In Nigeria right now, you can actually count the number of successful and accomplished female journalists on your finger tips. But guess what? Mrs. Funke Egbemode is one of them. Educated at Baptist Practising Primary School, Iwo, Baptist Girl High School, Oshogbo, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, where she read English and the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, she flew into journalism in 1989, with the defunct Prime People, a popular soft sell journal, as her first port of call. From there, she moved to The Punch, The Post Express, This Day, Saturday Independent, The Sun and now The New Telegraph, where she functions as the Editor-in-Chief cum Managing Director. In her late 40s, she stepped aside from the pen profession at some point to work as a media aide to then NTDC boss, Mrs. Omotayo Omotosho and former Speaker, Federal House of Representatives, Mrs. Patricia Etteh. A mother of four, she lost her husband, Nicholas Adedotun Egbemode, on Saturday, April 30, 2011. But even with that major setback, she has continued to trudge on. A frank and fantastic columnist, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, encountered her at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, on Wednesday, September 30, 2015. And gleefully, she consented to sharing her journalism story with us. Likewise the pains of widowhood, the joys of motherhood and more. Enjoy…
What makes a good journalist?
One who has passion for the job and can find a story in everything. That’s a good journalist. One who doesn’t come to his Editor and says ‘There’s no story’. Because there are stories everywhere. If you have the passion and you can find a story everywhere, your life is easy, the life of your Editor is also easy. That’s what makes you a good journalist.
What makes a good Editor?
Still the passion, still the passion. It’s also the one who is willing to play the General. The Editor is a General, commanding a troop. You must command the Business Desk, command the Religion Desk, command the Entertainment Desk and ensure that whether your troops are fighting from the air or on land, you are getting the right results and you are winning.
What makes a good story?
It’s the one that the reader keeps referring to, 10, 20 years after it was published or broadcast.
You write a popular column, what makes a good column? And what makes a good columnist?
A good columnist is one who can communicate and (in) the simplest of languages, with concepts that readers can relate with You know, you write in a way that your reader is reading it and he feels like you are writing his thoughts, you are not far from the truth, and you are not also far from your reader.
What is your own definition of news?
There’s not a single definition of news. Sometimes I describe news as what the other person wants to hide. That’s one definition of it. But overall, I think news is just what provides information that the reader can use.
What made you plunge into journalism, what got you interested in journalism?
I started out as a child, being the daughter of two teachers. I was exposed to books very early. Some Ladybird books for a one-year old and so on. So, I started reading early and by the age of 11, my father, a teacher, had a good library. By the age of 11, my father had a collection of simplified editions of Charles Dickens. By 11, I had read all the simplified editions. My father is also an author, he wrote a Yoruba text for secondary schools. So, I also read plenty of Yoruba books. All the D.O Fagunwa books, I had read by 11. So, I just told myself I wanted to write like those people, like Shakespeare. I read all the (James Hadley) Chase novels, the Pacesetter series and so on. So, what really got me into journalism was the fact that I wanted to write.
You’ve been into journalism now for over 20 years. What would you say has kept you going?
Once again, I say it’s a passion. This is just what I want to do. I love doing it and it doesn’t feel like work. I’m having fun.
What do you like most about being a journalist?
Being able to influence thoughts, being able to generate controversy, being able to stir people’s emotions. You know, you do a story and that’s what people are talking about; you do a column and somebody sees you; somebody saw me in an elevator once in Ogun and my friend said meet my friend, Funke Egbemode and the person looked at me and mentioned the title of one of my pieces. It just makes me happy.
What don’t you like about being a journalist?
We are poorly paid; the pay is poor, the hours are long. I wish the pay would be commensurate with the hours.
What is the greatest thing that being a journalist has done for you?
Hmmm! It’s opened doors for me, it’s given me a name, it’s given me a face, it’s given me opportunity to serve the people in a special way. You know, calm people down, make people happy when there is tension with what I’m writing and I’m able to change opinions – moving people from one side of the divide to the other.
What has being a journalist not done for you?
It made me less of a woman, less of a mother. I tell people that if you are a proper journalist, you can’t be a proper mother, you can’t be a proper wife, you can’t cook when other women are cooking, you can’t do homework with your children; when you want to do the home work is not when the children are awake. I mean, you are getting in at 8pm. The children are already feeling sleepy; maybe they are like 30 minutes away from their bed time and PTA (Parents Teachers Association) meetings, all those children’s activities…There’s this experience that I can’t forget. I was the Editor of The Post Express on Saturday. I didn’t notice I was staying away from the house for a long period during production. So, on Thursday, in the morning, as I was putting my kids in the school bus, I said bye, see you later and my eldest son, Dapo, he’s a doctor now, said ‘see you on Saturday morning’. I looked at him and I was like Saturday morning? He said yes! That’s when we will see you. And that was on Thursday! I looked at it after the bus had gone and I said: Is that what happens? It’s true! I will go on Thursday, I will sleep in the office on Thursday; so they don’t see me on Thursdays. I will come back in the morning on Friday, by which time they would’ve gone to school. I will go back to the office on Friday afternoon. By the time I return on Friday night, they would have gone to sleep again. So, the earliest time after Thursday morning when they see me is Saturday morning when they wake up.
Most people in journalism attain success, but they are not able to sustain it. Where do you think that they normally get it wrong?
It depends on what you want to do with journalism. Some leave it too quickly, some people think that oh, I’ve paid my dues and then they leave to either be publishers or branch out into Public Relations. But if you are a journalist really at heart, you will come back to it. And you know, there’s that little bit of dislocation – where you go and come back. That’s one. And then sometimes if you come into journalism considering it a job, you are not likely to do well. It has to be a career, it has to be your calling. Once it’s a calling and a career for you, not likely. Even if you branch out, to become a publisher, maybe after 5 years, after 10 years, because it’s a career for you, because you have the passion, the thought that it’s a career for you and the passion you have for it would be your sustaining power, it would be your staying power, it would keep you focused.
You happen to be one of the few women who have excelled in journalism. What and what did you do to get you where you are today?
I think in whatever anybody does and does well, there’s the God factor. I took it one day at a time. I took two breaks away from the newsroom. First, I had to re-asses my marriage at some point and I felt I wasn’t paying enough attention to my home. So, I took a two-year break to work on my home, spend more time (at home). So, I took a civil service job to stay with my children, moved from Lagos to Abuja and then there was another break to take a political appointment. I would say those two breaks also showed me that this is where I wanna be. I don’t wanna be anywhere else. So, I think I just love what I’m doing and I want to keep doing it for as long as my energy permits. If at 80 I can still do it, I’ll keep doing it. I think it’s just because I love the job and God has rewarded me every step of the way.
How does it feel to have more men in the profession than women? And what are some of the things that you do as a person to encourage other women to embrace journalism?
Every time I see a woman with prospects in the newsroom, I’m happy and I mentor them. I go the extra mile to encourage them. But I’ve found out that if you don’t have the passion for it, there’s just so much your mentor can do. And that pains me. I once saw somebody in my newsroom and I said you most likely would be the next Editor of this title. But she didn’t have the staying power, so she left. It hurts because I was also pushed by those who mentored me…
(Interruption) – Who were the people who mentored you?
Like Azubuike Ishiekwene. He gave me new assignments, new things to do. I was writing about relationships, I got bored, I told him I was tired of doing the same thing over and over again and he said okay, take the copy of The Daily Mail, read this column. I took the copy of The Daily Mail and read it and said oh, I will like to write like this and that was how I started the political commentary. I had Editors like Remi Ibitola, people who really helped me…
How about the established female journalists who were there for you. Did any of them give you any encouragement?
I didn’t work directly with a female boss, but there were people like late Remi Oyo, who always had words of advise, words of encouragement. I love the way she was able to juggle all her balls without any one falling. You know, her closeness to her husband was very encouraging, she was always there for her children. To Comfort Obi – she always had encouraging words when you spoke with her and you were feeling low or you were feeling oh, this job is a bit tough today or it’s not going the way I want. She would always encourage. Comfort Obi still encourages me up till now even when I say ah! It’s tough being Editor-in-Chief. She will say welcome to the club. She will have nice words to say. Doyin Omolulu in the old Vanguard. I used to voraciously read her column – Lipstick. Bunmi Sofola. I had been reading her since I was in the university and I still read her. You know, these were the people who mentored me from afar. Doyin Omololu, in Vanguard of old. She wrote Lipstick. That was a column that also encouraged me. She wrote with humour, she wrote with wit.
No doubt, you have interviewed a lot of people already. Who would you really like to interview, but haven’t been able to?
Hmmm! (Thinks) You know I spent a whole day with David Mark – One Day With David Mark. But it wasn’t an interview. I’ll really like to get in his head and bring out things. He’s come a long way in our polity and it should be like de-briefing him. When you de-brief somebody like that, I’m sure it will be interesting.
In a career spanning over 20 years and with hundreds of stories already written, which would you describe as your most memorable story and why?
I can’t remember right now…I can’t remember.
We have too many journalists who are poor, they dress shabbily and don’t do any good to the image of the profession. Always drinking, smoking, womanizing and even smelling. Why do we have too many journalists who are poor?
One, we are poorly paid. Two, because we work hard, we tend to also play hard. But not all of us play hard. But if you are sucked into playing hard, you will have issues and then when you are owed salaries, you pile up debts and then are not able to make ends meet; you are not able to balance your account. So, things are generally tough for journalists. But you just have to be creative and focused on your job. That’s what lawyers do, that’s what doctors do and even when doctors work in poorly paying jobs, they still find a way to work here and work there. You just need to do extra things. I was telling some of my colleagues that there is no reason why we should think authors are special people, different from journalists. We author on a daily basis. So, why can’t a good journalist write a book?
What are the other ways and avenues open to a journalist to make legitimate money?
You can write movie scripts, you can write books, you can consult on your free time; because you have a medium you can do a little consultancy on the side. But writing; if you write well, you write well. I know some Editors who write for foreign newspapers, who report for foreign magazines and foreign broadcast media outside here. So, there are so many things. If you just sit down, you can do it and then every journalist must know that active journalism is not what you can do forever. Because in some cases, our jobs are like that of a model. When you have the energy, when you are young, you can go everywhere. You are already here (NIIA, Victoria Island, Lagos) this early. I’m not sure this will be fun, it will be this easy when you are 70. So, we must know that it’s a time – consuming job, it’s an energy-sapping job and so we must make hay while the sun shines. We won’t always have this energy.
Journalism has done a lot for you, what has it not done for you?
I said that it has made me less of a woman. I would have loved to spend more time enjoy being a woman, being a mother, being a wife and all of that, but the job takes a lot of your time.
What’s the costliest mistake that most journalists make?
It’s not to take advantage of the people that we get to meet. You interview a Governor, and you don’t keep the relationship, you don’t send him a text, you don’t say hello, you just walk away. We tend to just work and work and work and forget to nurture our relationships.
Most people read what you write, who are the people you read what they write?
Hmmm! You know, that would be a bit difficult in case I leave out some people. But I read great back page columnists like Steve Nwosu. The way he writes, I like to read and relax with it. His back page is what I like to read in the traffic when I’m feeling very frustrated with the traffic. His column makes me smile. I read Dele Momodu, I read Segun Adeniyi, I read Lasisi Olagunju in The Tribune.
Away from work, what keeps you busy, what keeps you engaged?
I watch movies o! I like watching movies. There is always a movie on my bed, on my laptop, that I’m watching. Right now, I’m watching Narcos – it’s the story of Pablo Escobar and the drug trade.
How much of a family person are you? How much of a mother are you in spite of the huge demand that the profession makes on you?
Well, I try. I try to cook, I try to spend time with my children, learn how to dance Shakiti Bobo, they teach me how to dance Shoki. You know, it’s much easier now. My children are grown…
(Interruption) – Let’s meet your children.
You know I’m a Yoruba woman? So, I can’t tell you everything about my children.
Just tell us the little you can…
I have graduate children. My youngest is still in the secondary school. I have children who are working…
Tell us their names…
Dapo, Yomi, Toun and Yinka.
You lost your husband Dotun, some years back, how have you been coping?
Ah! I’m not coping o! I was just telling my second son yesterday some of the stories I now think they are strong enough to hear and he was eating and after some time he was staring at me. He didn’t know that I went through that much, because I had to be strong for them, I had to put up a face. So, everybody got this impression that oh, Funke is strong; oh, she really didn’t mourn and she has moved on with her life. You don’t move on with your life. It’s really difficult. I don’t know how to do it. If anybody has done it, I would like to know. You know people who say she has moved on are people who have not lost their spouses.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a widow?
Loneliness! (Stresses it). You are frustrated at work and you get home, there’s nobody to talk to. You are excited about a particular success you just recorded at work, there’s nobody to talk to. And I remember a day I went to see my daughter in school, the youngest one, and she had all kinds of questions, she had all kinds of frustrations. I had to take a decision whether she should sit for this exam or sit for that exam or move from social science class to arts and I didn’t know what to do and I had to do something. I was the one the school summoned to take a decision and I had no fallback position, I had nobody to tell and I just told God, please don’t let me take the wrong decision. Just like I ask God every morning, these children are approaching marriage age, don’t let me teach them the wrong things, don’t let me give them the wrong counsel. So, coping; I take it one day at a time. There are very bad days, there are very tough days and there are days that well, I just zoom through. But journalism has protected me.
What do you miss most about your husband? One singular thing…
His humour. Being able to make you laugh when you really want to smash your knuckles into the wall. I miss that about him.
Are you going to give marriage another shot or you are done with marriage?
I always say that one marriage is enough to last one woman a life time. So, when you look at where you are coming from, sometimes you don’t want to try again. But I will say that it’s in the hands of God. It’s in the hands of God.
You’ve gone from Post Express to Punch, This Day to the Sun and finally The Telegraph…
No, I moved from Punch to Post Express, to This Day, to The Sun and now, Editor-in-Chief of Telegraph.
Alright! How would you sum up the entire experience having traversed all those media houses?
Illuminating. I have learnt so much, I could teach my experience. Just narrating my experience can help other journalists, my younger colleagues to cope. It’s been nice.
What’s the greatest lesson that this profession has taught you?
That you can’t take anything or anybody for granted.
Because there is always something to take away from every situation and that things are not always what they seem. Because I learnt the politics of newsroom.
What’s your take on the coming of social media?
I think it has put pressure on the traditional media, but it’s like a flood. After the heavy rain, water must find its level. Eventually, everybody will know who is who. If you look at it, last year, some online media set ups were very prominent, very strong. They are not there now. I know that when I was the Editor of Sunday Sun, there were some online sites that were so strong that they will send stories to my box, then I will tell somebody to cross check it and they will usually do. But they are even not there now. They are not as strong as they used to be. If something could happen to Daily Times, something could happen to take Concord off the streets, Sketch, The News; Sketch used to be (a) big deal and those were newspapers that had traditional readers. Eventually, Nigerians are discerning, to know what they want to believe. Even now, I hear people say where did you hear it? On Facebook? Okay, I will wait for Channels. Who reported it? People are now asking who brought it to the fore, where did this story break? And they will wait for confirmation. So, let everybody come, let everybody come. It’s an open door thing. The only thing is that they are bastardising journalism, because there are no online lawyers, no online doctors. I hope that Nigerians know that you are either a journalist or you are not a journalist. There’s no middle – road.
Lastly, would you say it has affected the traditional media in any way?
Yes! It’s placed us under more pressure to do better.
NB: First published October 2015