Jackie Opara-Fatoye is the Regional Deputy Editor – Sub-Saharan Africa [English] of SciDev.Net reputed to be the world’s leading free source of news, views and analysis about science and technology in the developing world. In this online interview with Lekan Otufodunrin, Opara-Fatoye, a graduate of Mass Communication from Madonna University, Okija, Nigeria, shares insights on how journalists and media organisations in the continent can access global media opportunities and her amazing career journey of working in Nigeria, UK and South Africa.
The outbreak of Coronavirus, lockdown and its aftermath have been a very challenging time for journalists like other professionals – how did you cope?
For me, I have always worked online because my work requires that I constantly interact with people in different time zone plus my organization is headquartered in the UK. The major challenge was finding a balance between official and domestic work schedule. It is quite a lot having to joggle both without feeling you are either neglecting your work or your family.
I created a “happy” time-table for the whole family, such that everybody will be busy when I am busy and will eat and relax when I will relax. The time-table constantly changes according to my schedules and I make sure I let the family understand why- it may sound selfish, but with the kind of work that I do, it was completely necessary.
It did not always work as planned, but it was a great strategy. Luckily for me, I have a husband that understands my work pattern.
Is there any particular way the pandemic affected you and the organisation you work for?
Definitely, our major concern was our reporters- we put on hold all travel plans and make sure we let them know that their safety is more important and working from home and using online tools available is totally acceptable.
We had a number of conferences we started planning since last year, some of which were the Next Einstein Forum – which is the largest science and innovation gathering on the African continent – it was to be held in Kenya and the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) – a biennial, pan-European, general science conference dedicated to scientific research and innovation. I was meant to be in Italy for this event. I was in charge of moderating our session, though we joined in virtually, physical presence would have been better in terms of expanding our networks – this one hit home as I was involved in the planning. We had some great networking events that would have created more opportunities for me and my organisation.
What will you say are the lessons media professionals should learn from the impact of the pandemic and how should it inform our operations and career development henceforth?
To be fair, the pandemic caught everyone unawares. Nobody knew it would be this devastating – that been said, it is important that media professionals are on top of their game and be flexible to modify and able to adapt to a changing world in quick time– For example, COVID-19 required that everyone stay indoors, how were journalists able to quickly learn how to use online tools such as Zoom etc. We have to move up with the latest technology and develop apps that will advance the industry and our professional career.
Before the pandemic, the media was already experiencing lots of disruption and challenges that had left many journalists and organisations confused about the future of the industry. What is your advice for maximising available opportunities?
There are several steps journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa countries especially Nigerian journalists should take. One of it is coordination and building partnerships with journalists of like minds locally and internationally- this is one of the steps I took that worked for me- this helps you stay alert and get in line with new information, technology and opportunities that may arise.
Followings and engagement on social media should also be very strategic. Most of the gigs I got during my freelance writing days came from Twitter and LinkedIn and I assure you that I was paid in foreign currencies which was a great motivation.
Media organisations should also not feel too big to partner and look for opportunities for funding.
Media organisations should also not feel too big to partner and look for opportunities for funding.
Another important step is for journalist and media organisation to develop projects that are fundable. For example, my organisation SciDev.Net even in this pandemic got funding for our podcast project called Africa Science Focus- which looks at science and health in Sub-Saharan Africa and impact that science is having in Africa’s least-developed countries. It also offers African researchers an opportunity to highlight their work to European and African audiences and give African journalists space where they can report on science.
Media organisations have refused to see the importance of training- nothing beats this, because we are in a changing world, everything changes per second. Journalists should lookout for opportunities for training locally and globally and apply for them. It does not matter if you have been practising journalism for years, training is important.
Journalists should have a compendium of resources which includes names of journalism global funders, names of media organisations, locally and international, names of editors and journalists and follow them all on social media, turn on notifications to get new information on new opportunities and have a good online presence.
I always tell people, if you see my name, Jackie Opara, just google and see, most of what I do is online and I can be easily verified by anyone who wants to partner or work with me or just want to know more about me. The thing is if you are looking for global opportunities, whether as an organisation or individual, the first point of contact is your online presence. It is a reality we have to accept.
Based on your experience as a journalist in Nigeria and now working in an international organization, what will you say it takes to be a good journalist and be able to compete globally?
Discipline. Take away all form of laziness and excuses. People think that you will get to the top easily without making sacrifices- you have to sacrifice your time to learn new things, be alert and scout for new opportunities and follow-through, upgrade your knowledge and strive towards excellence.
Sometimes you get confused because the editors all have their style. It means you have to constantly train your mind to give them what they want and that takes a lot of discipline. For example, I was commissioned by one of the biggest magazines in Sweden, Forskning & Framsteg, to do a story on young people in Agriculture in Nigeria. This was by far, the most rewarding and the most challenging because I wrote in English and it would have to be translated into Swedish. You cannot say, for example, “her grandmother said,” you must specify if it is her mother’s mother or her father’s mother, every word was scrutinized. If you are not disciplined and constantly strive for excellence, you really cannot make a mark globally as a journalist.
What is your assessment of the media practice in Nigeria and what specific areas of development do you suggest?
I think media industry and media practise in Nigeria is in a comatose state and it seems to me the media owners/leaders thrive on schadenfreude- they gain satisfaction from seeing journalists that work for them suffer by not paying them and providing the enabling environment to work.
Media organisations should, as I said earlier, be open to partnerships and develop projects that are fundable and in turn, create a revenue base.
How different is it working as a journalist in Nigeria and South Africa?
I have also worked as a journalist in the UK as well and the difference is the enabling environment. Everything you need to work with is provided for and the respect for the journalist is top-notch!
What professional steps did you take to get to your present career position?
To be honest, it is a very long journey. I got a glimpse of how my career should go when I was attached to The Guardian Newspaper in Lagos during my 300-level industrial training- I just knew this was what I wanted. So, during my youth service in Jigawa state, I got a taste of working in the broadcast media- radio – I really loved but still decided to do print and after school, I got my first job as a fresh graduate with Leadership Newspapers in Abuja.
It was a tough journey, what I was experiencing especially as it had to do with career development and finance did not match my progress book, so I had to re-strategise. I took advantage of the internet- Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook to seek for new ways I could improve my career and opportunities that will help me. I dedicated my time every day to do this.
Then, grace and luck found me because I was persistent and did not give up. I got my first break in 2013, when I was invited by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, FARA, to report on the proceedings of the 6th Africa Agricultural Science Week conference in Accra, Ghana. I also won a grant to undertake an investigative story on traditional medicine from the Africa Academy of Sciences and in 2014.
This birthed my advocacy programs on Science Communication in Africa and I have been invited by universities and institutions in Nigeria like the Centre of Excellence in Reproductive Health Innovation, CERHI, a World Bank-supported program at the University of Benin, Nigeria, the almighty Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities – this was one speaking engagement that was so dear to me, because I had the privileged opportunity to speak to all the vice-chancellors of Nigerian universities that attended the conference at Kwara State University, Illorin. I was glad that I was able to create a niche and opportunity for myself with sheer hard work, discipline and persistence. I did not stop, I kept on looking for an opportunity to grow my career when the position of the regional deputy editor for SciDev.Net came up, I delved into it and here I am
Share with us your present job role and what you are doing to enhance your skills and career?
I am the regional deputy editor for SciDev.Net, the world’s leading free source of news, views and analysis about science and technology in the developing world. I am responsible for editorial decisions and content that goes into our edition. I am responsible for guiding journalist in Sub-Saharan Africa working into producing excellent news copies that will make an impact in people’s lives and the community. I am constantly looking for journalists that are open to join the team and produce excellent news.
Any other issues you want to speak on?
Yes, to be honest, God has been good to me and I have been quite lucky in my career. I will not play down the part my hard work and sacrifice contributed to my journey, I am in a good place in my career. I want to encourage journalists not to give up. It may seem as though our job is a thankless one, but we know that we contribute to shaping the world.
I am already doing this at a small scale, but plan to make time for this training on a large scale. I know for sure how useful it was for me when I had the training in South Africa. And for science journalists, I coordinate activities for the association of science journalist in Nigeria for those willing to join, I will be happy to have them. The association had some setbacks but we are resurrecting it back to life. As Jackie Opara brand, I have been mentoring young people, undergraduates or graduates aspiring to take up space in the media industry.
For some, I use my contacts to fix them with my media friends, basically, guide them through whichever aspect they want. I also do have a passion for science communication – fortunately, my organisation is keen on this- I am looking forward to the point where scientist will use available tools to communicate their work to the people, engage with policymakers in using science to solve Africa’s problems.
Originally published in Media Career Development Network