By Musa Jibril (Guest Columnist)
The first time I heard about the global journalism book ‘50 World Editors’ was mid-2012. I had followed the authors Mike Awoyinfa and the late Dimgba Igwe to interview one of the Nigerian media icons featured in the book. Tidbits from their discussions got me curious. Their excitement was contagious. It got me wondering: Why would one book take these two journalism masters several years to write? And, how could a book unleash the spirit of Sokugo on grown up men, sending them roving around the world every year in the name of talking to editors?
For three years, I waited for answers. Waiting for the book. When recently, I had the privilege of holding in my hand a copy of 50 World Editors: Conversations With Journalism Masters On Trends and Best Practices, I felt like a man who had found 14-carat gold.
There was something nostalgic about the book. It transported me back to my undergraduate days in the Department of Mass Communication, Ahmadu Bello University. It was in 1999 I first came across a book written by one of the authors, made available by our lecturer, Dr. John Opoko who, at the beginning of every semester, habitually recommended useful texts on mass communication by Nigerians authors. That semester, the text was relevant for Writing for Mass Media. A how-to text on article writing. Later, I chanced upon another book, The Art of Feature Writing, a DIY on feature writing jointly written by the duo. In 2011, I met them personally for the first time.
Back to the new book. Why am I gaga over it? Not because I have received a copy straight from famous authors—you know, the frenzy about getting autographed copies from celebrity writers. Not because I am one of the privileged few who got an early copy. I am delighted because of its utility as a reading text to fill knowledge gaps.
Like a scripture that teaches a way of life, 50 World Editors is a catechism for those desirous of a ‘life lived as a news hound.’ Information on the 628-page book concretises the otherwise abstract knowledge imparted in the classroom context. Hands-on wisdom and valuable know-how doled out sumptuously by 50 global icons in the field of media – that is the book.
I know the agony mass communication students pass through in the quest for useful texts for assignments and literature review of their theses. In the library or in the bookshop, what you find is a farrago of foreign books, and invariably, a dearth of home-grown texts. Available books are mostly academically pedantic. That accounts for the loopholes in students’ knowledge bank. After four years of university study, they arrive in the newsroom a complete tabula rasa. Drilled thoroughly about the “five Ws and H” as the building blocks of news writing, but come up short when given reportorial assignments. They are sometimes an editor’s worst nightmare.
This is where 50 World Editors is handy. What is news? This is one question that resonates through the 50 chapters of the book. A question that begets 50 panoramic definitions. News in full spectrum, defined in new-fashioned terms by those whose business is news business. What essentially is a tabloid? This is another question asked over and over again which yields a rich description and dichotomy of the tabloid vis-à-vis the traditional newspaper. Other questions: What is a human interest story? What does it mean to report? What makes a good reporter? What makes a great editor? Who is an investigative reporter? These professional questions answered by the news gurus make the book a practical handbook that should get serious students delirious.
More questions: What advice will you give upcoming journalists? What is your typical day like as an editor? Such questions give the aspiring reporter a good idea about the world ahead of him.
The experience contain therein is the closest to field reality students can get about the profession in the comfort of the classroom. Students get to hear about the hazards of the job. On the pages of 50 World Editors, they read riveting recounts of dangerous moments in the lives of professional journalists like Pakistani Hamid Mirs who interviewed Osama bin Laden at the cost of “life-threatening tests”; BBC’s Alan Johnston who was kidnapped for four months by terrorists in Gaza; AFP’s Beatrice Khadige who was detained by militias in Lebanon for two hours as she listened to morbid debates about whether to kill her or not; and Lebanese May Chidiac, whose leg and arm were blown off by bomb planted under her car seat. Yet they all lived to tell their stories to the authors, Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe.
50 World Editors is a book of lessons for both the pro and the trainee reporter. Lessons unteachable in the context of the classroom; lessons learnt on the job; lessons better learnt vicariously. On the pages of the book, media oracles talks about their defining stories, their motivations, their roles in the media ecosystem, their struggles and their triumphs in the socio-political and economic system. The biographical element affords students the opportunity to learn real-life lessons from real professionals cherry-picked by the authors from iconic news media brands around the world: BBC, CNN, Guardian, Mail and Mirror of UK, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, International Herald Tribune, The Washington Times, Financial Times, El Mundo, Channels, Reuters, Hindustan Times. What an eclectic collection!
This instant classic book is an invitation to see far ahead by standing on the shoulders of 50 news media giants. It’s a compass to finding professional direction in the tangled web of the news media. Incorporated as a study text, it will complement the theoretical teachings of the classroom. It makes a student’s academic preparation creamier. A fine book, of which I have one regret: It should have been published in my days as an undergraduate. Or during my brief stint as a graduate assistant.
The new book only reinforced what I already know about the authors. They are teachers. Their successful journalism careers make it difficult for me to say that they missed their callings. Journalist teacher or teacher journalist? They combined the two. They are journalism legends. But the teacher in them is legendary. At a lecture series organised in 2012 to mark Mike Awoyinfa’s 60th birthday, Femi Adesina, presidential spokesperson, had recounted how the pair mentored and shaped his journalism career. He even talked of the Awoyinfa School of Tabloid Journalism, whose proud alumni include Dele Momodu, publisher of Ovation International and Eric Osagie, the current Managing Director and Editor-in-chief, Sun newspaper.
This is no mere rhetoric. At close quarters, Mr. Awoyinfa infects you with a febrile creativity that challenges your muse; if Mr. Igwe touches your work, he breathes a life into it in a way that is awe-inspiring. Let me tell you something about their teachings methods. For Mr. Awoyinfa, it starts with you getting a call from him. He briefs you about the assignment. He explains the perspectives. A brief background to tide you over on your way. He wishes you good luck. Once your story berths in his email, he calls you to acknowledge receipt. After reading, he calls you again. Usually for commendation, big or small. For a job well done. God bless you. Thank you. Keep it up. With Mr. Igwe, the approach is different. He invites you for your assignment. And it is better you go with your notepad. He takes his time to spell out all the grounds you need to cover. When your story gets to him, he works through it and sends you an edited copy. Again, he invites you. What difference did you notice? He wants to hear from you. He listens carefully and points out whatever you have missed. At the end of the day your mind is filled with knowledge. By your next assignment, you record a marked improvement. I guess this has been their ways since the Weekend Concord days.
It was Francis Bacon who famously said: “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” That is the category where 50 World Editors belongs. It is a book “to be read wholly and with diligence and attendance.” It is truly a treasure trove, an invitation to feed your muse with manna from the masters. A ‘Torah’ from journalism rabbis.
*50 WORLD EDITORS will be launched on Tuesday, September 15, 10a.m., at the Institute International Affairs, Lagos to mark the anniversary of the death of the co-author Dimgba Igwe killed last year on September 6 while jogging to keep fit on a Saturday morning in his Lagos neighbourhood.