Funso Aina, Senior Manager, External Relations at MTN Nigeria Plc, argues that the Nigerian media space is in a state of flux, where it is difficult to grow and retain talent; invest in the future and institute good corporate governance culture to drive performance with integrity.
By Funso Aina
When I look back to 1996, the year I started my first job as a journalist, it feels like we were living in a prehistoric era. It is hard to believe that back then, our only work tools were a large dose of optimism with a pen and some paper, or what we called ‘off-cuts’ (roughly cut A4-size papers from huge reams of newsprint). Some of us had ‘midgets’ (micro tape recorders) or the Sony Walkman-type tape recorders, for interviews, but I did not know of any reporter who had a PC or a laptop. After we finished writing our stories in long-hand, we gave the sheaf of papers to typesetters who would type and print out for the sub-editors to knock into readable copies. The internet was just an abstract concept you read about in foreign newspapers or magazines. We didn’t even have email.
However, all this would change over a few short years as the digitisation of the media began, and many newsrooms in Nigeria became computerised, making it mandatory for journalists to upskill to operate in the new environment. Very soon, a laptop was an essential work tool, but it was the introduction of GSM telephony in 2001 that was truly revolutionary. The ability to communicate remotely with sources, to access information on the move, and to do so in real time was a game changer. But it was only the beginning. In subsequent years, content convergence onto mobile and other devices meant that broadcasting, telecommunications and computing integrated into one device – enabled by rapidly improving internet connectivity.
The pace of change is only accelerating. It seems like yesterday that we were marveling at the innovations that mobile connectivity enabled, but today the cutting-edge is so much more advanced. We live in a world where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented and Virtual Reality are moving into the mainstream and showing us things that many of us had never dreamed of. If Chat GPT can use natural language processing to interact with humans in a way that is indistinguishable from human to human interaction; if it can not only respond to questions, but produce creative content, write essays and code, then what utility would there have been for me as an aspiring journalist in 1996? The values and skills I learnt and built a career on are being automated, but with progress comes risks. Not just to hundreds of millions of jobs, but to the integrity and reliability of information and to the role of the media.
I recently watched a video produced by the Daily Mirror in the UK, highlighting the radical advancement and potential dangers of AI. In it was a picture of the Pope wearing a white puffy jacket! There was another seemingly showing how Donald Trump was being manhandled while appearing to resist arrest in New York. But the one that totally beat me hollow was the image of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, seen trying to outrun angry rioters in Paris as they were being tear-gassed by riot policemen! In reality, none of these happened but the pictures looked perfectly real, totally devoid of the usual tell-tale signs of being photoshopped. They were all created by AI, which means the line between reality and illusion can now easily be blurred, making it harder and harder to identify what’s real or fake. AI can situate people in circumstances where they were not, and vice versa – almost like putting someone in a murder scene in London when they never left Ghana for instance. Surely, that’s very dangerous stuff.
According to Rijul Gupta, the tech entrepreneur founder of ‘Deep Media,’ a company striving to create ethical AI tools, the current capabilities of Chat GPT are just the early signs of what lies ahead. “We are currently only seeing text and images, very soon, not only will the Pope be seen wearing a puffy jacket, there will be a video of him breakdancing in it – fully realistic,” he said. In short, the fabric of truth and reality is being threatened, making it more and more difficult to distinguish between actuality and falsehood.
But moving on, while we leave Rijul Gupta and other capable minds in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, to create ethical AI that would save our world from itself, I have been pondering where the Nigerian media sit in this digital bubble and what does it all mean for us?
Without gainsaying, the media, anywhere in the world, plays a fundamental role in the socio-political and economic development of the society. It is a Public Trust, holding those in authority accountable, and serving as a societal watchdog. In developing countries like Nigeria, the media’s role is even more critical because of weak civic organs, which often makes the line between reporting and advocacy blurry for journalists.
We have an incredibly proud heritage of media in Nigeria. From the founding of the first newspaper in 1859, the Iwe Irohin by Reverend Henry Townsend, a tradition of excellence was forged. Its strength and integrity were tested in the fires of nationalism and the struggle for Nigeria’s independence in the 1900s, as championed by the Pen Fraternity of Ernest Sisei Ikoli, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Herbert Macaulay and much later, Alhaji Babatunde Jose; journalism in Nigeria has always been vibrant, with dedicated leaders who never lost sight of its core ethos.
But sadly, as modernity and digitisation have rapidly altered the shape and structure of the industry, so we have seen an erosion of the ethos of the profession. Media without journalism is on the rise. There is a high birthrate but short life expectancy for publications and platforms in the industry. The Nigerian media space is in a state of flux, where it is difficult to grow and retain talent; invest in the future and institute good corporate governance culture to drive performance with integrity. Those in doubt should do a comparative analysis of newspapers across all tiers today. This will show that most publish the same government and corporate press releases and event photos – no more frequent scoops; no more exclusives for which leading lights like Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Dele Giwa et al., were renowned.
Journalists cannot take the blame for this in isolation. Their ability to innovate, or simply to operate according to best practice is a function of the environment within which they are employed. It is no surprise that they are demotivated when media owners owe people months of salaries and other entitlements; when there are no opportunities or clear paths for career advancement, training, capacity building and self-improvement. All these are clear and present dangers, even while the foundations of the profession itself are being threatened by the rise of Artificial Intelligence, which I described in the opening paragraphs.
But with these challenges comes an incredible opportunity. I don’t think there has ever been a more important time to be a journalist. To uphold the centuries old principles that should guide our profession and to ensure that the mass explosion of content, and the automation coming behind it, is balanced by the independent, investigative journalists that have made the Fourth Estate such an important pillar of our society.
The only way to approach this is to invest in technology and talent at the same time, ensuring that we produce quality content (original pieces and investigative stories) that people want to read. If we cannot maintain our audiences’ attention, through the platforms that they want to use, then what hope do we have of making this commercial? The polar opposites of this, or a dystopia of sorts, is what we presently have in the country.
The good news is that at this time of flux, and of opportunity, we have a growing population of young and enterprising media practitioners who are very comfortable with technology; they recognise the fact that ‘content is king;’ they understand the vast possibilities of digital communications, and are determined to leverage it to scale the limitations of their society and peculiar circumstances.
At MTN, we recognise the incredible potential of this generation, of the confluence with emerging technology and the way that they crave applied technology to attain journalistic excellence, catch up with global trends and generally improve their storytelling techniques. How better to drive the emergence of leading digital solutions for Nigeria’s progress and achieve shared prosperity than to invest in protecting the heritage and driving the future potential of the Nigerian media. We are committed to using our technology and assets to help build a better tomorrow and in furtherance of these efforts, in 2022 we started what we call the MTN Media Innovation Programme (MIP) in partnership with the Pan-Atlantic University (PAU), Lagos.
The MIP is a fellowship for journalists (media practitioners across the entire spectrum, including social media), and it is designed to help them build capacity at both professional and business levels. It is delivered over a six-month period as a certificate course. It combines theoretical rigour with practical workshops to enhance the knowledge and skills of participants in the areas of communications, technology, media effects, writing/reporting and general business management.
By empowering media practitioners to do their job better and drive innovation, we are seeking to build the much-needed sustainability in the industry. As we all know, innovation drives change and builds new approaches to problem-solving and solution-oriented media practice for the benefit of humanity. Apart from equipping the media stakeholders with the skills to adapt to the changing realities that guarantee career and financial success, we also thought to add international exposure to the training, which will broaden the scope of the participants. To this end, MIP includes a study visit to the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
We also recognise that to move the needle on this challenge, we need to take a long-term approach. The pilot phase of the MIP will run from 2022 to 2024, but our ambitions are much greater. We seek to establish a programme that can be seen in the same light as the Nieman Fellowship in Harvard, the John S. Knight Fellowship in Stanford or a Knight-Wallace Fellowship in Michigan, whose recipients often end playing important roles in shaping our world through their work in media.
To do that, we needed to design a programme and curriculum that was inclusive, innovative and immersive. We selected 20 journalists representing each of Nigeria’s geo-political zones as our first cohort, and we set ourselves the challenge of ‘enabling accelerated transformation’ through the programme. We built a teaching team featuring the best and brightest in Nigeria’s academic, professional and media ecosystem – from the PAU to BusinessDay, Bloomberg, BBC, The PUNCH, Premium Times; technology entrepreneurs and innovators building in the media space, as well as our own leadership team.
We took our fellows on immersive facility visits in Nigeria and South Africa, from experience centres, to sub-sea cable landing stations, 5G demonstrations and to academic and corporate campuses, they saw the breadth of the ecosystem as it is currently structured.
After six intense months, our first group of fellows graduated. Both documentary and anecdotal evidence suggest the impact that we have been able to achieve, from improvements in writing and reporting skills to the way they leverage technology to improve output and product quality. These are still early days, but 2022 taught us that we have a structure that can work, build upon and, if we are patient, achieve the ambitious transformational objectives we have set for ourselves.
The MTN MIP is the first of its kind in Nigeria – no other corporate has ever invested so much in a sustainable and far-reaching capacity building programme for journalists where intended outcomes can be successfully tracked. We are incredibly excited about building on the platform we have created and to making the 2023 cohort even more successful.
In recognition of the innovative approach to capacity development in the media, I was honoured to be awarded ‘Innovator of the Year’ at the 2023 IN2 SABRE awards, which was held at the PRovoke EMEA Summit in Gesellschaftshaus Palmengarten Frankfurt, Germany on Thursday 23 March. As MTN’s project director for the MIP and lead liaison with the Nigerian media, the award is a personal recognition that I am incredibly proud to receive, but represents the work and talent of a wider team that has worked tirelessly to make this happen.
This recognition, alongside the recognition we received when the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) awarded me the trophy of the ‘Most Influential PR Professional in Nigeria’ for 2022, mean that it is clear that we are on the right track and the ecosystem is recognising the importance of the work that we are doing. But our journey has only just begun. To drive truly transformational change, we need to sustain and expand our work to support the media industry, to acknowledge what I said in my opening paragraph, that ‘there is no more important time to be a journalist’ and to ensure that the Fourth Estate continues to act as society’s watchdog, contributing to the growth of the great nation that is Nigeria.
*Funso Aina is Senior Manager, External Relations at MTN Nigeria Plc.