Every Friday, you wrote a 700-word piece about art, culture, metro life, and the intersection of these. One reader, expressing his frustration with your content and style, called your work ‘flower stories’, though to his credit, you did actually write about flowers once. Flowers are beautiful but have no utilitarian value; they are pretty useless. Who has time to stop and smell the roses when the National Assembly is serving up drama, Boko Haram tragedy, and federal ministers scandals? The serious stuff, according to the reader, was politics with associated issues.
There were five columnists in all. Four of you wrote flower stories, one politics. In time, all but the political column were rested.
The space for culture journalism appears to be increasingly shrinking, the most recent casualty being the Sunday Sun Revue in The Sun newspaper. At a time when readers have migrated online, major Nigerian newspapers which might be said to have something going in terms of culture, have failed to create the same space on their online platforms or at least transfer content there from print. The Nation online has on its menu, News, politics, business, editorial, sports, health, entertainment, education, but no arts or culture section. Ditto Punch, ThisDay, Vanguard, and The Sun. Where they have a semblance of culture content, the stories are not current.
It is worse in broadcast media. Culture stories rarely get into the news, at its most benevolent, a station might have a weekly 30-minute culture programme, but even then, the programme is rerun ad infinitum.
In the jostle for space between the political journalist and the culture journalist, the latter is set up to come up short, thanks to prejudiced readers and an underdeveloped society. The political writer has scores of readers, and he is more blessed with ideas. The political commentator never runs out of subject matter; events in the country ensure that he never lacks inspiration. The basic requirements for his trade are access to news and a modicum of indignation. There are enough tragedies and scandals in one day to fill the front, back and inside pages of newspapers, and enough readers congregated at the vendors’ stand to read, if only for the sake of argument. Just as he is running out of material, another government official is accused of stealing billions of naira, someone is abducted – sometimes all in one day, and his outrage is rekindled. His topics are urgent and ‘relevant’. The political writer is not judged for his prose but for his content only. Sometimes he may not even get his tenses right, but who cares? There is a lot he gets away with so long he delivers the news or judgment squarely. He profits from re-enacting the gory and embarrassing events in the country. While the culture journalist is labouring to enlighten a reluctant audience, well-meaning colleagues advise him to abandon his calling and join the camp of the political writer. ‘There’s a lot wrong with this country that needs to be addressed,’ they will say. If you are not persuaded by the abundance of inspiration, what about the money?’
The urge to convert is very present. Inspiration, space, readership, all guaranteed. Now, add to these, money. The beat is better rewarded than many others. The political journalist gets invited to the big events where he receives the much talked about but often denied ‘brown envelope’. That is an additional incentive to remain in the field. The fulltime culture journalist depends on his salary, which in many media houses is irregular and unlike his colleagues, there are no bribes to keep him going, well, unless he defects. Therefore, many who start out as culture journalists are eventually lured to the other side. Meanwhile, the freelance culture journalist hardly ever gets paid for his contribution. As of today, no national newspaper is known to commission reviews or any writing of the sort.
In Nigeria, the culture journalist is not only competing with the political journalist, but also with the entertainment (gossip, actually) and sports journalists. The Linda Ikeji blog is a handy example of the popularity of these fields.
Like literary fiction, culture journalism seems to be by, and for the consumption of an exclusive group. But whether or not it is in the mainstream, the challenge is to keep it flowing. More channels need to open up, in print, online, and wherever the audiences are. And writers need to be paid reasonably for their work. Despite its bohemian disposition, the writing life requires some comfort, at least in Nigeria, money to fuel the generator. The fee gives the writer the motivation to go to his desk, and the publisher the prerogative to demand quality prose. Only when culture journalists are adequately rewarded can there be dedicated culture reporters, columnists, book critics, film critics and music critics; only then can talents in the field proudly retain their identity and not migrate to the currently ‘greener pastures’; these things, considered with this What’s On Africa and British Council initiative aimed at building the capacity of culture journalists in Nigeria, hopefully, the field will begin to bloom.