Mohammed Idris Malagi, FNIPR, is the Kakaaki Nupe and a media enthusiast whose love for the profession dates back to his secondary school days. As a mock newscaster then, the young Mohammed was in a hurry to take that a notch higher and therefore made a ‘futile’ attempt to hit the studio as a teenage newscaster. In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, the Blueprint publisher who turned 55 years Sunday, speaks on why the effort could not materialise, his transition from teaching to media, his growing up days, penchant for the media, how he veered into Public Relations, and above all his greatest fulfilment at 55. The secretary general of the Newspapers’ Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), who pleads with government to lend support to media’s viability, also counsels on responsible journalism, especially at this trying time of the nation. ABDULRAHMAN A. ABDULRAUF, BENJAMIN UMUTEME AND AYUBA RAJI report.
We want to say congratulations on this major milestone. Attaining 55 years is no mean feat. Can you please tell us about your growing up days?
My growing up has been very interesting but nothing out of the ordinary. Like you know, I was born in present day Katsina but of course, I am from Niger State. My father was a civil servant working for the federal ministry of agriculture at that time. I went to primary school in Niger, Sokoto, and in Zamfara, but I finished in Niger State. It’s been interesting. There is nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, my father and my mother were together until his death 37 years ago when I finished secondary school.
But you are more of a Kaduna boy than being a Katsina person..
The Kaduna thing is actually new. I came into Kadunabecause my elder brother was working in Kaduna. I told you earlier that my father had passed on, so I came to Kaduna about 30 years ago. But I started staying in Kaduna on my own about 20 years ago. I started staying in Kaduna in 1994 when I left my teaching job at FCE(Federal College of Education) Katsina.
Would you want to draw a line of difference between the Kaduna of that time and now?
Surely, very different! I am not sure any part of the country is the same like it was 20-25 years ago. Kaduna was very interesting, very sociable. You can go out at any time, even in the night. There was good night life in Kaduna in those days. Now, the security situation has changed all that. Kaduna used to be extremely interesting and you know that time, most of the people in the north that are now in Abuja used to be in Kaduna. It used to be the so-called capital of northern Nigeria. Everyone who was somebody either lived or had a house in Kaduna. It was a gathering of who is who. Kaduna is to the northern part of Nigeria what Lagos is to the south-west. I don’t think Kaduna is the same again.
From being a teacher to Public Relations, and now the larger media world, what really informed the transition?
I have always been interested in the media. When I was in the secondary school, I used to read mock news. My interest when I was in the secondary school was to be a newscaster. There was nothing I wanted to be in life more than to be a newscaster, to the extent that when I finished secondary school at age 16, I told my father I wanted to work in a radio station. He took me to his friend who was director of information at the ministry of information in Niger State, and told him that his son wanted to be a newscaster. He (the friend) said he will be but after the university degree, that he won’t allow me to read news at that age. Unfortunately, I didn’t go back to read news, yet I have remained in the media industry. Media has always been my choice from childhood, media has always been part of me. I guess growing up, I veered into Public Relations. I became a member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations. So, instead of practicing as a journalist, I practiced as a public relations person. But the interest in the media is still there, that’s why when the opportunity came, I first set up the Cavalet Publications, publishers of the then Market Magazine, which has been temporarily rested. And then some ten years ago, Blueprint debuted.
And ten years after Blueprint debuted, what are the challenges?
You know more than me. Anybody who is a watcher of events now knows that the media has become really difficult for owners, extremely difficult. If you take the print for example, almost everything we do has to be imported. From the newsprint to ink, equipment, almost everything is denominated in dollar. And now that the naira has nosedived, that will also mean that the costs will go up for most of us. And there is also reduced revenue occasioned by other factors, the social media or the new media as people will want to call it now have made the media extremely more challenging than it used to be.
But on the flipside, it has also become a little bit more interesting, because, those days before we started, the computer wasn’t there, now the internet is everywhere, now it is easy for people to access information more than before. So, you can see that it is more difficult business-wise. As far as getting information is concerned, it’s a lot easier, faster and even cheaper now.
Twenty years ago, when something happened in Abuja, you waited for NTA, and you waited for the next edition of the New Nigerian or Daily Times. Now, as news is breaking, everybody is seeing it. Reporters have more materials at their disposal. Whether they like it or not, news will go out fast. It has shaped the way to even report news. Newspapers now have no luxury of breaking news. It has left the newspapers and gone to the online platforms. Even if you are publishing newspapers, you must have the online platforms or you will be out of the market. In those days, you were expected to say what happened the previous day. But now, what happened this hour has already been broadcast or disseminated. What is left of you now is to make an in-depth analysis of why this thing happened and how it happened and then project what will happen afterwards.
Media is always seen to be capital-intensive and one would have expected that with Blueprint guzzling a lot of funds, going into the radio aspect is added responsibility. What informed the choice of WeFM?
Well, there is what is called the media convergence. And for you to actually profit from it-and now that it has become very challenging, you need to go into many aspects of it. You can see that many newspaper houses are now going into radio, television. It’s our own modest contribution. We also have plan to start the television station, we are doing the ground work now, by the time we are ready, we will announce that to the world.
As a philanthropist of note and notable community leader, what would you say on the current happening in Niger State in terms of banditry and general insecurity which have become a common thing across the country? How do you feel?
I feel very sad. I feel really very sad. Niger State used to be a very peaceful state, extremely peaceful state. So when this issue of banditry came, it has changed the whole landscape. There are communities in Niger that are really unable to live peacefully in their areas and they have relocated now. They can’t go to farm, and you know our people are largely farmers, and if you are afraid of going to the farm, you can imagine what will happen to their livelihood. So, many areas around Shiroro, Munya, Sarikin Pawa axis are no-go-area now. So you can imagine that. And so, many people are running away to the city centre where they have relations, friends, where they can stay, and that is additional responsibility to those people. And so, life is becoming more unbearable, cost of living is going up, people are really afraid for their lives and it’s really scary.
We just hope that we recover our senses and come together because security is not one- man issue, it’s not just government issue but it’s a collective issue. From the time we begin to see it as it’s the local government chairman’s problem, it’s the governor’s problem, it’s the president’s problem, as many Nigerians are seeing it now, then we will continue to have problems. I think we need to come together, the entire nation needs to recover its senses, come together to tackle this issue. If you think that at the moment you are immune, it will come to you the day after tomorrow. It’s a very scary thing.
In all of this, what role can public relations as well as the larger media play to arrest this madness pervading our land?
Public Relations as you know is to say it the way it is but in a palatable manner. The media and public relations practitioners have a great role to play in ensuring that peace returns to our people, and one way of doing it to ensure that you report news accurately but responsibly. I think the media should not just celebrate bandits, celebrate criminals, we must tell ourselves that criminals are criminals, bandits are bandits. Whether it is in A political party or B political party, whether A political party is in power or B political party is in power. The media has a responsibility to report news accurately but responsibly in a way and manner that you do not seem to be working for criminals. We must report news the way it can help, especially people in authority to tackle criminality, to tackle banditry so that we can all have peace, otherwise, even the media practitioners are also in danger. How many of us have the capacity to go to Munya? I have not seen reports, I have not seen people who are embedded with the criminals, who are reporting what they are doing? I have not seen anybody who has gone to the frontlines, so to say, to really report what they are doing the way it is. And see how people are really suffering. We should not celebrate criminality. We should go into it and report their operations to the general public.
For media, especially in this part of the world, funding has been a major challenge. At the level of NPAN, what do you think government should do to assist the media in doing their jobs?
The media, more than other industries, needs this assistance so much. I will give you an example. There is no single paper mill that is operational in this country as of today. We used to have the one in Jebba and Iwopin, Oku Iboku-they’ve been privatised, but they are all not performing. So, I think government should work with newspaper owners to ensure we have a functioning paper mill. Everything we print is imported. You know how much a ton of paper cost ten years ago when we started publishing Blueprint. Now, it has gone like 4 to 5 times its price. And then advertising revenue has gone down. The industry itself is losing people, employment is going down, everybody is going the cheaper way now. You just own a laptop and you say you can be an online publisher. I am not saying that is bad but those that are practicing journalism seriously, especially those in NPAN that I am its Secretary General, need to be supported. We’ve had meetings at different times, we met the Central Bank, they were giving out loans at single digit interest rate, some newspapers have been able to access it, but they’ve made it more difficult because these funds are still being domiciled with commercial banks. And so, the processes of accessing the funds remain the same. The only difference is that the interest rate has dropped a little bit. I think the government needs to do more through the CBN so that the newspapers can survive because mind you, we are not just there for profit, we are there to educate, to sensitise and to entertain the public. If you take the newspapers out, and you take the Radio and TV stations out, you will end up with so much fake news. And that portends grave danger for our population. Newspapers must not be toyed with, government must find a way of supporting the newspapers to survive in the interest of the nation.
At a time like this when there appears to be thick clouds hanging over the nation, what should we be telling our youth as well as the media practitioners?
Tell them that they should have hope. It’s not a hopeless situation. Nations have gone through worst times and they’ve come out of it. I think the youths should not despair, but they should not take laws into their hands. I always preach to the youths that they have to go it gradually. You don’t see somebody driving a Mercedes e350 and you try to say I want to buy it today. You have to start somewhere. All the people you see driving that started from somewhere. Emulate the good things the leaders of today have done in the past to reach the level that they are. Criminality, banditry and all forms of crimes, you should stay away from them. They should go to school, listen to their parents and try to cultivate heroes for themselves that they will emulate and not criminals.
Blueprint is 10, and two other titles-Blueprint Weekend and Manhaja- have been added. In the next ten years, where do you expect Blueprint to be?
Yes, like I told you earlier, it is ten. We started with one title, now we have two, the Manhaja, which is doing extremely well for its age. Blueprint is doing well, it should have done better. There is also the weekend edition that has been strengthened. We are also trying to bring back the business and economy magazine which started before Blueprint. I told you there is a radio station. Mr President has graciously approved license, we have already Blueprint Television license and Blueprint Radio. All these are under way to ensure that in the next ten years, it will be a full media conglomerate, that convergence I told you about. By the time we are retiring in the next couple of years, they would have been in place and we give room for the younger generation to take it to the next level.
Two questions rolled into one. First, with the benefit of hindsight, if you are given the opportunity to say let me start all over again, what would you have done differently? And tell us your greatest sense of fulfilment at 55?
My fulfilment is that Blueprint is still afloat. There was a time that it was really turbulent. We have gone through serious economic challenges, we have overcome that now. We are pulling through Covid as you know, we published even during that period even though we redefined the way we published. At that critical period, Blueprint was there. When they talk about Blueprint, they don’t talk about Mohammed Idris, they talk about the publisher of Blueprint. You are employing over 200 people, everybody is getting paid as at when due, and no resignation which shows that people are happy. We are pulling through and I am happy. Even political appointees from the organisation go and still return to the company after leaving office. That’s to tell you there is something unique about this God-owned project that Blueprint. So, we thank God, it has done very well. And if God spares our life, by the time we are twenty, we should be celebrating a media conglomerate by God’s grace.
And what I will do differently? Not much, I probably would have learnt that publishing takes much money and probably would have made more money before going into it. But I would have gone into it anyway. So, no regrets! It’s been a wonderful 10 years and when I look at people’s faces I feel happy, I feel accomplished.
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