As TheCable, an online newspaper, clocks one, its founder, Simon Kolawole, speaks with AKEEM LASISI of PUNCH on the journey so far
Why did you decide to float an online platform, and not a conventional print medium, based on your experience in the sector?
I was brought up as a newspaper man. In fact, I joke at times that if you want to kill me, just take me to a TV or radio station. Since I effectively started my journalism career at Complete Football magazine in 1991, I had always worked with the printed matter. Having served as the Editor of THISDAY for many years, I thought it was natural for me to want to do a newspaper. But let’s be honest: where would I get N1bn to start a paper? The only option for me was to source for funds from politicians. Businessmen are not really crazy about newspapers because the gestation period is rather long — anything between five and 10 years. Only politicians want to invest because newspaper is now their favourite toy after private jets. However, I am, by nature, non-partisan. I am non-aligned to any political party or any political interests. This allows me to say what I want to say without bothering about offending people. That is why some people accuse me of sitting on the fence because they want me to say one politician is a saint and the other is a sinner. I always want to be independent, at least within reasonable limits. Therefore, going to raise funds from politicians was not an option for me. When I left THISDAY in 2012, I got offers from many wealthy politicians and businessmen who said they wanted me to start a newspaper. I was not tempted. I had made up my mind that I wanted an independent newspaper that will not pander to any ethnic, religious or sectional interests. So it was easy for me to say no. I wanted to do something that I could finance by myself. I have a little printing business I have been running since 1996, which was not doing badly. So, I wanted to finance my project through it. I first toyed with the idea of a monthly magazine, but I could not get a world-class quality of print locally, and going abroad to print a magazine would be a logistical nightmare. After weighing all my options, I settled for online journalism. It was going to cost just a fraction of the printed matter. The whole world is going digital. News is breaking by the minute. It was the most attractive option to me. That was what led to the birth of TheCable.ng.
One year into online media, how has the journey been?
It’s been very interesting and very challenging, but certainly not overwhelming. When we launched it on April 29, 2014, we were taught the lesson of our lives when the website crashed within hours of going live. It was because of a technical hitch, much of which was self-inflicted. In the first instance, we underrated the traffic we were going to get. Obviously, more people were interested than we planned for. We had issues with the technical people who did not get one or two things right. I was really embarrassed. People were calling me and saying they could not access the website. It was very tough because we had put in so much effort to make sure we had a smooth take-off. But we sorted out the problem and I got a lot of support and advice from friends, colleagues and my seniors on the job. I would say so far, so fair. We wanted to create something: an online newspaper that will be a reference point. We are still not there yet, but I would say we are making steady progress. We wanted to do what we call a ‘newspaper without the newsprint’. The idea was to publish a professional newspaper like The PUNCH or THISDAY, the major difference being that TheCable would not be printed. We wanted to abide by the professional standards and ethics of journalism. We wanted to have the biggest interviews and publish the biggest news stories. You know, there is a lot of anarchy in the cyber space. All kinds of websites pretending to be offering news, meanwhile all they do is aggregate stories or recycle reports. Some do not even have the decency of acknowledging the original source. We wanted to be different. We sought to offer top-quality journalism. We are a work in progress, but we are certainly facing the right direction.
Is there any plan to diversify, perhaps including periodic print publications?
Plans keep evolving, just like life itself. From the look of things, we will still go into print when the conditions are right. When we conceived TheCable, the fact that Newsweek magazine had gone fully digital was an encouragement. So we said TheCable would be purely electronic. But Newsweek has restored its print edition, which says a lot. We have also discovered that in Nigeria, people still rate the print media as the mainstream media. All the big adverts go to the newspapers. An advertiser will pay N600,000 for a full-page advert in a daily newspaper. The same advertiser will give an online newspaper the advert and say he is going to pay N200,000 for a whole month. This comes to N6,000 per day! Yet this advert will be seen by millions of users. You find out that advertisers work with the rates offered by newspapers but will want to fix the rates for online. All these things are very strange to me. We could do a print edition someday. I don’t know when. But we want to concentrate on building TheCable brand first and then we take it from there.
Based on your experience in both areas now, how would you compare an online medium and a newspaper, including the business side of each?
I love online journalism because it offers more than the newspaper does. With your mobile device, you access news on the move. You don’t need to see any vendor before you read the news. News breaks by the minute and you don’t have to wait till the following day to get it. The online does videos and audios which the print media cannot offer. What’s more, you can correct your mistakes! As for the newspaper, once you’ve published, you’ve published. You can’t undo. In that sense, you can see that online journalism offers better speed, flexibility and accessibility. Businesswise, the cost is lower. You’re not buying newsprint or distribution vans. You don’t need a printing press. All these will count for online journalism. Having said that, I will add that the traditional newspaper is still king, business-wise. It turns over billions and that means a lot to the economics of media business.
Some of the online publishers run a very thin staff structure. What is your own experience? You have just touched on a raw point. Typically, online publishing is one-man business. You simply get a guy to manage the technical side of your website. You go from website to website stealing people’s stories and rewriting them for your site. With RSS feeds, life is even easier. You don’t have to start running from website to website. The stories come to you. You don’t have to generate original content. Some sites are magnanimous enough to acknowledge where they culled the story from. Now, when you have a one-man structure, your cost is extremely low. You can survive on an advert revenue of N300,000 per month. That is more than the minimum wage. TheCable, however, was not designed along this model. We have a correspondent in Abuja. We have reporters covering the metro, sport, business and politics. We have a social media manager and a graphic artist. We subscribe to wire services. We pay competitive salaries. We generate original contents. Our reporters travel nationwide for stories. During the general election, they were everywhere. Although our costs are still manageable within our income, you cannot call that a one-man website. The richness we offer on our site, covering various sections and segments of the society, is top-quality. I get offended when people classify us with blogs or news aggregators. I have nothing against bloggers or aggregators, but we are not a blog. Maybe we will start a blog someday. I don’t know. But we are certainly not a blog.
What challenges is your platform encountering? And are they peculiar or general?
There are various challenges. One challenge is that you have to update news almost every 30 minutes. For the newspapers, you wait till evening to go to press. For the online, you must go to press, as it were, immediately. So there is no time to relax. You must always be on top of the game. The danger is that if you don’t confirm your story and go to press, you may get it wrong and get embarrassed. The most delicate is reporting people’s death. Some people are ‘killed’ on the social media on a regular basis with false reports. If you are not professional, you will just see something on Twitter and write a story from it because of the competition. So far, we have not fallen into this error. We also encounter downtimes on the site once in a while, although we are coping far better than when we started. We also face the challenge of people wanting us to be activists, to be attacking one interest or the other. They think that this is what makes online journalism tick. But we are journalists: we separate facts from opinion. If we want to write news, we write news. If we want to write views, we write views. We don’t fuse the two.
What has been the source of your greatest joy as far as TheCable is concerned?
We have been getting big exclusives. That is the joy of any journalist. We interviewed Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and President Goodluck Jonathan. We reported in August last year that Professor Yemi Osinbajo was going to be the vice-presidential candidate of APC. We reported that Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode was going to be the next governor of Lagos State. When the security aides of the Speaker, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, were withdrawn, we broke the story. We also broke the story on the divorce case of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome. These are some of the stories I can remember. As a journalist, that is your pride — that you are doing the big stories. I am also happy that many people know what we stand for. They know we are different in our practice of online journalism. It gives me satisfaction.
What has been the worst day/hardest headache in the past one year?
My saddest day should be when we reported that some Chibok girls had escaped and it turned out to be false. The editor had a source who is a soldier on the warfront in the North-East. This soldier was helping us with information. Everything he told us in the past was correct. But I was sceptical when the editor, Fisayo Soyombo, said the soldier said some Chibok girls had escaped. I told Fisayo to press him harder. So he continued to grill the soldier on the veracity of their identity. The soldier got irritated, asking if there was anybody in the world who did not know the case of the kidnapped girls. He said he saw the girls himself and they told him they were from Chibok. He also said they were right there at the military camp and that they would be moved to Maiduguri later. We tried to confirm from other sources, but there was no confirmation. We held a meeting and decided to go ahead since the guy had never misled us before. Unfortunately, it was not true. We had to apologise to our readers. As a journalist, I care a lot about integrity and credibility. It was very, very painful, but we met as a team and shared the lessons we had learnt from the incident. We developed new procedures for confirming sensitive stories. We learnt the hard way.
How have advertisers responded to the publication?
We’ve been enjoying good advertising support, most of them from unexpected quarters. This has helped our economics. We don’t charge the normal rates for adverts because we believe TheCable is a different model with top-quality audience. Our strength is the quality and class of our traffic. As original content generators and professionals, we make sure we keep our standards going.
What are your plans for the next one year or more?
In the second year, we want to do more multimedia. We also want to focus on investigative stories and big exclusives. By April 2016, God willing, we will be on a much higher level.