Award-winning investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, was one of the discussants of the EnterpriseCEO tweet chat #Enterprise Conversation last week.
Soyombo shared his investigative journalism strategies, advice for media startup owners and other thoughts on his career.
From being a campus journalist to becoming, perhaps the best investigative journalist in the world, did you ever envisage that you will go far to this point when you were at the University of Ibadan?
There is no chance I’m any close to the best in the world or perhaps the best. I’m far too ambitious in my pursuit of excellence to already start viewing myself in the league of the best. No chance.
Let’s just say I’m on track; my career is still unfolding and we’ll have to see where it ends up. I’m hoping the number of good days ahead is more than the ones I’ve already witnessed.
But did I envisage that I’d come “this far”? To be honest, I never really knew how well I would do. I knew I had a promising career ahead, but how promising, no.
All I knew was I was giving campus journalism my best. And, really, that’s where I still am. I’m still working as hard as I ever have. I think that’s all I can promise.
My biggest journalism aspiration is to speak for the voiceless, fight injustice and related malfeasances, and generally help in driving societal change.
This, though, doesn’t change the reality that we’re in a very vain world where people’s abilities are judged on things like awards.
For my career growth, it means more people believe in my work& in my abilities. But it’s different for me – because I always believed in myself and the work I was putting into my craft. For the companies I’ve worked for, it’s given them brand visibility.
Behind these honours and awards, have there been critical times that you had thoughts of quitting from embarking on any project ‘investigation’, How do you get out of these nests of these critical times and fear?
Quitting? Never. As a matter of fact, the more impossible a story looked, the more I hungered for that breakthrough. And this is one of the most enjoyable things about investigative reporting – no two stories ever come with the same sets of challenges. That way, the job never becomes routine.
For instance, with the police and prison investigation, the basic challenge was how to avoid being beaten up. Well, it finally happened, but not from the source I prepared myself for. With the Yaba Left investigation, it was about how not to get injected with drugs meant for those battling the addiction.
With my undercover investigation on the disappearance of foodstuffs at IDP camps in Borno in 2017, it was the difficulty of securing access and the scorching Maiduguri sun. That Maiduguri sun can be crazy, I tell you.
I’ve faced numerous challenges while chasing a story, but giving up was never an option. All I do is keep my eyes on the finish line.
And I often remind myself that if I didn’t want to do difficult stories if all I wanted was to do the easy stories, how would my work stand out? How do you drive societal change by doing regular stories?
PLANNING is an important skill startup can learn from investigative journalism.
So many lessons. One, planning is important for any startup. For instance, I take risks. But a great deal of planning goes into insulating myself against the risks I take.
Two, grit. No startup can survive without grit from the founder and his/her team of supporters. Same way nobody does any solid investigative work without grit.
Three, there has to be a thirst for excellence. If all you have to offer is what everyone else is offering, just forget it. Your startup is already dead on arrival; you’re just awaiting burial date! There are so many but let me stop at these three.
It’s been said that a typical journalist cannot run a news company successfully, because they are not taught to manage news companies. Do you also believe in this remark?
Of course! A typical journalist, yes. And the keyword here is “typical”. Journalists don’t often like to hear it but it is the truth and it is a truth that is not localised to journalism.
Guess what, a typical lawyer will also fail when running a news company; a typical doctor would fail too, same as a typical engineer. I think nobody should aspire to be a typical anything.
I like for people to defy norms and conventions. Be a journalist but be a problem-solving one and know that you will solve more problems if you assemble a team rather than go alone.
And know that if you don’t want to go alone, you have to be flexible in your biz orientation. You either adapt your job to the realities of a biz climate or devise a unique survival model for your enterprise or you employ someone to do it for you.
One thing most startup companies lack when starting their endeavour is adequate preparation and requisite business knowledge, in your own case, what were those sacrosanct preparations you usually make before embarking on any investigation?
Many things. But I’ll discuss just one: long-term planning. I do not wake up today and hit the field tomorrow. I plan long-term.
My police and prison investigation was published in October 2019 but I had started planning it since 2017. My Yaba Left investigation came out in January 2020 but first conversations about it were in 2018.
My ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ investigation was published in June 2016 but I’d been replaying it in my head since May 2014! In all these gaps between conception and publication, I do a lot of research.
I also speak with a lot of people, play out all the scenarios in my head and sometimes write the story in my head! The period between conception and initiation is crucial for any business; it must be very well utilized.
You have helped most online news companies gain national relevance and prominence from nothingness, managing them as an editor, what were those ready-made and infallible skills that you bring on board to build these platforms?
I won’t say I have helped “most”; they’re just three: TheCable, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and SaharaReporters.
I also won’t say I helped them from “nothingness”. They all had done really well before me and they’re still doing so after me.
Even TheCable that I joined as the founding Editor, its CEO, @simonkolawole, had put in years of intense work & painstaking planning into the project before it got to the point where the founding team was recruited.
But I know, of course, that I added something.
How did I help? I’m someone who likes to lead by example before I delegate responsibilities to people. I’ll delegate but I’ll never delegate something I’ve never done, to my team members.
Previously experiencing what I’m making them experience means they know I’m not punishing them, which is important because I’m a hard worker. It also means I know how it feels to do that work, which in turn means I build empathy with them.
This empathy helps to create a bond that means people are willing to go the extra mile for me.
The end product is that whenever I lead a team, we end up punching above our weight; our overall productivity is always greater than the sum of our individual capabilities!
This doesn’t mean everyone I’ve worked with likes me; I think, no matter who you are, you cannot as a leader get everyone to back you. But if the majority do back you, you can consider your mission accomplished.
There are business threats that startups face at different stages of growth, how do you handle threats from government and people before, during and after the investigation?
I always anticipate potential threats ahead of time and then establish a clear line of action. There’s always a plan ahead; it doesn’t mean it will always work but there is at least a course of action to be taken when the threats come.
So startups should know ahead what formal and informal threats exist against them, and they should be ready to react.
Should we expect you to start your own investigative news company so soon?
Nothing is impossible. I could start it tomorrow, August 29, 2020, but I could also start it in January 2030. Or it may not happen at all.
I’m someone who doesn’t look too far ahead. Even when I make long-term goals, I break them into a series of small goals so that they don’t look that far-fetched.
I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but we’ll see.
If there are factors you want business owners to learn from the ways you do your work, what would those factors be?
That there is no shortcut to success. You have to go out and graft, and also learn how to work smart in the process. And that nothing is impossible. You only need to want it well enough to pay the price. If you want to make it happen!!!
You want to share a story with us? You want to advertise? You need publicity for a product, service, or event? Contact us on WhatsApp – +234 803 3018 881