had functioned in those positions and it was a very interesting time of learning and doing what I really enjoyed.
One of my memorable times was when I traveled to United Kingdom to attend the Thompson Foundation fellowship in Cardiff, Cardiff for three months where I learnt a lot beyond being a reporter. It was there I learnt how to train journalists which is what I am doing now.
After leaving The Punch, I worked briefly in a few newspapers; National Interest, Financial Standard and New Age. I was just experimenting because I was trying to be on my own, but eventually I joined The Comet briefly before The Nation took off.
I actually wanted to start the media career development network then but I didn’t achieve what I wanted and didn’t have the required resources.
I didn’t leave The Nation until 2018. Half of years I was Sunday Editor, then eventually I became Managing Editor Online and Special Publications. In all, it has been a very interesting time; being able to do stories that impacted lives and mentor younger journalists.
Recapping 30-32 years in few minutes, someone would think you are one lucky person, because some have had rough experiences which you don’t seem to have had much taste of going by your narration or don’t you feel lucky?
I definitely had some rough experiences too. I worked at The Punch for those years and when I had to leave, I had some misgivings. Similar things happened in other places I worked. Things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted in terms of career progress. I thought I could have got to some positions I didn’t get to. But not withstanding it was a nice experience working in those places.
I asked because your experience seems rosy at those places you had worked, don’t you think so?
Rosy is relative, there were times when one felt concerned about the work environment. There were times when maybe things did not work the way I wanted it, and back then journalism was not this stressful, the economy was not this bad.
You were working and just getting your basic pay, you were fine. Thankfully, Punch was a place things were largely smooth, you were paid as and when due. Things ware well spelt out. Those periods before I joined The Nation was what we can call a rough period. I worked briefly at the National Interest, Financial Interest, New Age.
The experiences were not like that of The Punch. Maybe those were the rough times. I don’t want to call it frustration. So I won’t call it lucky. 32 years is not a short period. I can say I was fortunate to have been able to get what I wanted at the right time and to also be able to impact life which is more important to me.
After the newsroom, what can you say you have missed
Outside the newsroom, I think the little difference is that now I run my own outfit which is called Media Career Development Network which is a training, mentoring, coaching organisaiton for journalists.
We run a website that is about reporting the media. What I can say I miss is the pressure. When I was Online Editor, I can say it was very hectic because it was more or less a 24- hou work; when a story breaks and you have to monitor it. I won’t say I miss the newsroom much, but now I am more relaxed to work, to do the stories I want to do. It is not every story that I am chasing now like before.
Like I said being an online editor is a hectic job where you follow every story that is breaking. You have to be on top of it or get someone to follow it. You are sleeping and a story is breaking, the competition is there, it is stiffer, unlike a normal newspaper when you edit a daily or weekend paper, the moment you produce, you are gone, you can take your time before the next production but online stories are breaking, you don’t go to sleep.
I can say I miss that crowd when you have a lot of people to interact with, when I have a lot of reporters to assign to do jobs but now I don’t have to do all those ones, I am putting my energy to other things else. My energy is into providing an enabling environment for journalists and it is also of concern.
Many media houses don’t prioritise training. So, many journalists work and work and don’t pay attention to their career, not knowing when they need to learn a new skill. Our organisation is helping people to track their careers, helping people to know what to do and what to pay attention to. We are even innovating trainings that are suitable.
Sometimes there are trainings that are not suitable. Some of the normal trainings are either investigative journalism, covering one beat or the other but we are doing training that has to do with career development, we are talking about skill sets that you can use, management, we are talking about digital transition.
Many old journalists are analogue in their orientation but now they need to move to digital. We have been involved in the analogue era so we know how to move them without getting them disorientated. If the person training doesn’t have the analogue background, he doesn’t know what they are going through. We are able to be that bridge.
Mentoring is also what we are providing. You may be a good journalist but you may also need to know what to do per time and how to deploy your skills.
You talked about some journalists working but not minding their career. Work and career; how do you advise practicing journalists to mind their career as many journalists may claim to know what they are doing?
My advice is that more than ever before, journalists need to be more professional about their work. Professional in the sense that it is not just working, you need to know how to deliberately build your career. You should know when you are starting, you need to set timeline; in five years I should be able to achieve this. If you are not able to achieve that, you should know why.
You should know when to get additional skills, you should know what is available in your industry, what fellowships are available, what trainings are available because these are indicators of the kind of progress you are making so that you can make yourself available for opportunities.
A typical professional should be able to know all these. In other professions they monitor these things. You need to write some exams to continue in some levels but in our own profession, someone can work on a position for ten years without going for training. In some organisations, to allow you go for training is a problem.
So my advice is that you must set personal goals at the beginning; what kind of journalist do you want to become? If you have that goal, you will be able to monitor whether you are progressing or not, if not you’ll just be working five, 10, 15 years, you’ll be wondering what is happening to you.
But if you say you want to be a journalist who specialises in maybe reporting education or development generally, you want to become investigative journalist of note, then, you will know what to do per time. Paying attention to your career, finding time to sit down to ask yourself you are making progress.
If you have additional relevant qualifications, what it can do for you? If I lose this my job how can I continue? Career is a series of work that you do over a period of time and you must understand that industry. If you work and work without minding your career, then when you lose the job, you may not know what to do next.
How do you place journalists 32 years ago and today’s journalists? Though we are in the era of new media and all that which makes things a bit different in the two eras?
Well, 32 years is a long time, those were the days there were no computers and Internet. For you to background a story, you need to use the library. We were using typewriters, you would have to write your story long hand and they would be typed on the typewriter. So there is a lot of differences in terms of work environment and available tools. There are better tools now and there are better opportunities to attend trainings. More importantly, we are in a digital era where there is room for multitasking.
In those days if you are going for an assignment, a reporter would have to go with a camera man. Today you are going to do all that yourself as a reporter. In those days the platforms were minimal unlike today. In those days you could count how many media houses you could work for, today people are talking about websites, blogs and all those things.
Even the traditional media are also expanding beyond those things they had before. Today we have newspapers that have websites, social media platforms, that has a TV, so the job has been so diverse and the topic we are covering now are different. We are talking about climate change, various new health conditions, we are talking about issues that affect people, people want information they can use we are talking about data journalism, digital journalism, those things were not priortised then. So the environment has changed.
You mentioned going to the library in those days to give background to your stories, some of these new development have somehow opened doors to laziness. But how do you see the quality of writers against what obtained then?
Ideally tools should improve how we do our work. Part of the problem is that there is no structure, no deliberate system preparing people for the industry like before. There is a lot of shortcuts to becoming journalists today unlike before.
A young man, very brilliant can set up a website and before you know it everybody is talking about him. Ordinarily it should not be a bad thing. For you to use technology you must know the basic things. So if you are going to be a journalist you need to be properly trained, you need to know the ethics, you need to know what guides the things you do.
You need to understand writing in its elementary forms in reporting, you need to know what to add, when to take out some paragraphs, you need to know ethical maters, you need a lot of more dedication to help you do your job but today there is a lot of hurry. It is not good for the industry and that is why we keep saying media houses need to priortise training.
You hire people, you need to train them. It is ironic that in the Daily Times of old they had a training school. How many media house has training schools? People graduate back in those days, they get into media house they are put on training, they are put on sub desk to learn but today that is not the situation.
That is why media houses need to prioritize trainings, proper trainings, people should be well grounded before they start doing the assignments they need to do so that they can know what they are doing and why they need not do some of the things they are doing. They need mentoring, journalists of today need a lot of mentoring, a lot of guidance.
Unfortunately the workplace has become more problematic, a lot of people now have issues even beyond their jobs. These are the days people are talking about mental health so we should not be too arrogant to say a journalist has to be very tough to handle any situation. Yes, but the environment has become more toxic in terms of the things that journalists go through.
Media houses have to priortise, they need to use some of their old hands to train the young ones coming behind. You don’t even need to set up a training school but you must have training schedule. There are points in time you have to go for this training or that training, relevant training like we have in other industries. If you don’t train them they say don’t blame them.
In the absence of some of these training how do we improvise?
They are there but not as structured as they should be. Even some media houses don’t appreciate some of these trainings we are talking about. Some media houses find it difficult to release their staffers to attend training when training NGOs bring up training opportunities. You find a situation when journalists come for trainings and they are still thinking about their beats, they are not concentrating and they are still running back to their work places.
What do you think is the future because there has to be deliberate efforts on the path of media organisations?
That is the word. Media houses have to be deliberate. Like Motunrayo Alaka of Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism would say, you have to be very intentional. You have to have a goal. If you have 50 staff, you have to do skill assessment. How good are they, what are they lacking, what training do they need, who can provide these trainings? How would they access these training without disrupting the work? How can they concentrate, what is new in their area of coverage they need to learn, what resources are needed because sometimes the resources are not there but there are organisations that can offer it and when they return from these training are they able to do a step down for people?
These are the kind of intentional approach that we need because so much have changed and except we pay attention to it we may find out that we are even left behind so you are thinking you are doing well but technology has made rubbish of some of the things you are offering so you find a typical journalist who is not digital savvy.
Being digital savvy is beyond just being able to send a mail or to check whatever. If you don’t understand technology the way it should be used, you would be putting too much energy to do what does not require much energy, you will not be able to access the kind of information you need.
Now there are different ways to conduct an interview for example, you call this person, he is not available, you can get him on twitter or Facebook and other platforms but if you don’t understand those kind of terrain you can’t do it. You can find new people beyond the people you are used to, you are on LinkedIn you can find professionals to speak to issues and beyond boundaries.
‘’One of the things we need to improve on in our reporting is to keep quoting the same people year after year. We need to diversify our sources and that will be possible if you use these platforms you would have fresh perspectives to issues beyond boundaries. We keep talking about Nigerians in the diaspora, many of them are accomplished people. How do we get their voices in our stories?
The other thing the media need to pay attention to is that when we are reporting, we have to be people based. When we are not, we are losing the people that need to patronise us. You write many pages and you are not quoting sources, people are not finding themselves being quoted or someone they know, someone they respect.
We are in the age of engagement. Even when you have published, people are commenting, somebody is responding, you are interacting with your readers, you are sending newsletters, you know who is opening their own newsletters and you know those who are not opening their own, you are retweeting your contents, you are finding out what people want.
You need to know what people want. In the past the media used to decide what people want but today you need to find what people want and meet them at that point or even beyond that point. If you don’t do these, you would be publishing or broadcasting for yourself. But these will be possible when you know the tools that are available, you need to form alliances. There are things you don’t have to do.
Take data journalism for example, there are organisations that are heavy on data journalism who are willing to help, there are grants that are available but if you don’t play in that space you would be talking about lack of resources whereas there are resources, you’ll be talking about staff who are still elementary in their way of doing things while there are ways they can get help.
Can you talk about your days in UNILAG?
UNILAG prepared me for my journalism career. It was where I really learnt journalism and it really helped. We went for holiday jobs and internship and we even had campus press publications that offered learning opportunities. I am grateful for my background in UNILAG mass communication department. I really cherished it because it was very practical and we were well groomed and I made friends. I got my first job through a classmate who introduced me to someone who we knew back then in school.
I need to make the point that media training schools need to up their game. Like we say journalists need to be retrained, even teachers who teach journalism also need to be retrained. So many things have changed so teachers need to up their game and know what has changed. You can’t be preparing journalists for 2020 and beyond and you are still far back with your old theory and knowledge.
It is intriguing that there are people who teach journalism who don’t know enough about the industry. The town and gown we are talking about must be more intentional, there should be more collaboration, it is not someone coming to teach one and half hours and disappearing, there should be occasions where department of mass communication meet with some industry experts and they discuss on the type of graduates they need. If it is possible, some of the practitioners need to be invited to spend time, not just to teach and go, they can be integrated into the teaching staff for a period of time, some of the lecturers can also go to the media houses to work there for a period and by the time they come back they would know what the industry wants.
Normally the academic community should provide solution to industrial needs but do we see that in our clime?
Exactly, the institutions should solve problems. But if you want to provide solution you must have an understanding of the problems, you must also know the expertise, and you must know what has changed.
You teach part time at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, how have you been able to make relevant input?
Yes, I teach part time at NIJ. I have done that in UNILAG before which is very commendable. I will even advocate for the kind of system in some other parts of the world where people are hired not even on part time but on full time to be on a faculty. They are working on professional things with the students because they are experts. For instance if you have been a news editor and you get to a university to teach news writing, definitely you would teach it better than someone who has not managed a newsroom. Part time is good, but we must elevate it. We are professors of practice and I know that the National University Commission is not as flexible, but we must find a way to get round this limitation.
You also founded Journalists For Christ, a fellowship for Christian journalists and allied professionals, can you briefly talk about what the association is about?
One of the things that my career has helped me to accomplish is to have a fellowship of journalists who are Christians. I will call it a faith-based approach to journalism. We are in a society where people are either Christians or Muslims majorly. If you also use your faith for your work it can help. These faiths also speak for best practices.
Unfortunately many people claim to be either Christians or Muslims but still violate some of these ethics. By and large JHC is a faith based organisation where we come to talk about our faith and our work. It is a networking opportunity for journalists to find people who can mentor them to also be reminded about best practices because at fellowships we talk about ethics and spiritual matters. It is a fellowship of Christian journalists in Nigeria and we have partnership with organisations across the world. We have also been involved in projects, monitoring IDP reportage, monitoring gender in the media. We have published reports sponsored by the Association of Christian Communication, we have been able to produced reports of our monitoring activities which have been so helpful.
How well is JFC impacting individual journalists and the profession at large?
With all due modesty I would say that we set out with a goal of being a faith based organisation and by and large we have achieved that and that name has been a household name and when you say you are a journalist for Christ the expectations are high and it helps you to live up to expectation of that name if you associate with us. We hold monthly fellowship, it is like having training every month, we are able to discuss about our profession.
It is something that we do every month, many people look forward to it because the topics are very topical and speakers are people you can’t easily find in some other meetings but because it is a spiritual atmosphere they come and we talk about issues and over the years we find people who have benefited from these trainings and have been able to achieve their career goals.
This content was originally published here.