Mr. Simon Kolawole, Founder/CEO of TheCable made a courageous entry into the the online news business with the founding of TheCable, the self-styled “Internet Newspaper.” The man popularly known as “Simon Kolawole Live” and acclaimed newspaper journalist, columnist and ex-Editor of ThisDay Newspaper discusses his vision to disrupt the Nigerian media business and the road ahead for TheCable, in an interview with Kolade Akinola and Success Kafoi of Technology Times:
TheCable CEO: The Simon Kolawole Interview
Technology Times: As the Founder of thecable.ng, what has been the driving force for you going online and setting up this media business?
Simon Kolawole: As you know very well, the world has gone digital. The world has moved from analogue to digital, and the challenge of digital is, as news unfolds, you have to report. When I was a newspaper Editor, something can happen at 7:00 a.m. and I have 12 hours or more to work on it and prepare it for tomorrow’s paper. So I could do my work in a more relaxed manner.
But for online, if something happens, it has to be up there. We have to report as quickly as possible. It’s a good challenge for us. It keeps us on our toes.
But what keeps you going is the fact that people have come to recognize that you deliver news with speed and simplicity. They come to your site because they want to know the latest. They come to your site because you offer credible information. You relate them to the right news, the best news that is available.
So in the midst of the challenges, when you look at the value you are adding; the value you are giving to the readers, there is a sense of satisfaction. You want to keep delivering the best.
Technology Times: If we go down memory lane, we would see that TheCable would be two years by April this year; and I believe that when you started you had a roadmap plan of what you want to achieve. So between then and now, have you been able to achieve your vision?
Simon Kolawole: When we launched on April 29, 2014, we had a vision, and our vision is to become the most respected online newspaper out of Africa. Now, to do this, we had a mandate, and that is to deliver knowledge-based journalism from the angle of quality information, quality analyses and quality news.
We want to be respected on the basis of our content. We want to be respected on the basis of our professionalism. Now, have we achieved the vision? No. We are just going to be two years at the end of April 2016. Have we made significant progress? Yes. We have made significant progress.
Even talking generally, for instance, in terms of ranking. Where we thought we would be in five years, we have already surpassed it in less than two years. The statistics in terms of page views, generally about reader engagement or user engagement, we have surpassed our expectations. When you look at the bounce rate, when you look at the page view per user and the time spent. So, to that extent, I would say we are moving aggressively towards achieving our goal.
We set out to influence policy. That’s where we want to be respected. We set out to influence public policy because we want to deliver knowledge-driven journalism in pursuit of Nigeria’s progress.
We held TheCable Colloquium. The first that we did in February on the exchange rate. We brought together a team of experts who discussed extensively. And for us, that’s also an area of influence. So we are moving towards it. We have surpassed certain targets. But we are still far away from the vision. And the vision is to be the most respected online newspaper out of Africa. But we are pursuing it with every resource that we have: human, material and financial.
Technology Times: Your bio-data shows that you have a background in Mass Communication. What can you say about what you see today in journalism and media practice, in comparison to what you studied back then in school?
Simon Kolawole: We studied in the analogue age where, as at the time we went to school, we didn’t have 24-hour TV or 24-hour radio. So, newspapers and TV was essentially the same thing.
Today, you have news on your palm top. You have news on your mobile and you have news on your laptop being delivered with pictures as they are happening. It’s a different world altogether. It’s a completely different world. But it’s not just the means of delivery that has changed.
What has also changed is professionalism. As a journalist in training, there were certain rules, certain ethics with which we were brought up. When you want to write a story for instance, there are various checks you have to do. There are issues about objectivity in the sense that you are not biased or your bias does not show in what you do.
There is fairness and balance. Don’t report a story from just one angle. Explore other angles. You also have to be aware of the laws of the land. The laws of libel and the laws of defamation. So anything you write, if it’s not true, you may be taken to court. And you will pay the penalty.
In the digital age, all those rules are being challenged. Every day, somebody will just start a rumour and it’s all over town. It has become so fluid. You even want to sue and you don’t know who to sue. The laws about libel do not also cover social or electronic media, digital media, the way it is.
On one hand, I was brought up to be a professional, doing things according to the ethics of my profession and following the laid down rules. Which I cherish. On the other hand, we were operating in the Stone Age. We were taught about basically Stone Age journalism where the readers cannot even talk back to you instantly.
And you can even write, decide not to. They may write Letter to the Editor and you decide not to publish. In the modern times, we have the modern equipment to do the job. We can deliver faster. We can deliver with better picture. But on the other hand of that one is that it has become a lawless society. Anybody who has a laptop and Internet access says he’s a journalist.
He doesn’t even know that there are certain rules guiding what you write. So a lot of anarchy. So I am seeing two different worlds based on my own training and experience.
Which one do I prefer? I prefer professionalism any day. There is nothing that says modern tools of reporting cannot be deployed in a professional way. And that’s what we set out to do with TheCable. That yes, we are a website. We would use social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, but we do everything professionally. We would be ethical.
Technology Times: Thank you very much for that explanation and that will basically leads me to the next question, which is the issue of intellectual property. There are some industry stakeholders like the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). What effort have these bodies been putting in place to ensure that content are protected and those that own media organisations make profit from their content?
Simon Kolawole: I think that is still neither here nor there. I have not seen any serious effort being made in that regard. A lot of websites are stealing content. In fact, they live on stealing content. One man, one woman websites, stealing all the jobs that people have done and getting a lot of traffic and making a lot of money out of it. So it’s an issue that we have to address. The issue is not being addressed currently. I’ve not seen any effort whatsoever, apart from a few complains here and there. You just grumble and say this people are using our story.
Some will not even have the decency of attributing the story to the original source. So content stealing is rampant but nobody is doing anything about it to the best of my knowledge apart from grumbling.
Technology Times: As good as online publishing is, this problem like plagiarism and other issues related to that has been so prevalent. Has there been any case encountered on this issue by thecable.ng?
Simon Kolawole: If you mean encountered in the fact that have we stolen content, and have we been put on the spot for stealing content? No. We don’t steal content.
Technology Times: Have you been a victim?
Simon Kolawole: Have we been a victim? Yes. We are regular victims. At a stage we were very angry. You know, the staff would see such things. They would be very angry because they are working day and night and somebody would just takes the story.
In fact, one guy came up with something called thecabletimesdotcom and my people were so angry. My attitude to that is that, “continue to do what you are doing.” There is this proverb that “imitation is flattery.” So if you are doing something well and somebody is trying to steal what you are doing, they are also acknowledging that you are doing it well.
But we have to move from that mentality so that the laws can be enforced. So that is the next stage we have to face.
Technology Times: There was this particular issue sometimes last year, where Professor Wole Soyinka accused you of misquoting him. How were you able to handle that situation?
Simon Kolawole: It was a very bad situation for us. It was a real downside. When we did a proper investigation, we discovered that the person who gave us the story completely misled us. And it was more out of bias. We made a lot of mistakes in publishing the story because we have laid-down rules.
The first rule is to be sceptical in such things. I’ve never heard Professor Soyinka attack ethnic groups in Nigeria before or take on an ethnic group and abuse them. So that was the first mistake we made, to even believe it.
But we can also be wise after the event. The person who gave the story had given previous stories that were correct. So there is this dictum in journalism that “you are as good as your source.” If your source is misleading you, and you have no way of confirming it, and you still go ahead. If your source is good, God bless you. But if he is misleading you, you are in trouble.
We had a similar situation with Chibok girls. We reported that some Chibok girls have been rescued. The source of the information had given us plenty information in the past, and everything turned out to be true. In this case, we questioned him. We delayed the story for a long period. We asked, “are you sure”? We tried to get official confirmation. But we still went ahead and it turned out not to be true.
Back to the Soyinka case. How did we handle it? Immediately we realised that something was happening, the Editor checked back again with the source, and the source kept saying, “I have the tape. The tape is here.”
I was actually not in the country then. When my attention was drawn to it that we have published a story that was being denied, that was causing controversy, immediately, I told the Editor, “this is what is happening.” And, because he got in touch with the guy, and the guy kept saying “it is true, I have it on record.” I said well, if the guy does not produce the tape, we have to retract the story and apologise.
So, the guy kept saying “no problem, the person who has the tape is in class. He is a student of Harvard and he will bring the tape.” So we delayed. Later, we now discovered that there was no tape. Because the guy now said he recorded it with his phone and it was far away from the front. So the thing may not be very clear.
It now dawned on us that there was some mischief going on. So, the management met and said “look, we have to immediately issue a retraction and an apology.” So we did that. And personally I got in touch with Professor Soyinka and I apologised and he said it was all over. And that was that. And we continued with our work.
Mistakes are bound to be made on this job. There is no newspaper or TV or radio anywhere in the world that has not committed mistakes in reporting. Maybe inaccuracies, or absolute falsehood because they were misled. Part of why we are professional is that when we make a mistake, we acknowledge that we have made a mistake, and we correct ourselves.
Why am I saying that? It is part of bringing professionalism online. Some other websites who don’t understand the ethics of this profession do not apologise. They won’t do anything. They would just carry on as if nothing has happened. Ironically, we were not the only ones that ran the story.
The story was run by major newspapers in this country. The story was run by websites I won’t mention. But whoever told Professor Soyinka said we were the ones that ran it. And when they issued the statement, it was our name they mentioned. And we were man enough to hold up our hands and say, “yes, we erred.” And for me, that is integrity.
For those who ran the story and pretended that everything was alright, they have not displayed integrity. But I’ll rather be popular for breaking stories than for reporting inaccuracies.
Technology Times: With many newspapers and magazines going online right now and changing the media industry into a more digital environment, how can you rate the performance of the online media industry in Nigeria today?
Simon Kolawole: The truth is that the printed matter is not selling again. Not only is it not selling, the cost are going up. The cost of distributing a newspaper last year compared to this year has gone up. So, it is going to be getting harder and harder for the print media to survive.
I am therefore not surprised that many of them are moving online. For me that is good. Why do I consider it to be good? We need professionals online for people to take online journalism serious.
I remember when we wanted to start TheCable and I was introducing it to people and saying we want to start TheCable online. The way they were looking at me, it’s like; “oh, you too will like to join these blackmailers.” Before, online, the kind of picture it printed in the mind of people is oh, these blackmailers; like a junk, lawless society. So they were scared. Even up till today, people think it’s about scandals. So when they take TheCable, they want to compare TheCable with certain websites that report only scandals. And I say no, we are a newspaper without the newsprint.
Technology Times: There is no doubt that many media organisation are going online, but there is still a market for the traditional media? Do you see TheCable going into print media in the nearest future?
Simon Kolawole: No. One, I agree with you that there is still a market for the printed matter. In fact, in Nigeria today the mainstream media is still the newspapers that are regarded as the mainstream media. Even in every proverb, they say, “ah, don’t believe what the newspapers are saying, don’t judge my economy by what the newspapers are saying.” So it still stays as the mainstream. Therefore, we cannot wish it away. People still want to have the newspaper at the front of them, on their desk while they are sipping coffee or whatever. When people are travelling, they want to hold the newspaper. When they are in the plane, they are reading. So there is no doubt about that.
Will TheCable do a newspaper or magazine or do anything print? We are not ruling it out. Because even Newsweek went purely digital some years ago. Now they are doing print editions again. So, there is still something to be said for that market. But maybe when we have better logistics because distribution is also a big issue. The vendors would hold you to ransom. They will say you should come and launch the magazine, pay us this, pay us that, all over the country. Is not as if, if you pay one association you have paid them off.
In Lagos alone, there would be about 20 associations saying come and do party for us, which is a major problem. So maybe when all these problems are better taken care of and there are alternatives. We would certainly consider it, but we are not ruling it out.
Technology Times: As at this morning, the public statistics shows that thecable.ng is ranked the 92 most viewed website in Nigeria, while your competitor like ThisDay, Vanguard and Punch are ranked among the first 20. What strategy do you have to meet up with them and outshine them in the nearest future?
Simon Kolawole: Well, we want to keep doing what we are doing. When you look at the age of TheCable and the age of the newspapers you have mentioned, there is institutional support that they can deploy at any time. We are far far. In fact we should be ranked number 2000. Why? We are not yet two years old, but we have even broken into the top 100. It’s a major step for us.
Like I said the newspapers have big institutional backbone. They have reporters all over the country. They have photographers all over the country. They have the financial might to invest in the biggest technology possible, the biggest and the best available. In fact, we have hit 74 before. We hit 72 about two months ago.
And we have not done anything extraordinary. So what we want to do is to keep doing what we are doing. Keep offering news with speed and simplicity. Add other things that we believe will help drive traffic without compromising what we stand for. We are not here to do pornography. We are not here to malign people. Because those are some of the things people really want to read and it also drives a lot of traffic. We are not going to go into that simply because we want to be better ranked.
We would keep delivering news, we would keep delivering views, we would keep doing the things that we are doing and just make sure that we are getting better. And I’m sure that by the time we are marking our third anniversary, we would be far far better than where we are now. Don’t forget that our ultimate aim is to be the most respected newspaper out of Africa. And it’s a five-year project before we would review the vision. Because by the time you have become the most respected newspaper in Africa, what else do you want to be? So, it’s a five-year project and then we should move to the next phase.
Technology Times: There are so many other media investors who are actually thinking of venturing into setting up establishment like this. What is your advice to Nigerians intending to invest in the media? Should they go fully online or should they go fully print?
Simon Kolawole: The truth is, whatever you want to do, you must bring a unique selling point to the table. So if you want to do a newspaper, if you want it to succeed, you must do doing something that will make it sell. You must be doing something that others are not doing. Or they are doing it, but you want to do it better. If you want a common line, you must offer something different from what people are offering or you can offer the same thing but do it better. That will be my advice.
It is your means that will determine whether you should go with print or come online. But my experience is that online is still the way to go because of the cost. The cost of setting up a newspaper and the return of investment are not worth it. If you have a lot of money and you are ready to wait for five years before you can start talking about breaking even, not even making profit, but just breaking even. Your income being able to sustain your expenditure for at least five years. You know you are buying vehicles distributing newspapers all over the country. After three weeks, you have to change all the tyres, your vehicles will break down, accidents.
And you can’t say you are selling newspapers. If it’s too expensive, nobody will touch it. So I will advise you, if you don’t have the means, just come online and make sure you are good, better than what is on ground.
Technology Times: The issue of publishers in Nigeria deriving reasonable revenue from their investment has been a challenge because of the plagiarism you talked about. Do you think that the industries stakeholders mentioned like the Newspaper Proprietor Association of Nigeria (NPAN) and the Nigerian Guild of Editors can take that up as a challenge, If both the existing and incoming operators in the online media business realise that Nigeria is a no go area when it comes to plagiarism, do you think this might help in curtailing the problem of intellectual property theft?
Simon Kolawole: You know, like I said earlier, I’ve not seen any concerted effort to address this issue. Is serious effort being made by Nigeria Guild of Editors, Newspaper Proprietors, Online Publishers Association, Guild of Corporate Online Publishers Association of Nigeria? It is something that they have to initiate. So I completely agree. If we can do this, it’s going to help. People are taking your content, taking my content into one place.
Readers want to read, they say okay, everything that has been written on other websites, these people have already help us to aggregate them, so they come to your website, you are claiming you have all the traffic. Meanwhile you have not originated; 95% of your stories are not original.
And you are making all the money from pay per click and pay per view and all sorts of other revenue. And the people who have invested in content development, who are doing original content, are not getting that kind of hit on their website. Is it fair?
There may also come a time when people will have to take class action against those who steal content. Sue them properly. Because one mistake you always keep making is that you think that the moment you have attributed and say that “according to report of Technology Times”, you are automatically protected. No. On our own website we have made it clear that okay you can take our material, just attribute to us. But some will say, you need prior permission before you can use.
That means you have to contact them and say, “can we use this material?” before you use. So the fact that he has said he took it from Technology Times doesn’t mean you are protected in the court of law. Those are the issues that can be pursued vigorously by the owners.
But again, the newspaper industry in Nigeria, I don’t really see any attempt by them to address industry-wide problems. People are just individualistic. People just try to solve their own problems as individual organisations. So I agree completely.
Technology Times: On a lighter note, if Mr Simon Kolawole had not become a journalist, which eventually led you into so many things that we’ve seen of your legendary footsteps as a global world leader, respected columnist and founder of TheCable, what do you think you would have been?
Simon Kolawole: Well, if I have to trace my history properly, from my early years in the secondary school, I wanted to be a lawyer. Was there a conviction about being a lawyer? No. I grew up with my grandmother and any time I am arguing, maybe she says something and I am arguing with her, she would say I should go and study Law. That is, I know how to argue. And somehow, I started developing interest that okay, maybe I can be a lawyer. But I discovered Journalism is interesting. I think I was just made out to be a journalist because along the line I just fell in love with it.