While examining culture journalism in Nigeria, there’s a law of six degrees of separation one quickly encounters: You are always six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from someone associated with NEXT newspapers. I discovered this in the second half of 2014. The New Yorker’s archives had just been opened to non-subscribers and, in a short period of time, I encountered culture journalism of a quality I had never seen before. I thought to myself: surely there is something like this archived somewhere on the Internet about Nigeria too. So, I googled, followed hyperlinks down online rabbit holes, and, somehow, my search always led me close to the ghost of NEXT newspaper. The arts and culture desk of NEXT, edited by Molara Wood, is said to have been the place where young and eager writers were mentored into producing incisive and knowledgeable criticism of the cultural and creative industries. They produced reviews, interviews, commentary and reporting of quality akin to the New Yorker standard.
The culture desk of NEXT was not alone in this endeavour; after all names such as that of Jahman Anikulapo of Guardian Newspapers, on whose pages I read a weekly column about Jazz as a teenager, are also often associated with quality culture journalism. However, what NEXT had was a collective that had all the signs of becoming a lasting cultural institution.
Following its demise, the absence of the kind of mentorship and education NEXT gave those writers—a chance to work with the best editors, and covering a wide range of assignments while getting paid decently—is one of the reasons for the recent paucity of quality culture journalism. There are no prestigious schools of journalism, and the traditional news publishing houses already struggle to pay even their most established journalists. It is indeed money that caused the demise of NEXT in 2011, leaving in its wake aggrieved writers, like Ikhide Ikheloa the literary critic, who still haunt its publisher, Dele Olojede on social media, requesting for the money he owes them. Since then, there has not been a Nigerian Hub of culture journalism with the verve and quality of NEXT. Culture journalism in Nigeria is now left, largely, to writers managing once-in-a-week arts and culture pages in traditional print newspapers writing press releases and the occasional book/movie/event review, or foreign magazines with occasional spotlights on the country.
The money problem is not unique to Nigeria. Commercial journalism has struggled to remain financially viable, and arts and culture pages are often the first to be thrown overboard to save the sinking ship—for want of a better metaphor. Art critics are fired without replacements, reviews are reduced to the minimum word counts possible, and culture journalists are drafted to cover the more appealing business and political news.
Nigeria’s case is, however, peculiar because arts and culture which the journalist is supposed to cover (until recently) is accorded zero value. Cultural institutions are left to rot, literally, as in the case of the National Theatre in Orile Iganmu in Lagos, and the role of salvaging what remains of the culture and traditions of the people is left to foreign institutions that seem to be the only ones ready to attach monetary value to cultural endeavours. It is often joked about that the search for important archival information in print is best carried out at on the roadside, with groundnut sellers the primary consultants. Films in archives are often taped over, photographs burnt, and museums and libraries are all but none-existent.
All of these imply that the autodidactic journalist interested in bootstrapping, in the absence of proper mentorship channels, is faced with an unnecessarily uphill task. Even those who should know better—news agencies, journalists, academics—also treat cultural artifacts with disdain. Or how does one explain the erasure of the entire NEXT web archive by its owner after its closure. All that rich content forever lost to the ephemerality of the Internet, except for scraps and remnants salvaged by writers, who had the good sense of saving their draft copies on personal drives, and posted on weblogs. Even before the days of NEXT, the low-cost, democratic nature of writing on the Internet had offered a lifeline to cultural journalists. Weblogs in the late nineties and early noughties produced cultural commentary that could not be found in the traditional news outlets. Teju Cole’s Modal Minority, which eventually became the seed for his Everyday Is for the Thief, is one of the better examples of this.
Before long, however, blogging in Nigeria became a profession of kleptomaniacs. If NEXT was the Shangri-la of culture journalism in Nigeria, the blogosphere became its wild-wild west. The Janus-faced gossip/celebrity blogger, Linda Ikeji—icon for all that is good and evil about the Nigerian blogosphere—has often been accused of poaching content from other blog and websites with neither permission nor acknowledgment; the proliferation of copy-paste blogs like hers—as they are called—facilitated by the low barrier to entry brought by WordPress and Blogspot, has made it more difficult to find informed and nuanced culture content about Nigeria, from Nigeria, on the Internet. In spite of these challenges, the Internet is the new frontier for culture journalism in Nigeria; new magazine-styled blogs like Sabinews.com owned by Toni Kan and Peju Akande, olisa.tv, and metropole.ng with its focus on Abuja, have risen out of that blogging wild west to provide cultural commentary and criticism alongside political commentary, and the more tabloidy, Dailymail/TMZ-styled content that drives viewership. It is on these websites, and that of other international magazines, that a new breed of culture writers like Dami Ajayi, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, and Emmanuel Iduma now offers their commentary on literature, music, film, photography, etc., for public viewership. That the memory of NEXT lingers on like that of a beloved granny long after its demise is not a celebration of its excellence, but an indication of the recent stagnancy of culture journalism in Nigeria, but the rise of new online magazines and the increasing interest in cultural and creative industries in the country all point to a renewal of culture journalism in the country. What is needed NEXT (pun intended) is the emergence of more and longer lived NEXT-like institutions: institutions devoted to the exploration of contemporary and historical cultural issues with quality writing, and the mentorship of a new generation of journalists – backed hopefully, by money that is not tied to the whims of a fickle political class.