234NEXT, a Lagos-based newspaper that took off two years ago with the audacious ambition of changing Nigeria’s journalism landscape, has shut down its print edition.
The newspaper was the brainchild of Dele Olojede, a former Newswatch and Sunday Concord reporter who a few years ago won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports he wrote for the New York NewsDay on the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide of 1994. Mr. Olojede was then a senior correspondent with NewsDay.
He was joined on the project by his wife, Amma Ogan, a former editor of The Guardian on Sunday.
NEXT on Sunday, the weekend print edition, first appeared on the newsstands on January 4, 2009. It was then followed in August of 2009 by the daily edition.
Our sources disclosed that the paper’s initial investors included former Federal Capital Territory Minister Nasir el Rufai, former banker Hakeem Osagie Bello, and Ahmed Dasuki. Other investors were Folu Adeola and Tunde Folawiyo. In addition, the company secured a huge loan from First Bank to enable it to finance a printing press and other equipment.
In its two years, the newspaper made lavish use of emerging information technologies to try to reach a broader readership.
Explaining his mission in a guest column in Financial Times on July 20, 2009, Mr. Olojede said, “We have a country that can do much better than it is. We have a democracy that is struggling to move from form to function. And we have a press that has seen much better days and often makes itself available to the highest bidder.” Defining the challenge, he said, “The deck is stacked against us. We had to pick 55 youngsters from 13,000 applicants and attempt to turn them into reporters. We are trying to run a 24-hour newsroom on diesel generators. We have some old-style newsroom editors we are seeking to convert to the digital age of constantly updated stories for the web, tweets, and blogs.”
In two years of its circulation, NEXT was often in the forefront of the Nigerian media, boldly reporting several important national stories that most mainstream newspapers would not touch, including naming Nigeria’s Halliburton bribe-takers. Even so, critics alleged that the newspaper also closely protected friends of Mr. Olojede and his wife, and skirted around negative stories that involved their investors.
An insider at the paper disclosed that NEXT withheld several WikiLeaks stories that are damaging to some elite Nigerians who are friends of Mr. Olojede and his wife. The paper reportedly obtained the stories under an existing arrangement with WikiLeaks.
The paper itself made a fanfare of announcing to its readers that it had obtaining all the Wikileaks document pertaining to Nigeria under a special arrangement with the whistleblower website. In March 2011, the opaper announced on its website, “NEXT is the only organization in Nigeria with the full wikileaks cable on Nigeria. This is the timeline of the worldwide exclusive revelations”. Curiously, the paper stopped publishing the Wikileaks cables after a few reports in March 2011.
Despite its young, high profile investors, the paper was plagued by financial trouble throughout its two-year life. Mr. Olojede emphasized hiring high-priced editors and staff from abroad, including the U.S. and the UK.
But with lagging circulation and advert revenues that failed to materialize, the paper often failed to meet its financial obligations. “For several months, we and the company’s administrative staff went unpaid,” said a former copy editor.
The paper also engaged top columnists and expert writers like Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Chika Okeke, Tricia Nwaubani, Ikhide Ikheoloa, Tolu Ogunlesi, Ayo Obe and Helon Habila, but often owed them for several months at a time, leading to the departure of some of them, according to our sources.
As several senior editors, writers and reporters resigned, some former staff of the paper dragged Mr. Olojede to court alleging that the Olojede and his family continued to live lavishly, they also claimed that Mr. Olojede’s company was not remitting their pension funds to the Nigerian government.
In his Financial Times article, Mr. Olojede said that he had “raised several million dollars from friends and more from a large local bank.” The investment is said to have totaled up to $20 million.
Although the print edition of NEXT will be no more effective this weekend, the company is reportedly determined to maintain an online presence. “I understand that Dele [Olojede} plans to continue publishing on the Internet,” said a source who is familiar with the company’s story.
Meanwhile, SaharaReporters has also learned that the Nigerian Compass, a paper owned by former Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State, is folding up. In a related development, Daily Independent, in which James Ibori, the embattled former governor of Delta State, has a major stake, is looking for a buyer.