Q&A: TheCable’s Simon Kolawole

Simon Kolawole is the founder and chief executive officer of TheCable, a digital newspaper and our first partner newsroom in Nigeria.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Simon Kolawole, founder and CEO of TheCable

Why did you start TheCable?
I worked all my life as a newspaper journalist. I loved the smell of the newsprint and the editing process. But, online, the speed you can deliver and access information is unmatched. I started TheCable in 2014—when it still wasn’t glaring that the world is going digital—to report on politics and business in a refreshing way, going beyond the headlines and the press releases, investigating and giving meaning to stories and covering communities that are historically uncovered, especially vulnerable people in Nigeria, such as those living in poverty and widows. In the past 6+ years, we’ve won a couple of awards and recognitions for our work.

What makes TheCable special?
The first word that comes to mind is professional. While there are more than a thousand online publications in Nigeria, many of them do not follow standard ethics and rules of journalism. Our journalism is respected. Well, we actually call ourselves an online newspaper—so we tell people, imagine a newspaper without the newsprint—because Nigerians are used to buying a printed newspaper. And the term ‘online newspaper’ evokes that sense of professionalism and ethical standards. While we are a young organization, we have a staff of 40+ individuals, generating original articles and photographs, and conducting investigations.

I’m sure that through your investigative work, you could have upset a lot of people in Nigeria. How do you manage that?
We were under military rule for so many years and that comes with its own challenges as it steeps into the culture: there is no accountability under military rule. We’ve lived under democratic rule for more than 20 years now, and people are still not willingly sharing information. So when we end up publishing our work, threats come our way in different forms: through lawyers or losing advertisers because of a particular story. But we don’t succumb to such threats. I’d rather we shut down and go home if that were to happen.

How has the newsroom changed over the past years?
At the beginning experienced journalists were not enthusiastic about working for an online publication and believed they had more reverence in print news organizations. What we’ve done over the years is recruit young journalists, even fresh graduates, and train them, building our own internal experts who can train younger journalists at different levels of their career. In terms of operations, the transition to remote work over the past year because of COVID-19 has been difficult. In addition to the struggles of Zoom, there were curfews in place in many parts of Nigeria that also made reporting from the field difficult. We are coping though, doing our best and picking our battles. I’d rather if COVID just went away, that I’d read it in history books instead of living it myself!

I normally tell young people that I have lived through two different Nigerias: there is a Nigeria under military rule, and there is a Nigeria under democracy. I’ve practiced journalism in both eras, and I tell them that I prefer to practice journalism in a democracy.

You’ve chosen fact checking, criminal justice and climate change for the open positions. Have you covered these topics in the past? And why did you pick these three?
We have covered criminal justice and climate change and we’ve done fact checking before but reporting has been few and far in between because our resources are scarce. To cover politics alone, we cover two houses of parliament, the legislature of each of the 36 Nigerian states, the political parties, business and other economic industries, etc. So we haven’t been able to dedicate adequate attention and time to these beats.

People have been complaining and feel voiceless: the general sense is that newspapers are busy reporting on billionaires and businesses and no one is reporting the people. Now we’ll have regular reporting on those beats.

How do you explain the importance of the free press to young people?
I normally tell young people that I have lived through two different Nigerias: there is a Nigeria under military rule, and there is a Nigeria under democracy. I’ve practiced journalism in both eras, and I tell them that I prefer to practice journalism in a democracy. During military rule, the censorship was intense, with officials going through your stories with a fine tooth comb. The risks did not entail just being arrested and taken to court. The bigger risk was you disappearing. Under military rule, we did not become compliant but the cost was a lot, so we had to self censor to stay alive. We lost many colleagues. A journalist who disappeared in 1996 is still missing, no body, no bones. Now, we can speak more freely, doing stories that have brought about change. These days, I can still criticize the president.

Foreign journalists in Nigeria tend to write for foreign audiences. What distinctions do you see between their coverage and that of TheCable?
Many journalists have a template when writing on Nigeria, and foreign media often plays into its own prejudices as it serves a different audience. For example, when there is an election, they will mention the poverty levels, that the north is majority Muslim and the south is majority Christian, etc. Someone on Twitter even drew this comparison with the U.S. elections and how it would have been reported differently if the U.S. were an African country.

But, Nigeria is a country of 200 million people with over 250 ethnic groups. We have Christians in the north and Muslims in the south. That doesn’t match the template, though. Many issues even bring these groups together. They’re not enemies.

As Nigerians, we are able to report with context and nuance because of what we know. We know, too, for example, that the country has mechanisms to manage crises, even in times of high tension.

What is the benefit of partnering with Report for the World on your coverage?
The fact that we can have three desks devoted to this coverage! Fact checking is vital; fake news is creating a lot of problems. We’ll also be able to focus on neglected people in jails, in poverty, etc. and the impact of climate change on all these people. Secondly, I’m excited to be a part of Report for America going global as well as gaining technical knowledge through our partners to improve our journalism practice.