What meaning are we talking about? What significance? In this age of information overload, journalism is facing some seemingly intractable problems, one of which is the breakdown in the trust of readers and viewers of many of our journalistic contents. Senior journalists have been responding to this trust deficit differently: some with a lot of concern; others with unrelenting contempt and perhaps cynicism. Dapo Olorunyomi is one of those who have been responding to it with a deep concern principally by framing the issues involved intelligently and setting up, and helping to set up, institutions that have been mulling over the issues.
Driven by moral courage, believing that critical, creative and investigative journalism is still in a putative phase in our country, Olorunyomi has been an implacable fighter for a restoration of its dignity and nobility.
How do we design publications that will enlighten and entertain readers in equal measure with greater social, moral and political awareness? How do we make sure that journalistic mediums don’t just become pseudo-platforms for image burnishing for demagogues and plunderers? As journalists do we just dump down on our readers or create the market that will elevate their tastes? How do we retrain, mold and remold prospective media workers who have been badly trained by their colleges? These are some of the many critical questions that remain constant in a region of Dapo’s mind. His capacity to theorize the issues involved had helped in many ways to build human and material resources for Nigerian journalism. As he carries out this important duty, his moral intelligence insists on high standards. Participants – trainers and trainees, mentors and mentees – at the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism’s workshops and training clinics can bear witness to this.
Long before he became a prime mover of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism and The Premium Times, he had worked in The Guardian, The Herald, African Concord, The African Guardian, TheNEWS, TEMPO and P.M. NEWS. For over thirty years that Dapo has worked in these places, one distinctive high energy that he has always displayed is that of a mentor among mentors. He has the uncommon gift to see talent in young reporters and writers, and he always knows how to patiently bring out the best in them. All those who have had the good fortune of being trained by him have blossomed to become top professionals today.
Lillian Ross, in Here But Not Here, a very fascinating memoir of her years at The New Yorker, wrote, among other things, about William Shawn, who edited The New Yorker for 35 years: ‘‘He took a personal interest in each writer, forming relationships that would make all of them feel secure and enable them to do their best work.’’ Ross the great writer, who was one of the pioneers of New Journalism, may just well be speaking of Dapo Olorunyomi the Nigerian editor who always relates to his junior colleagues because he believes strongly that he owes them obligations. Ever confident of his own prodigious talent, Dapo is never afraid of being overshadowed or intimidated by the constellation of stars or rising stars in his firmament. Indeed, he is always excited by bright and knowledgeable young writers and reporters, not just because they make his own job as an editor easier but as Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker, used to say ‘‘the future is in his head.’’ In Dapo’s head, in his hands, as a writer, editor, and publisher, stories become so lucid, so informed and immensely entertaining. For him, reporting is artistry itself. He believes that his job is to expose and explain both simple and complex things. And what a wonderful job he has made of it all these turbulent years of outrage and despair and struggles. Dapo could pass for one of the editors that J.D. Salinger, the novelist, once described as ‘‘the most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors,’’ for he tirelessly plays the role of editor as an artist with infinite compassion and amazing graciousness.
All conscientious editors know that excellent editing demands deep concentration and devotion to details as they go through every tedious process of making sure that a writer’s facts, logic, syntax, grammar, words, and sentences conform to the beauty of the language and the trilling wonder of journalism. What is not always immediately known and appreciated is that conscientious editors live for their reporters and writers. As challenging as the task of editing was in African Concord, in The African Guardian, in TheNEWS, TEMPO and P.M.NEWS, where I had worked with Dapo, he enjoyed it tremendously. He was always eager to breathe life into stories in order to make them fit for print. He has always committed himself to clear thinking and astonishing pieces of writing. I should quickly add that he was not averse to incendiary writings if they would help to expose crooks, dictators, assassins and executive robbers in government and other powerful and sacred places.
Olorunyomi respects ideas and facts which he uses to broaden his own intellectual range. He cares for originality. Sometimes, he could be too indulgent with brilliant imaginative writers, but generally, he is genuinely democratic in the newsroom and outside of it. His open elitism and sophistication never prevent him from relating to and bonding with everyday people. His sophisticated mind is a result of his voracious reading habit. Yet, his intellectualism is never narcissistic, it is never sanctimonious. I don’t know what books he would be reading as he joins the band of senior citizens, but I know that as a bright young man in the Department of Literature in English at the University of Ife, he used to read a lot of V.S. Naipaul’s non-fiction. When Naipaul traveled to the Caribbean Islands, Indonesia, Iran, East Africa, India etc etc. you would think that he took Dapo Olorunyomi along. For as he smoked his cigarettes and gulped his beer, Olorunyomi would regale you with Naipaul’s wonderful stories and the enchanting sentences of his travelogues. Dapo knows that you can never become a remarkably elegant and inventive writer with moral intelligence, deep insights, and striking intimacies if you are not an imaginative reader.
Dapo is a restless soul. A wonderful risk taker. He loves traveling in new, different directions. He believes that new world, new horizons, new frontiers belong to all risk takers. As those who have worked with him as a journalist, as a pro-democracy activist and a cultural worker can testify, if an assignment is not dangerous and challenging Dapo is not always interested in it. Dapo may be reticent about those difficult patriotic tasks, but the fact speaks eloquently for itself: he has been, and he remains, a fierce fighter for egalitarian ideals. He supports all good causes endlessly, truthfully and gracefully. Many of his friends are often worried that he is too carefree and lighthearted about problems that need urgent attention. I say carefree, not careless. He sometimes behaves like a bohemian – maybe age will temper that now. It seems to me that this carefree nature is part of the complexity of Dapo’s life which he has deliberately made simple. More crucially, he hates becoming an object of pity or a burden to anyone.
As Dapo turns sixty at this difficult moment for journalism, and for the majority of our countrymen and women, his spirit of doggedness should inspire us to build institutions and a country that we will all be proud of. Dapo Olorunyomi is a shining example of what was possible in the past, what is possible in the present and many possibilities of the future. if we all resolve to be smoking guns of principles, to be strong and constant agents of positive change, in our different stations in life. I respect his strength of character and his sense of higher purpose. May his mind remain sound.
*Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor of TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS, read this tribute at a special panel organized by the Lagos Books and Arts Festival on November 9, 2017, in celebration of Dapo Olorunyomi