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How To Stand Out In Online Journalism – TheCable’s Simon Kolawole

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Journalists rarely come this good anymore. And that’s just the truth. Mr. Simon Kolawole, Founder/CEO of TheCable, unarguably, is one of the best that the journalism profession has produced in Nigeria.
A thorough professional, who is widely respected and regarded, prior to perching comfortably at TheCable, he had traversed Complete Football, The Week, Tempo/TheNews, City People, Financial Standard and ThisDay garnering all the necessary experience.
In his late 40s, the father of one was born at Amilegbe Maternity Home, in Ilorin, Kwara State. The shocking death of his father in a motor bike accident in 1976, however, necessitated his moving to Mopa, now in Kogi State, where his grandmother trained and tutored him.
A Mass Communication graduate of the University of Lagos and also a Master’s degree holder in Governance and Development from the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom, SK, like friends call him and unknown to many, is a born again Christian – he gave his life to Christ on September 11, 1993 at the Nigerian Christian Corpers Fellowship.
One of the nation’s youngest editors ever (he edited ThisDay at 29), YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, visited him on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. The result of the meeting which held inside his Iyalla Street, Alausa-Ikeja, Lagos office is what you have here…

What are the qualities of a good journalist?
One – a journalist must have a sense of responsibility in the sense that you are not just in journalism because you want to do a job or because you want to leave your house in the morning and come back in the evening. There’s a purpose, there’s something you want to achieve with your journalism. I’m not just talking about the basic functions of the media – entertainment, information and all that. If I want to be a political journalist, I want to do it with every sense of responsibility, I want to report accurately, I want to write informatively, I want to add value, I’m on a mission. If I want to do entertainment reporting, I want to do business reporting, I want to do sport reporting, I’m on a mission. That is a fundamental quality that a journalist must have.
Another quality is open-mindedness. A lot of us, our minds are decidedly made up on what the problems are and what the solutions are. So, we have a closed mind. We work to the answer. Whichever way, we land at what we want. Yeah! A journalist must also …I don’t know if I can call it education. Another quality of a good journalist is someone that educates himself regularly. Don’t assume that what you knew yesterday is still relevant today. You may need to improve on that; don’t assume that you have been reporting this beat for 30 years, so I can’t be wrong. You may be wrong. Don’t assume that by merely looking at figures, you can tell the entire story. I will give you an example: let’s say there was a budget, in 2016, to build a guest house for the president with N1 billion. In 2017, you see the same item in the budget – presidential guest house and you see N800 million. In 2018, you see the same thing – presidential guest house – N500 million. You now sit down and add 1 + 8 = N1.8 billion + 5 = N2.3 billion. And you go to town that they’ve built presidential guest house with N2.3 billion. You are assuming you know the details. But you have not gone the extra mile to know what has exactly happened. It’s possible that when the first budget was done, they released only N200 million. This year, they’ve put in the N800 million. So, we must keep an open mind. We shouldn’t assume we know everything. We must constantly educate ourselves.


What makes a good story?
One – whatever you write – news story, feature, opinion – at the end of the day, I’ve gained something, I’ve learnt something. Something I didn’t know before. I like that kind of story. I like the kind of story that attempts to explain beyond he said, he said. A story that tells us more, that puts things in proper perspective by giving us all the details that we need to know.


What makes a good website?
A good website, in my own opinion, must be alive. That is, constantly updated – if it is news, especially. If I log on to your website in the morning, I see the same thing, I come at 12, I see the same thing, I come in the evening, the same, I’m not likely to check that website on a regular basis. So, constantly keeping me informed and updated. Even if it’s not news, if it’s articles, opinions, advisory, whatever it is, I want to see something fresh. And, of course, good design! It must be well designed and user- friendly.


Who is a good publisher?
Well, a good publisher is somebody who is a good mentor, a good motivator; he motivates his team very well, and also rewards performance beyond what is in the contract.

You’ve been into journalism now for over a decade. Of all the stories you have written, which one can you describe as your greatest? And why?
Hmmm! Technically speaking, I stopped writing stories probably (shaking his head) many years ago. Because I rose to the position of editorship in 2002. That’s going to 16 years now. So, technically, even if I write anything, you won’t see my name there. But when I was still writing stories, and having my bylines, there was a story I wrote on Rashidi Yekini in 1994 or 95. I called it ‘The Fall of A King’. He was flat on the floor in the picture, his career was nose-diving and he had a problem with his wife and all that. Things were just wrong for him. And given the amount of research I did, given the quality of the delivery and the comments I got; in those days, there was no social media. So, I still tend to believe that that is one of the best I’ve written.


What’s the greatest lesson that journalism has taught you?
One lesson I’ve learnt from journalism is to be broad-minded, to have a mind that is not narrow, because why am I saying that? Before I began to see the world more, I had a very narrow perspective, even of Nigeria, of people of Nigeria, of different ethnic groups and all that. But by the time I got into journalism and I started travelling round the country, my mind was opened and I saw life differently and more comprehensively.


In your career, you must have interviewed a lot of people. Who would you really love to interview that you still haven’t been able to?


Why Obasanjo.
I long to ask him certain questions, like when he was going in 2007, can he look at all of us straight in the eyes and say that when he was picking Yar’Adua, he had the best interest of Nigeria at heart?

You write one of the most popular columns in the country today. Of all the things you’ve written, which one stands out and why?
This is funny, but the article I wrote on Sunday: ‘Rome Was Not Destroyed In A Day’. It’s one of the best I’ve ever written. Why do I consider it as one of the best? What I like most is the fact that I’m challenging people; broaden your horizon…


Alright! What do you like most about being a journalist?
What I like most is also what I’m now hating the most: getting to know the story behind the story. Things are not what they appear to be. So, the access used to be my greatest weapon, but now it’s depressing me because I now know things I shouldn’t know.


What is the biggest mistake that most journalists make?
The self importance. We think we are too much as journalists. We actually think we are gods! The arrogance…


In journalism, some people attain success, but they are not able to sustain it. Where do you think they normally miss it?
I think we have to consistently reinvent ourselves, look at our surrounding, look at developments, look at trends. The moment you remain frozen with time, you will lose it.

What actually gave rise to TheCable? What prompted it? You were comfortable where you used to be back then…
I used to buy five newspapers in a day. Then I noticed that I will just wake up in the morning, go on the Internet and read all the papers that I needed to read. So, when my vendor now stops me, I will just say I’ve read the stories. So, it just dawned on me that increasingly people were reading online.


What stands TheCable out from the other online newspapers/websites?
Well, let me blow our own trumpet…


Please, go ahead…
(Laughing) – I think, for TheCable, one thing we are very proud of is professionalism. We try to be professional. We are not there yet; and being professional means that even when you miss it, you accept that you missed it, where you get it wrong, you accept that you got it wrong…

Yeah! We remember in one case that you had to fire someone over a false story or so…
Yes! That’s correct. And we apologized too. Two – the speed with which we write our stories. When something happens, you can be sure that in the next 5-10 minutes, it will be on TheCable and we write it in a very simple way, short sentences. I think those are some of the things that stand us out.


How does it feel to be the brain behind this popular TheCable?
Well, it’s good and bad! We have a team that works day and night, the most dedicated team I’ve ever worked with in my life. Young people, and working any time of the day; they work so hard and I’m very happy. Very creative. However, people see me as the one doing all the work, so I feel good. But when the abuses come too (general laughter), on the social media, Twitter, everywhere, they are abusing my mother, abusing my father, even when I don’t know anything about the story… That is the down side of it. But I feel very happy when people commend us for the job we are doing.


The name, TheCable, how did you come about it?
Those are the things you read in memoirs (laughter). But the name came about in 2011 or 2012, with WikiLeaks. That’s where the name, the idea came from – Diplomatic cables…


What new trends would you advise those coming into journalism now to imbibe?
I think they must be ready to read and read and read. You must be ready to learn, you must be ready to read wide, you must be ready to see the best practices all over the world, take role models and try to see how they are doing what they do. Before we started TheCable, I studied Huffington Post very well, I studied BBC.co.uk, I studied CNN.com. How do they do it, how do they do it, how do they do it, how can we get better and better and better? And we are still studying that. So, we must be ready to understudy the best and how it’s done all over the world and how we can learn from that.

It’s obvious that journalism has been nice to you. What has journalism not done for you?
What has journalism not done for me? Let’s be honest, there’s no money in journalism. There’s no money in journalism. You can’t become a billionaire by being a journalist. But because I have other things that I do; I do printing business; I also do some property business here and there, so financially, I can say I’m comfortable. But it’s not journalism. Journalism has not given me money. It has not given me money.


The desire to go into journalism, what prompted it?
It’s very funny, it’s weird. I wanted to be a lawyer and along the line, even in my form one, in secondary school, I was tearing note books and writing things and saying I was producing weekly reports. But I still wanted to be a lawyer. Then, when I collected my JAMB form, Dele Giwa was murdered. And I said ah! For them to kill a journalist, there must be something about these people. And that’s how I filled journalism into my JAMB form. It was around the same time. I mean, it’s crazy! Why should you want to be a journalist? Something that should have made me to say ah, I don’t want them to kill me. So, that’s how I filled journalism into my form and then the journey started.


Other than Dele Giwa, who are the other older journalists who inspired you or whose influence rubbed off on your career?
The biggest is Nduka Obaigbena, my chairman. The Duke! I’ve never worked with a smarter and more innovative person in my life. He thinks on his feet. Impossible is nothing to him. Don’t tell Nduka you can’t do something, he will tell you there are ten ways of doing it. He doesn’t take no for an answer, he believes that if you know the governor, why would you be calling the press secretary to confirm a story, why don’t you call the governor. He’s had the biggest influence on my career. But a lot of people have also contributed greatly – Mumuni Alao of Complete Football, Victor Ifijeh, Waziri Adio; well, Waziri is my contemporary, so I may not be able to mention him on that ground. Then, Ayo Arowolo. Yeah! Great guys!

Most journalists hardly create sufficient time for their families. How do you navigate that?
Luckily, it’s not a problem for me. I spend quality time with my family. I can assure you about that.


So, how much of a family man are you?
Well, people say I’m a family man (laughing). Even if I don’t know whether they are just making me feel good…


Would you like to tell us about your family? Can we meet them?
Yes, if you come to my house, you will meet them (general laughter). Yeah, I’m a husband of one wife and I have a daughter who is 16.


What’s her name?


Away from journalism, what are the other things that keep you engaged and make you happy?
I like reading, I like reading academic books to try and understand some intellectual background to some things. I’m also involved in a charity, but I won’t talk much about it until at the right time. But I’m always happy doing that.

What’s your dream for TheCable? Where do you hope to see it in the future?
The picture we had in mind, the picture I had in mind when I started TheCable, is that it’s going to be the No 1 in Africa – in terms of news website. Along the line, I’m thinking how…We belong to a generation where the youth are dominating the social media, the Internet, everywhere. They are everywhere. So, how do we bring them into TheCable? Because they find some of the things we do to be too hard for them. They prefer soft, soft things. Majority of them. That’s why the most visited websites are not necessarily those that offer hardcore news. So, my dream is that we are going to have a website where there’s something for everybody. As long as it is legit. That’s my dream. And so, if you want to read entertainment news, the first place you want to go to is TheCable; you want to read about health, the first place you want to go to is TheCable; you want to read politics, anything!


How much of that your dream would you say you have accomplished?
Well, in terms of hard core news, we are almost getting there. We have also set up a lifestyle section, to take care of the soft side. We are making progress in that area.


How big is TheCable in terms of staff strength and all that?
We also have a foundation, so we share staff. But in terms of core crew, I think we are about 15.

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