The boldest and most ambitious experiment in Nigerian journalism since the founding of The Guardian in 1983 ended three weeks ago after a run of nearly three years.
And what a run it was!
Its very name, 234NEXT, signalled a departure from the ho-hum titles of newspapers, not just in Nigeria, but worldwide. The prefix, by the way, is the international dialing code for Nigeria.
The product was going to be refreshingly different. It would deliver news and features and other journalistic forms on a multiple platform combining text and audio and video; in short, it was going to be a newspaper that also has the capacity to serve as radio and television. And unlike extant Nigerian newspapers, it was going to be rigorously non-partisan.
Its publisher, Dele Olojede, had distinguished himself by winning the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his reporting on the Rwanda genocide. Until he relocated in Johannesburg, South Africa, he was foreign editor of the New York newspaper Newsday.
When it made its debut in December 2008, NEXT was only as an electronic newspaper. A paper edition would be introduced in August 2009. Audio and video would come later. But even as an electronic newspaper, its entry into Nigerian journalism was electrifying.
The web design was clean, tidy and well-structured. Colour and space and type meshed to produce a visual delight. The site was fully navigable. The reporting was sharp. You did not come away from reading a story only to ask: “Where is the story?” or “What is the story?” And, as befitted a locale where there is never a dull moment, the stories were constantly updated.
The headlines were sober; they did not scream at you nor offend your sensibilities. The writing was clean, crisp and lucid. The editorials were magisterial; thoughtfully and closely argued, they provided insight and leadership on a wide range of issues, national and foreign. Shortly after its debut, NEXT was parading some of the finest writing to have graced Nigeria’s news media in recent memory.
With captivating lyricism, the much garlanded poet, Niyi Osundare, distilled the history and augury of each month into an evocative poem on the human condition in Nigeria and world-wide. The novelist, Teju Cole, made words sing and sigh and hum and dance in his enchanting column, “Words Follow Me.” He commanded them, and how they did his bidding!
Amma Ogan, a veteran of the Daily Times and The Guardian, who has lived on four continents, infused her wry observations and reflections with sociological insights that opened the readers’ eyes and minds. Ayo Obe, lawyer-turned human rights activist and social crusader, brought global developments on these issues to readers’ attention every week with forensic brilliance.
In between diverting accounts of his peregrinations, Obadiah Mailafia drew on his prodigious learning to provide first-rate analysis on global politics and economics and society. Reading Yemisi Ogbe’s finely wrought articles on how to prepare a particular dish was almost as satisfying as tucking into the dish. She guided you through the delicate process of shopping for the ingredients and she made you see, touch, smell, taste, and sometimes, even hear the final product.
You wondered where Salisu Suleiman had been until NEXT came on the scene. How come he had not availed the public of his uncommon grace and wit and literary versatility? Week after week, Jibrin Ibrahim brought to our attention the travails of democracy and the rule of law in Africa.
Lanre Idowu expertly x-rayed the news media, pointing out what they did right and what they could have done better. Few tasks are more treacherous than assessing the performance of your own colleagues, but Idowu pulled it off magnificently week after week.
When she was not offering her own illuminating reviews, Molara Wood was putting together an absorbing literary package. Tolu Ogunlesi called to mind the late Cyprian “COD” Ekwensi. Like COD, he is a trained pharmacist. And like COD, he wrote about “ordinary people,” the type who rode that hideous Lagos contraption we call “molue” (a corruption of “maul it,” whatever the “it” is, according to some old-time Lagosians), chronicling their vulnerabilities without glossing over their occasional villainies.
Femi Aribisala, international affairs scholar-turned pastor, dissected the Bible the way editors for learned publications dissect submissions. If he did not insist that he is a born-again Christian, he could easily pass for a disciple of Robert Ingersoll, the celebrated agnostic.
I must not forget the raconteur and critic, Ikhedi Ikheloa, or Lola Shoneyin, the poet and novelist, and the endearing feminism of her writing, or NEXT’s gifted editor, the self-effacing Kadaria Ahmed, and the plinth of its investigative team, Dapo Olorunyomi.
In full flight and with all its platforms operating, NEXT gave a tantalising glimpse of how the media can advance social process and help build a sense of community. It demonstrated that capacity most splendidly in the 2009 presidential election, filing up-to-the-minute reports from precincts nationwide and leaving no one in doubt about the true picture. Not once did its web site crash during that vast undertaking, the first of its kind in Nigeria.
Before then, NEXT had given the definitive verdict on ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua when state officials were dissembling. Yar’Adua, it reported authoritatively, was brain-damaged and his presidency was for all practical purposes ended.
For weeks, NEXT held the nation spellbound by publishing secret cables, courtesy of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, from American embassy officials in Nigeria to the State Department officials, in the process showing just how vacuous and how lacking in judgment most of Nigeria’s policy makers are.
It went on to name officials who had accepted bribes from Halliburton, and to expose the oil blocs-for-trinkets swap between Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison-Madueke and an American-based jeweller. These and other stories earned NEXT the industry prize for investigative reporting. The paper also won the industry prize for excellence in design.
But there were troubling intimations that all was not well.
Rather than feel threatened by NEXT’s rapid ascent, veteran editors who know the industry inside out told me confidently that that paper would not “make it” because it was “too sophisticated” for the Nigerian market. When I asked to buy a copy from a street vendor last June, he had to disinter it from the bottom of his huge pile of other newspaper titles. It was almost as if he did not expect anyone to ask for it.
Then, one after another, the writers who had made NEXT compelling and rewarding reading dropped off. In July 2011, it abandoned daily publication for a weekend edition, but that only accelerated the decline. Three months later, it ceased publishing a print edition altogether. It was missing in action during the national uprising against the government’s plan to impose a hefty tax on gasoline under the pretext of cutting a subsidy on fuel.
By the time its publisher was awarded the prestigious James P. McNulty journalism prize in October 2011, NEXT had been reduced to a desultory web presence. That web site vanished some three weeks ago.
A great many patrons lamented NEXT’s fate. But sadly, a great many also rejoiced in it. “Another one bites the dust,” they declared with a touch of schadenfreude, “they” being mostly sympathisers of President Goodluck Jonathan, who felt the paper had been unkind to him, and of course the envious, whom, we shall always have among us.
I do not pretend to know what went wrong. Olojede has been reported as saying that the paper was losing money and that it could not attract the official advertising patronage that is the lifeblood of most Nigerian newspapers – patronage that often comes at a huge price.
Our hope must be that the bold and innovative experiment that NEXT epitomised has only been suspended to allow a rigorous review of its fundamental assumptions and strategies, and that it will return and recapture the form that enthralled us all during its glorious run.
Culled from The Nation