RAY EKPU REMINISCES ON NEWSWATCH, DELE GIWA AND JOURNALISM
Until recently, Mr. Ray Ekpu was the Chief Executive Officer of Newswatch Communications Ltd, publishers of Newswatch magazine. Before Newswatch, Ekpu had worked with the Daily Times Group as Editor, Sunday Times. He was also chairman of Editorial Board of Concord Newspapers. In this exclusive interview with YES International! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, the Akwa Ibom born veteran journalist speaks about his experience in the media, his friends and professional colleagues, particularly the late Dele Giwa, the challenges of publishing, qualities of a good journalist and why the media is in distress.
You have to go through the training. When you are through with the training, you will do a quality job. Journalism is a profession that needs a lot of hard work. It is also a profession that creates a lot of inconvenience. Something could happen in the night and your editor calls you to go and cover it, you have to go. Sundays and public holidays are not for the journalists. The journalist does not have any free time. It is more than 8am-5pm job. It is a 24-hour job. You can be called anytime. So, you must be ready for such inconvenience. And you must bring to it a sense of fairness by looking at all corners of a story. That way, you will be fair to all concerned. If you are armed with a sense of fairness, then you are likely to do a story that is good, balanced and considered fair. You must also be someone who likes people. You must be interested in people, because it is people that produce stories. You must be friendly. That makes it easy for you to talk with people, warm up to them and be able to get information from them. And that means you have access. You also must have your ears to the ground. You must be somebody who is curious, you see something; you ask questions. Questions lead to answers and answers lead to stories.
When can a story be said to be well-written?
When it is seen to be fair, complete and balanced. Every bit of information you think a reader who is not in your position would want to know must be there. Don’t write a story to leave room for people to ask questions.
What must one do to join the league of those who write very well?
You must read and read and read. Read and try to write. It is by reading good books, good magazines, good writers that you will acquire the knowledge of good writing. You read, and what you read exalts you. Read good books and possibly keep what I call a phrase book. I carry it along with me. I read it every day, every morning. This is probably my tenth or eleventh. You read a book, you find an expression that excites you, you say I don’t want to forget it, you write it in your book. You read it, you don’t memorize it, just go through it and it gets into your system. When you are writing, you won’t even know when it gets into your writing. Your writing begins to sparkle because you actually wanted it to sparkle. I take out a lot of expressions. I cannot stop reading good books and taking out good expressions I find in those books.
What makes a good columnist?
I think in Nigeria, columns have been bastardized. Everybody seems to be a columnist, but it is a very special kind of writing and it is for people who have first, great mastery of words. Second, a mastery of whatever subject they are writing on, or they have the ability to research into that subject. And three, they must have the sense of logic, which leads to the ability to persuade. The ability to make people read it and continue to read it. That is why in countries like US, you have syndicated columnists. That is one who writes and his column is distributed or bought by a number of publications. They are published at the same time. We don’t have that in Nigeria. A good column must carry readers along. If you have a sense of humour, you inject it into it. You should have a sense of witticism or a sense of logic, or the ability to load information in your column and try to convince people. Most columns are aimed at convincing people to a point of view. There are not many columns that are just for entertainment. But if you are able to combine information and entertainment, it’s great.
There are three things. The ability to get a good story, write it well, and package it well. You ensure that the product would be one that has a good content, good story and then appeals to the eye in terms of the design, whether it is a newspaper or magazine. The objective is to attract people’s attention. Don’t forget that there is a competition, alternative to anything you are doing. You can read a newspaper, magazine, listen to radio or watch television or play golf, or drink beer or chase a girl; work on a proposal. There are so many things that compete for time. So, a good newspaper or magazine must attract attention and hold that attention.
What makes a good editor?
A good editor is the one who edits a good newspaper or good magazine by managing the human resources, the time resource, space resource of the publication in such a way that gives the best result possible.
For one to excel or succeed in journalism, what must the person do?
I mentioned reading. After your training, you continue to read. It is a job you continue to do forever. Work to improve your skills and language, work to write your story in good time for it to be submitted in time, get to the press in time, and get to the market in time. It is a profession that tasks your time and intellect, because it is a time-based practice. An editor says, I want this story at 10am tomorrow, you must submit it because the paper has to go to bed at a certain time. It goes through an editing process until it is printed and delivered. So, it has to get to the market in time. It is not something you postpone and say I will do it next week. You must be able to write your story. Write it well and in time.
Most of the people who practice journalism don’t make money, what is the best way to make money in journalism?
As a journalist, if you work hard and excel and then you have the opportunity of being hired by a publishing company that is ready for people of high talent, they pay your price. It may not be as high as what the oil or telecom companies pay, but it keeps improving. With competition and some big players coming in, it is bound to go higher.
His friendship and comradeship and the professional verve he shows whenever we are discussing issues. He made our debate robust whenever we were discussing professional issues. It didn’t matter that we will disagree, but you can be sure that everybody would come up with serious arguments and quoting various authorities. And his writing style was very impressive. It is a personalized style. He was a very humorous and energetic guy. He was someone who would light up a room whenever he gets there. And it is a pity he left so soon.
What do you like most about working in Newswatch?
The first is the fact that it is our idea. I don’t think that there was this type of magazine before we started. So, we wanted to start something new, something that hadn’t been done in this part of the world. We have come to see Newswatch as a training ground for a number of publications. Some of the people we trained have gone out to start their own publications. And I believe that is a tribute to Newswatch. You can say Newswatch has several children and grandchildren. So, it’s exciting working with a lot of young people today because journalism in the last 15/20 years has been quite different from the journalism of my days. That is also occasioned not only by the advent of the new technology, but the means of gathering information has improved considerably. The word view of young people has changed too. Globalization has affected the media in a number of ways. One of it is the availability of information on what young people are doing in other parts of the world. We’ve been into semi global culture and a semi-global way of doing things in a number of areas. That makes journalism more interesting and exciting. It also imposes a different type of challenge. And the challenge for a publisher of a newspaper or a magazine is to go behind the scene and provide a lot more information than radio and television have already provided. So, you must be creative without being fictional.
What don’t you like about working in Newswatch?
If there is something that I don’t like about working here, I would have long gone. It is not just working here. Working in journalism offers me boundless excitement because I didn’t come into journalism because I was looking for money. Not that I was rich. It is a profession that I decided I wanted to be in, even when I didn’t know what it was all about, right from my primary school days. I started doing sport reporting in primary school. When I went into higher school, I started the first student publication called The Nightingale. So, for me, it is a life-long romance. It has nothing to do with whether I make money or not. It is a profession that I enjoy being in, and I love the fact that I am one of the few people in the world who know that happens first before a lot of other people. And the fact that it is always changing. A story breaks out and you keep following it. Things are continuously happening, which makes journalism very, very interesting. You don’t have a dull moment. Even though I am not in the front line right now, I try to be close so I don’t lose touch with what is happening out there.
What would you like to change in Newswatch?
We will keep making some changes. I keep saying to those who work on the magazine, you can’t keep one or two things there forever. You must find ways of either changing them or doing them differently so that it would be perpetually fresh.
Journalism has been exceedingly nice to you, what have you given back to it?
Yes, I agree to some extent. It has been nice to me. I have travelled to about seventy countries, courtesy of journalism. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel at somebody’s expense if not as a journalist. I have met so many presidents, prime ministers and heads of state around the world in the course of this job. I am a known face in the country. I also have a known name in the country. I have gotten all kinds of recognition, locally and internationally because of this. So, one is grateful for that opportunity. What do I put back into it? In real terms, I have had the opportunity of encouraging some young people to come into the profession. I am an advocate of the profession. I have tried to ensure we practice professionally and ethically. I have also given talks at many fora around the world on journalism. I have given some young people scholarship to study journalism. I don’t know whether all of that constitute giving back something to the profession. But any forum to discuss what is good for the profession, you will find me there.
The knowledge that you gain from it. If you see my library, you will think it is a university library. It has encouraged me to acquire books, a lot of information. I can sit inside my library and do a research on almost any subject under the sun, apart from working on the internet. I think that is a product of my commitment to the profession. The fact that you are perpetually in search of knowledge to improve your knowledge. Don’t forget that as a journalist you are more or less a generalist. I can write on almost any subject under the sun because I have the resources to research and improve my knowledge of that subject. But I always say to my journalists here, don’t forget that even if you are an expert in a particular subject, what about outside of here. So, worry about them when you write your story. Make sure your facts are correct. Make sure that your research is up to the minute so that you don’t disgrace yourself out there. Don’t also forget you are writing for a general readership. Don’t bring in jargons without explaining them. Don’t be esoteric. You won’t to be understood. Don’t write to impress. Write to express. That is the important thing as a communicator.
Who is your favourite Nigerian journalist and why?
I don’t have any favourite, but I read some of the columnists. I don’t want to call names. I don’t want to cause problem, but I read some of the well-written columns. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them, but you read it to understand their thoughts and their command of the language. If you write well, I will read it. I don’t have to agree with you. I am sure that those who also read me think so. You read it. If you wish to violently disagree with what I say, that is your problem.
Which of your stories still brings back that nostalgic feeling?
It is difficult to pick one. I don’t even know if the public likes the one I cherish. I wrote “The Last Days of Shehu Shagari”. It was published in Newswatch in 1985. I wrote the story of the NET fire incident that turned out to be prophetic, for which I was detained. I also like the “Hollow Ritual”, which was written in 1986, which got me into trouble. It said what a lot of people wanted to say, but didn’t have the opportunity to say. There would be a lot.
NB: First published January 2014
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