By Hazeez Balogun
Over several decades, Nigerian print media mogul, Chief Isiaka Mayowa Abiodun Akinpelu has acquired a reputation for an unwavering pursuit of excellence in Africa's publishing industry. The man who goes by Mayor Akinpelu got his big break in journalism as an undercover reporter in Nigeria's infamous Kirikiri Prison and later rose to become one of the most celebrated society reporters in the country. Today, Mayor Akinpelu publishes Global Excellence, a leading Nigerian soft sell magazine. In this interview with Hazeez Balogun, Chief Akinpelu reveals the struggles of African publishers.
HB: “Newspaper and magazine publishing is believed to have taken a dive. This must concern you a lot as a publisher.”
MP: To some extent yes, I think the print media industry is going through it’s greatest challenges right now, because of many reasons. We have the Internet, the right of social media, private blogs and we still have television and radio to compete with. But I believe that the industry will survive. When radio came, people thought that was the death of print media. The same was said when television came, but I agree that this time, the threat is real. Now, a lot of magazines and newspapers are finding it hard to cope. The reason is that news is now in your face. Everybody is now a reporter. All you need is to witness an event, upload it and it will go viral. Because of that, they [bloggers] are doing so many things that we do without the cost implications. They don’t have to employ anyone, they don’t need any infrastructures, all they need to do is to gather news from other people, put it on their blogs and generate discussions and comments from there. That will drive traffic to them. All they need is a laptop. They don’t have to pay the printer or journalists. I agree that our industry is under threat, but I assure you, we will survive.
HB: Is Global Excellence planning to go online to compete too?
MP: We are online already but the problem with going online is that, we have to upload our content online for free. If we ask people to pay to read, they will not. Eventually, people will learn to pay for what they read. But for now they want to read for fun. Most of the publications online are not really generating any income. Most of what they make is still from their hard copy format.
HB: So will you say Global Excellence is not doing so well now due to these reasons you gave earlier?
MP: Like I said, print media is still going through challenges at the moment. Income in all newspapers has declined. It is difficult to make money off the streets anymore. Part of this has to do with the reading culture, and the low income. How many people have the funds to buy papers daily or magazines weekly? Even the illiteracy level is high, many people do not read. So we find ourselves in an industry that is not expanding. Also, there are not enough advert support from advertisers. This has to do with the high number of newpapers and magazines we have. They cannot advertise in all of them, so they narrow it down to a few papers. So for this reason, I will say yes, Global Excellence is struggling like every other publication is.
HB: Global Excellence is a society and entertainment magazine which focuses on the softer side of things. Are people still interested in reading such things?
Oh sure, very much! When I was with Prime People and Vintage People, we were printing over 100,000 copies every week. But today, you will see that all the weekend titles of newspapers are now soft sell magazines of their own. They take news from the softer side of things. They have rebranded in such way to survive and also to make it look different from the daily edition. So when you look at the market, there are so many publications doing the same thing that we are doing. Competing in the same market we are in, the competition becomes stiff. So we are practically producing the magazine with our blood.
HB: Many say that soft sell magazines are filled with rumours and half-truths. It is evident from the number of lawsuits magazines are involved in that there must be a lot of truth to this.
MP: We could get law suits but that has nothing to do with what we are doing. Journalism is history in a hurry. No matter how efficient and brilliant you are, you make mistakes in journalism where ever you are in the world. Most reporters rely on sources. As a reporter, you are as good as your sources, if your source makes a mistake, then you make a mistake as well. That is why as a journalist you have to try and confirm from other sources as well. But since, we have to beat deadline and go to bed with the news or produce the paper. By so doing, sometimes, some errors will find their way into the paper. So we make sure that when mistakes are made, we make corrections.
So getting lawsuits is part of the business, whether you are a newspaper or a magazine. It happens like that even abroad. Global Excellence has been in circulation for fourteen years and we have never lost in court. This is because when we confirm that we have made a mistake, we make sure that we correct it as soon as possible. Sometimes you carry a true story and they will go ahead to sue you, not because the story is false, but because they want to show people that they did not do what was reported. At the end of the day, they will not follow up on the suit. There are several issues like that. When we said that Ojukwu was dating Bianca, they said that it was not true. Not long afterwards, the pair married. When we reported that Folawiyo was dating Aba then, we ruffled a lot of feathers. They said it was not true, but we all know now that it was true. So lawsuits come with the business.
HB: Why did you decide to be a journalist?
I have always had the flare for writing. When I was in the university, the tradition was that only older students could become student union leaders. There was a youngman called Panaf Olajide, who wanted to be the president of the student union. He would write articles and paste them on notice boards across the school. That turned out to be very effective. For the first time, somebody who was young became the student union leader. What worked for him was his writing. I really fell in love with the idea, and always wanted an opportunity to write.
When I finished school and served, I wanted to be the a federal information officer but I was made the federal social welfare officer, and I was posted to the federal maximum prison in Kirikiri, Lagos. As fate would have it, when I was posted there, it coincided with the time when journalists Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were jailed by the Buhari/ Idiagbon regime. Fela [Kuti] was also in the same prison. As a lover or journalists, I was happy to have two prominent journalists right there with me in prison. So every day I would go to the workshop where they work and we became friends. At a point, the prison authorities told me that as an officer, I was not supposed to be fraternising with prisoners, but I ignored them. That led to my transfer to the medium security prison.
Later, an opportunity came that eventually made me a journalist: The Vatsa coup. Though I had been moved to the medium security, Nduka who had been released at that time managed to get to me. He told me that since I was interested in writing, I should do a story about the last days of the coup plotters: what they ate, who they spoke with and how they were finally killed. I was very happy to take it on. I started snooping around the prison, and I was speaking with my colleagues and prisoners. I eventually wrote a story for The Guardian. Nkuka Irabor was happy, he told me that I wrote very well and asked me to start writing for The Guardian on a freelance basis. I could not use my real name at the time that was why I used 'Mayor Akinpelu', which I am known by till today. People in prison did not know that it was me. Later on, Nduka asked me to join Guardian Express. I quickly resigned from my government job and joined the paper. Later I moved to Prime People and from there to Vintage People before I started Fame.
HB: It must have been difficult starting your own magazine.
MP: It was not easy. With all the experience I had, I did not want co-own anything again. If I was to start a magazine, it has to be my own. I started soliciting for funds and slowly, some friends started coming through. 50,000 naira here, 100,000 naira there. It was tough initially. Then Dr. Mike Adenuga came on board to assist. I remember that I wrote an article then explaining that a new magazine is like a baby and it need help to survive. I appealed to people to assist by buying extra copies of the magazine and giving them to friends and family. Periodically, Dr. Mike Adenuga would send me money, sometimes up to 200,000 naira, which was a lot of money at that time. So based on the generosity of people like Mike Adenuga, things went a little bit easier.