Pendulum: The Importance of Celebrity Journalism in Africa Today

By Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, I’m proud to give you a feedback and update on my Fellowship at The African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
It all started as a joke, or one of those my brainwaves. I had toyed with the idea of heading back to school for further studies. But I was quite confused about which school, what course and when. I think my greatest enemy is time. I’m so permanently occupied with one activity or the other that I often wonder if I would ever have the chance and time to take time out, or even laze about, once in a while, like regular people. I believe I must have picked the habit of multitasking from two of my mentors and role models like Chief Moshood Abiola and Dr Mike Adenuga Jr. It amazes me how much work those two have packed into one lifetime. But they have fired me up with their drive, determination and ambition, so much that work has become an addiction.
I knew I would definitely go back to academia, either full-time or part time. Nothing else would ever make me happier. That was my dream and passion growing up as a young boy in the University city of Ile-Ife which combined tradition, history and culture with knowledge and innovation. But the risk and fear of hunger in our dear country Nigeria was always the beginning of wisdom. Since I had made up my mind to take the road less travelled in Nigeria, by not wasting my time with government people who see every critic as an enemy, I knew I must double up my hustle and pray for God’s bountiful harvests.
A window of opportunity opened up to me, almost spiritually. I had walked into the great Scholar, the first Black Rhodes Professor of Race Relations and Director, African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies Fellow, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, Wale Adebanwi, by chance. I had not met him since he left his big job an erudite academic at the University of California, Davis. Incidentally, he was already a distinguished journalist before diving headlong into academia which he has also taken by storm. His stint in journalism, where he made a name for himself, has no doubt helped him in his exploits and achievements as a worthy ambassador of Nigeria in the field of journalism and academia.
I told Professor Adebanwi about my burning desire to return to school and he was very candid in his response. He told me it might be difficult for me, at my present level, and status, to find fulltime Studies enjoyable or worthwhile. I have not been back in school since I completed my Master’s degree at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile – Ife in 1988. So, I deferred to his superior knowledge and wisdom in this area and agreed with him. He suggested that I could apply for a Fellowship in the UK or America, which would be more flexible and less expensive. He said that I could apply to Oxford University and although he could not promise anything about the success or otherwise of my application to Oxford, he was confident that with my global exposure in journalism, it should be possible for most Universities, including Oxford to accept me and embrace my knowledge readily.
I decided,  at the outset, that I would only limit my application to Oxford University. I felt buoyed by the confidence in my capabilities which Professor Adebanwi had evinced. His belief in my ability and widespread acceptability and connect with the literary world resonated with me. The day I got a positive response from Oxford was one of my happiest days. Who won’t be happy associating with such a powerful brand? I know the impact will live with me forever. And that was how my journey started.
I must say it has been so amazing. The Oxford environment is very conducive for learning. The libraries are certainly some of the largest and most up to date in the world. My God. How have African schools and students coped without books and reading? It is a question I soliloquise about regularly. Those who say education is not important have lost their minds for sure. We are going nowhere until we recognise the values of grounded education. It is the foundation for all things positive that any nation would want to imbue in its citizens. From education you learn about listening, learning, understanding, capacity, diligence, hard work, resourcefulness, innovation and above all integrity.
Anyway, I have made good use of the facilities offered me. That is simply the best I can do in the circumstances. My research work has been on Society Journalism and social media in Africa. I realised shortly after embarking on the project that the work is so vast that I couldn’t conclude it within one academic session. My innate feelings were soon to become real as I discovered that I could not complete the daunting task that I had set for myself in the last academic session. This did not make me happy as I am someone who constantly seeks to achieve perfection in everything that I do. The good news is that Oxford has graciously renewed my Fellowship. I’m extremely grateful for this honour and privilege. I’m now expected to spend the next academic session doing my research, reviewing my work and preparing an exposition of my research and findings and developing my treatise and conclusions to be presented in a seminal paper which I will submit to the Department. I’m also using the opportunity to work on my autobiography in preparation for its launch as part of my 60th birthday celebrations next year May, by the grace of God.
My romance with society journalism could not have been by accident. As we love to say in Africa, it must have been preordained. My trajectory is almost surreal. Working for extremely famous and influential Nigerians has definitely prepared me for the humbling roles I’m currently playing in African media. The most important tools required for this job are confidence, courage and access. It takes a lot of guts and skills to penetrate the rich and famous. You must be able to hold your head high, be self-assured and audacious. You must be brave and convincing, displaying that you a master of your game. The rich, famous and notorious have to know and trust you reasonably well and same goes for you. Trust is therefore another key element, without which you may be kicked around like a football. Respect is another. It is essential that you are able to command the respect of those that you come in contact with. That, sadly, is the bane of many of our society journalists today. They do not respect themselves and therefore do not get the respect which should normally follow from those that they seek to interact with. Essentially, to become a celebrated society journalist you must have integrity. That is the benchmark or quality control which separates you from the best of the rest. Unfortunately, most of our present crop of journalists do not recognise this. It pays to be old school. The rewards can be great not just in financial terms, but also with respect to acceptance, status, contentment and fulfilment.
Though I didn’t set out deliberately to be a society reporter, I just found something I could hardly escape pulling me in that direction, almost helplessly. My foray into journalism was mainly out of joblessness. I would have preferred to be an author and editor of books than being an editor or publisher of newspapers and magazines. But it was not to be. I have no regrets though. I know and I have since proven that the one may be just a steppingstone to the other.
I started reporting hard news at the African Concord magazine when I arrived Lagos in 1988. My transfer to Weekend Concord, a tabloid, changed my life and career. My wide contacts from my personal relationships nurtured in the ancient town of Ile-Ife and extended as I expanded my horizons came in handy. I didn’t have to introduce myself in most places. My contacts and, more and more, as time went by, my exploits and writings meant that I was readily recognised and appreciated. Meeting people and extracting information from them was quite easy and straightforward from then on. I was lucky because people felt drawn to me and felt the need to talk to me and sometimes give me scoops, either wittingly or unwittingly. The result was that I produced covers after covers to the delight of our bosses, patrons and readers.
Society journalism wasn’t this big at the time. Not many society people could even be classified as such. And so, we had to manage and cultivate the ones that were available. And they belonged in different categories. They included royalty, sports men and women, artistes, business titans, and upwardly mobile professionals. Our society was not as open as it is today. We needed to convince them of our noble intentions. We live in a society when jealousy and envy are very common attributes.
There were several publications publishing the lifestyle of the rich and famous. We also had to create celebrities out of wannabes. It was not an easy task. Society journalism was more of hyping the assumed celebs. Some of the stories were sensational. We stepped on toes, some powerful, others not so. The earliest publications were gossipy and thrived on hyperbole. The screaming headlines often bore no correlation to the body of the stories. They fooled and titillated their readers endlessly. That style is being packaged and repackaged now, but oftentimes not with the style and guile of the original progenitors.
We had Lagos Weekend, Prime People, Vintage People, Fame, Climax, Encomium, City People, First Weekly, Global News, amongst others. They looked identical and had the same angles and convictions. And everyone was afraid to be put on those covers except when the stories were positive.
Things changed when Ovation International magazine came on board. The Directors decided they won’t damage reputations, but rather build and promote the best of Africa. Naysayers said it cannot, and will not, work. The quality was another feather to our cap. It was different in style and taste and too beautiful to behold. Many doubters said it is impossible to maintain the standards that we had set for ourselves from the very first edition. This was in 1996. 23 years after, the quality has not gone down. Instead we have over time continually improved on thee quality. We have maintained the same Printers in Enfield, England, in the past 18 years, because we believed that the style and quality could not be compromised. Our Printers have kept faith with us and kept ensuring the improvement of our product and brand.
Many copycats also came from nowhere with each promising to give us a run for our money. There were also foreign franchises like Ok and Hello magazines that were bought and brought to Nigeria as some sort of competition to us. I’m not sure they remain in circulation, not because they were not beautiful and appealing, but due to lack of patronage, especially in the area of advertisements.  We have had our fair share of disappointments in that area, but we have always been proactive in everything that we do. The secret of our survival is as tight as that of Coca Cola…
To be continued…

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