Mr Mike Awoyinfa, founding editor of the defunct Weekend Concord and pioneer Managing Director / Editor-in-Chief of the Sun newspapers, speaks on his career and media practice in Nigeria in this insightful interview conducted by SAM NWAOKO.
How did your journey in journalism take off?
Everything starts from childhood. I was born in Ghana on July 23, 1952 and right from childhood I had the opportunity of having sisters whose books I read a lot. My parents were not literate but they bought me Yoruba books like Alawiye, Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmole and so on. So, I taught myself how to read Yoruba. Literature is literature no matter the language. I enjoy story telling and I was fascinated by all those books by D. O. Fagunwa and so on. Just as I enjoyed them, they terrified me at night. When I was in Primary 2, my dad sent me to go and live with his sister’s son whom he had trained up to Teacher’s Training level. He had a glass cupboard in his house which was full of books including Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy and Tell Freedom and other literary works like King Arthur and so on. I read all those books and they formed a kind of basic foundation. The books I read were affecting me positively in school. When I wrote essays they reflected in my works and no matter what assignment they gave me, I made sure what I had read came into what I wrote. I was doing well in literature but it was a very lonely childhood I had. My mother and father were not there and I was living with my senior brother. All I could do was read and read. On Saturdays, he would send me to buy newspaper. One of the papers was called Weekly Spectator. I read the newspaper and it also formed part of the basic background that made me who I am.
At some point, we the aliens in Ghana were sent away by a man called President Kofi Busia during the Alien Compliance Order which was tagged “Nigeria must go“. Because of this, I came to my hometown, Ijebujesa in Osun State for the very first time. I was already an adult because I had done my School Cert. I enrolled for my A Levels at Ijebujesa Grammar School. I read Literature, Bible Studies and Government. I think I had the best result in my set which qualified me to go and read Mass Communication at the University of Lagos. I got there in 1973/74 session. I finished in 1977 and went for my NYSC in Jos, Plateau State. After my Youth Service, I was recruited by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN). They kept me in Jos and through the Agency I learnt the basics of reporting but I wasn’t satisfied with the anonymity of news agency journalism. It was also too structured and civil-service-like for my liking. It was always the same routine and you don’t have a byline. The reason I wanted to be a writer was to have my byline. A year after, Concord Newspapers came around and it had big names like Dele Giwa, Sam Oni and others, particularly from the Daily Times. So, I joined the Concord newspapers as the Chief Correspondent in Kaduna State. I wasn’t just reporting news, I was also writing features.
Dele Giwa was your role model. Did he become your role model after you had met him?
I had seen Dele Giwa as my role model before I met him. I made him my role model from a distance. There was this press conference I went for in Kaduna. It was a political press conference by Mallam Aminu Kano. At the event, there was this woman who was asking questions in Hausa. She didn’t speak English, she had no pen and paper, and she was very aggressive like Christine Amanpour of the CNN. I was fascinated. So at the end of the press conference, I sat the woman down and interviewed her using an interpreter because she didn’t speak English. I did a human angle feature story on her. I can’t remember her name now but the headline was about “a reporter without pen or notebook”. I put everything I had in the feature story and I sent it to Dele Giwa. To my surprise, Dele Giwa created a column for me called “Reporter’s Notebook.” That was one of my happiest days as a journalist. If you open The Sunday Concord, you will discover that I had a column called Reporter’s Notebook. Whether it was meant for me or it was a general column for every reporter, I didn’t know but that very day, I made it my ambition that nobody would write the column, that that column would be for Mike Awoyinfa and Mike Awoyinfa alone. So I started going about looking for human angle stories around Kaduna. That was how I became a columnist in Sunday Concord. Being a columnist at that time under Dele Giwa was an inspiration in itself. He also gave me a challenge that I should be contributing to what they called Sunday Concord magazine. It was more elaborate and it was like an inside cover story. We went about interviewing big people and doing big stories. I did my best and I made my mark there too. So, when there was a vacancy in Sunday Concord, Dele Giwa brought me to Lagos from Kaduna.
How was the transition from Kaduna to Lagos – was there a culture shock or any major shift in your life?
There was no culture shock. It was just like being a good footballer and you find yourself in Barcelona or Real Madrid. You will just fit in without any issues. I just fitted in like that, you know? There were good writers who were highly motivated and there was a good editor called Dele Giwa. Working under Dele Giwa was enough inspiration for one to really excel. I took the advantage of learning under him. We had a deputy called Mr. Shina Adedipe who was a task master. He drove us so hard. You had to really fear him. Every Monday we had our editorial meeting and you had to come with your news or features ideas. That training helped me a lot to be a better journalist.
That training prepared you for your role when Weekend Concord was established. Weekend Concord was novel back then. How did it come about?
Weekend Concord came very much later. I was sent abroad for a fellowship in the UK in 1985. It was the Harry Brittain Commonwealth Fellowship where I met fellow Commonwealth journalists from Australia, India, Tanzania and so on. They took us around the United Kingdom and I was posted to Newcastle where I worked with a newspaper called The Sunday Sun of Newcastle. That was where I learnt tabloid journalism. They are the masters of the tabloid you know. You must take advantage of every opportunity you see, and learn at every learning curve you find yourself. Capacity development is very important. You must read, you must continually develop yourself if you want to improve as a journalist. You must read other great journalists. That was what I did. That fellowship was for about three months. During classes, they would ask me for headlines and I would give them headline ideas and I could see they were very impressed and happy. I love coining catchy headlines. I was teaching myself, examining the British tabloids and learning how they cast their headlines. I was thereby imbibing their style and strategy and everything. I made a promise to myself that when it comes to headlines, no one would beat me. I would be the Number One. You must have something like a dream, something you want to be the best in or the Number One. I think headline casting has been my strong point. Dele Giwa, back then when he ran out of ideas, would call me and say ‘Oya Mike, give me a headline for this.’ He was a kind of editor that believed in teamwork and he could spot talents. He assigned roles. I learnt a lot from my two bosses: Dele Giwa and Shina Adedipe.
When I was in the UK I was writing a column called ‘Awoyinfa in Britain’. The title was given to me by Mr. Adedipe. By the time I returned from my fellowship, Dele Giwa had left to establish the Newswatch Magazine. When I returned from Britain, I felt like those Nigerian soldiers that went to fight in Burma during the Second World War, all the myths about Oyinbo were demystified. If I could cast headlines among Oyinbo people there, why can’t I cast headlines here?
Then I met a great guy called Dimgba Igwe, who came to join us in Sunday Concord. He had joined before Dele Giwa left. I was his senior but I saw some greatness in him and that was how we forged our friendship. We were doing some assignments together, we bonded very well. Dimgba wrote one article about how school children coped with the hassles of going to school in Lagos – How they boarded the Molue buses; the troubles and all that. He sat in Molue buses, interviewed school children and observed them. It was titled “The agony of going to school in Lagos”. It was a magazine story that excited an impressed Dele Giwa so much. He was looking for who wrote it. Eventually, when Dimgba Igwe came for his payment, Dele Giwa gave him a job right on the spot. He was sitting next to me, we became friends and we brainstormed together. One of the things we did was to write a book. We looked at our features and we were getting too ambitious. We asked ourselves: “When are we going to be editors? The top is so crowded, what do we do?” We came up with an idea to write a book on features writing. We called the book “The Art of Feature Writing”. We went about interviewing journalists on what they thought a feature story was. We discovered that a whole lot of them didn’t know what a feature story was and from our research we got to know that a feature story is almost like a news story but it’s on a softer side. It is more like a human angle approach to news. In features, you bring in some human angle, some drama and you bring such story-like approach to feature; you bring in all your writing skills into a feature story. The book “The Art of Feature Writing” did very well in the market. It was Chief M. K. O. Abiola that gave us the money to publish the book. He gave us N73,000 in those days. That was big money back then. I don’t even know how to evaluate it, whether it is N73 million by today’s calculation. I’m so happy that “The Art of Feature Writing” became the bible of feature writing in Nigeria. Many journalists went through school reading our book.
Having written that book, there was a vacancy in the features desk and Lewis Obi, the man I came to replace was moved to start another Concord publication called African Concord. It was a news magazine. News magazines were the in-thing those in days. They were reigning. We had the African Concord, we had Newswatch magazine; The Guardian also had their own news magazine called African Guardian. So, Lewis Obi was moved to the African Concord. I went to become the features editor.
When I got there, I changed the whole approach to feature writing. When I got there, I saw that anything could go for features. It could be an essay, it could be news analysis. That was what they were using for features. Then I sat them down to say things had to change. Initially, there was resistance to change but I told them ‘Okay look, let us do the innovation I have brought. If it doesn’t work we would go back to the old style’. I created human angle columns like ‘Man in the street’; ‘Faces and Places’ and my staff members’ eyes were opened. The writers in them came out and we changed features writing style in Concord and Concord started selling. People started buying Concord because of the human angle stories we were featuring. Our features whips was almost like a pull-out.
In September 1988, I had my twins and they say twins bring good luck. Towards 1989, Dr. Doyin Abiola, our Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief called me to her office and said “Mike, while holidaying abroad I had this brainwave of creating a Saturday-only newspaper.” She wanted me to be the editor of the Saturday newspaper. She wanted to call it ‘Saturday Concord’. Saturday papers were not selling those days, but I was excited and said why not let us call it Weekend Concord? That was how we got the name “Weekend Concord“.
Who and who were your crew members then?
I recruited my team and brought in some of the members of my features department. I brought in people like Omololu Kassim, and I brought in Dele Momodu who was in African Concord. Dele Momodu was my very close friend who used to write for me in the features. So I brought him. He initially didn’t understand the concept of Weekend Concord and he said he would not join a weekend paper. He thought it was like the Lagos Weekend and I sat him down to explain that it was an opportunity to make a name for ourselves and that we were giving birth to a new newspaper. I told him it would be a literary newspaper, a human angle newspaper; a newspaper that does news that nobody was doing in the market. Eventually, he bought the idea and with the support of my MD, we were able to convince Dele Momodu to come and join us. Happily, he was the one that brought the lead story for our first edition. It was Dele Momodu that wrote the story that led our debut edition. He went to meet Professor Wole Soyinka’s ex-wife to interview her on what went wrong between them. He went for about five days in a week before she eventually spoke. “My Editor, the woman has spoken” he announced happily. We were so excited and that was what led our paper. We just put Soyinka’s picture there and wrote: “My love life with Wole Soyinka”. We did the things people were not doing: screaming headlines, exciting big photographs and a newspaper that was screaming at you. We were following the tradition of tabloid journalism the way it was being practised in the UK. Before you knew it, we had taken over the market. Every Saturday, our paper was the one vendors were showing.
Among my staff members, we had people like Femi Adesina, Eric Osagie, Ben Memuletiwon, Ose Oyamedan, who came for his internship was there; Gbenga Opebi was our designer. Those days the computer was there for the design but it wasn’t as flexible as it is now. So, we used whatever was available for the design. I also remember Sunday Umahi and Balogun and many others I cannot readily remember their names. It was a battle to make the front page. Everybody was struggling that they wanted to hit the front page. There was a time I was so close to Eric Osagie, we were living together in Egbeda that time. Some of them would be saying Eric and I were going to decide the front page at the beer parlour. And it was true! Eric was my very good friend. We sat to brainstorm and shared ideas and we would turn it to a story and I would tell him to write. Dimgba Igwe was my deputy – there was no way I couldn’t have taken him with me.
The death of Dele Giwa shook not just Nigeria and Africa then, but the entire journalism world. As someone who worked with him and knew him, how did his killing come to you?
Ah! It was a big calamity. When Dele Giwa died, Weekend Concord had not been established. We would have reported it in our own special way. When May Ellen Ezekiel (MEE), the wife or Richard Mofe-Damijo died, it also shook me. She was my friend, we were both born in Ghana and we were in Sunday Concord together under Dele Giwa. So, her death really broke my heart and I had to do the story myself. I went to her doctor to ask what happened. The doctor said there were complications from gynaecological treatment she received because she wanted to get pregnant. She bled to death, according to the doctor. So, we used a big portrait of her on the front page and wrote Oh MEE! as the headline while “She died vomitting blood” was the rider. We were so innovative and caused a paradigm shift in Nigerian newspaper business such that other newspapers went back to the drawing board to start their own weekend papers. They started with their own teams and their own editors. Looking back, we thank God so much.
I remember when General Oladipo Diya was arrested for coup with General AK Adisa too. We put the photos of the two men there and came up with the headline “Adisaster”, which became a classic. People still ask me about the headline up till now.
Also, when the late Alaafin was delayed at an airport in the UK because of some issues with the luggage of one of the persons in his entourage, we made issues of the headline. When we got the story we were asking how we would cast the headline. It was a serious brainstorming session because of the calibre of the Nigerian monarch involved. We got Alaafin’s picture where he was laughing and we just screamed: “Drugs? Not A-laafin Matter”. It could only have been God because He allowed me to fulfill my purpose on earth through what I love doing best.
Do you still see that kind of innovation in today’s journalism? Has journalism moved beyond where you left it, when you look back from your position in retirement?
I know there is still a vacuum for the kind of paper of my dream. The Weekend Concord vacuum is still there in Nigeria today. If we start it all over again today, with the right team and the right orientation, we will still capture the market. I’m saying this would be so with me as the editor.
Do you still miss active journalism, the way you used to go about as a reporter to seek stories and report them?
I’ve not left journalism because I still write my column in The Sun. However, I definitely miss active journalism. I miss active journalism in every way. I hardly sleep in the night because I’m still glued to Sky News where I watch their headlines. I look at the headlines to sometimes say what they could have used. I’m so addicted to that programme. After Weekend Concord we went to start The Sun’ so we didn’t stop there.
The Sun was said to be breaking all the rules of journalism at that time with its tabloid style. Did you get the accolades or otherwise? Did you feel some things might have been done differently?
The Sun is like an off-shoot of Weekend Concord. However, we also raised the level higher and the emphasis was not so much on sensationalism like we were doing in Weekend Concord. We tried to make it a bit more serious on the flip side. But when we started, we wanted to make it the voice of the nation. But we had to change it from the tabloid we wanted it to be in those days. So, we had to make it a bit academic without also boring the reader. When The Sun started it was soft but along the like, it changed a bit to the hard side. It is now like what every other person does.
If you are invited to start a newspaper, will you still do it? How would you advise those who may want to fund it?
The advice has always been give the market what the market wants. That is the rule. Give the readers what they want to read. That is what differentiates us from the others — ability to know what would excite the reader. I always approach news from a marketer’s point of view. Dimgba and I wrote a book called The Nigerian Marketing Memoir. Actually, the first book was ‘50 Nigeria’s Corporate Strategy’. We decided to interview top level CEOs like Felix Ohiwerei, Christopher Kolade and sundry big names in the corporate world. At that time, the book was selling for N10,000 a copy and people bought it. In fact, it was proceeds from the book that we used to build our houses. Dimgba and I.
You and Dimgba Igwe were close to such a point that people were wondering about the super bonding. Was it because you operated on the same frequency?
Dimgba was just a brother sent by God from heaven and taken away by God. Ever since I lost Dimgba, I never had a friend like that again. He was more than a friend – he was my brother and the person I trusted most in this world. He was such that even if I died and he was alive, I know he would take care of business. His death was a big loss and everyday, Dimgba is always on my mind, in my interviews and in my everything. His death really shook me. As we speak, a book we wrote is in front of me titled: “Fashola: The Nigerian Dream – A Political Biography”. After Dimgba had died, I wrote a book I called 50 Nigeria’s Boardroom Leaders and I put his name as the co-author. I’ve made it a point that any book I write, as long as it’s not my personal biography, Dimgba’s name must be there as the co-author because he would have done the same thing too if I had died before him. He was such a great man of God. My dream is that I will also make heaven and when we meet there, we can practice journalism together again because a journalist will always be a journalist anywhere.
Culled from Tribune Newspaper