Toyosi Ogunseye has chalked up a string of awards as she continues her meteoric rise to the top in journalism, a profession she veered into from a background in Biochemistry.
An insatiable reader, smart and focused, Ogunseye, who autographs her work with excellence, is a team player. Her rapid rise to editorship of the Sunday Punch was quickly followed by her appointment as Head, West Africa, BBC World and on recently, she was elected as the Vice President of World Editors Forum. In this interview with the Sunday Sun, she says, “I am just starting.”
Where and how did you receive the news of your nomination as the Vice President of WEF?
I was in Scotland for the yearly WAN/IFRA World News Media Congress. The President and Vice President of the World Editors Forum are elected by the WEF Board made up of impressive journalists from all over the world. I had been on the board for about three years and some of my colleagues on the board put my name forward as Vice President. I accepted the challenge and was most honoured when they voted for me to be the next VP. This was announced at the congress on June 1.
Were you expecting it or did it just happen?
I was surprised when other board members nominated me. I was just contented to be on the board learning from some of the best editors in the business. Even though I was surprised that they wanted me to lead, I was also inspired by their confidence in me and told myself that I was going to rise to the occasion. They voted overwhelmingly for me and I’m grateful.
You have achieved a lot in the media at a young age. What would you have loved to be or do if you were not in the media industry?
I would have loved to be a surgeon. I really like to make a difference in people’s lives and put a smile on their faces. I tried to study medicine but didn’t make the cut-off mark, hence Biochemistry.
Where would you say the high academic exploits, success, and awards are coming from: dad or mum?
Both of them. My mother is an incredibly hardworking businesswoman. I don’t know anyone who works harder than my mum and the truth is that I don’t have half of her industry. I really don’t know how to describe my mother without sounding like I’m exaggerating. My dad is a brilliant management consultant and excellence is his watchword. For him, you must show evidence of constant growth. He detests mediocrity.
Could you mention the numerous awards you won over the years?
That’s a long list and I’m grateful for each one. I take every appreciation of my craft seriously.
Apart from academics what does Toyosi like to do as a person?
Cooking. I’d like to be a chef, so I’m going to culinary school soon and I will take my annual leave to work as an intern chef in France or Italy. That would really make me happy. Good food fascinates me a lot. I like to entertain my friends with lovely meals when I can and I think I know most of the good restaurants in Lagos. I also love skincare; I make my own soap and cream. My friends have asked me to make a business out of it and I might, one day.
How do you see the fact that women are not rising like the men in the media industry? What could be the reason? Where you have one female editor, there must be five to six male editors, it is not so in other professions. Why?
It is getting better now but the newsroom is still masculine. When I teach and interact with female mass communication students, they are not too keen on print journalism; most of them want to be broadcasters. If we are not attracting young women to the newsrooms, how do we get female editors or managers? The rigour and long hours do not make newsrooms attractive to some women. It’s tough balancing family with journalism and I salute women who pull it off. Because of these challenges and others, some women stick to less challenging beats where progression is limited. To be an editor, you need to be a good news person with experience in politics, business, investigations, etc. So if women are not on these beats where there is a clear progression to editorship, the newsroom will continuously be male-dominated. Another factor is the management. I have been blessed to have male bosses who are blind to gender. My bosses in The Sun, News Star, Punch, and BBC didn’t/don’t care about my gender. All they cared/care about was/is a good job. And that is rare, I consider it a blessing and I remain grateful to them.
What was growing up like? What fond memories do you have? Was there any low moment?
I grew up in a strict home and we were not allowed to watch television. My father bought three newspapers daily and I had to write a summary of the story that I liked the most. It’s no surprise that I became a journalist. I read novels so much that my friends wonder why I have not written a book. My dad bought me a small carton of novels weekly that I often finished reading the same week. There were two booksellers at Palm Grove Bus Stop and Marina that my dad would go to every weekend and bring me a small carton of books. Reading is my first love. I would listen to music and read novels round the clock. I always had a novel. I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandmother and I think that was where I first learnt hard work, organization and managing resources. She was the matriarch of our family and ran everything and everyone successfully. My primary and secondary schools were close to her house so I went to her daily after school. After lunch, I would join her in the market. I lacked nothing but was not spoilt. She was present in the lives of all her grandchildren and her death two years ago left us shattered. She knew where everyone was at every point. Even as an undergraduate in University of Lagos, my grandma sent weekly meals to me. She wasn’t educated but took a lot of pride in the education of her grandchildren and nothing was too much for her to give us.
She told everyone who cared to listen about the exploits of her grandkids and she celebrated all our wins. As young as two years old, I would sit with her in the shop even though she had help. We would discuss non-stop. She hardly used banks and my job was to separate the five naira notes in the heap of profits daily. I’m just glad that she died knowing how much I love her.
What has gingered you to be where you are today? Is it personal attribute or seeing a role model somewhere, and who is that role model?
First, my upbringing at home and secondly, I had managers who helped me become the person I am today but I’m just starting, God hasn’t finished with me yet. I just told you about my parents and grandma. My uncles and aunties are also goal-oriented and I’m from a family where every child’s excellence is the responsibility of everyone. My uncles and aunties attended my PTAs and knew my teachers. It’s very difficult to be insolent in my family; it is not tolerated. Every child’s report card was perused by everyone, so you couldn’t hide. Then, I have had really hardworking bosses. I have been managed professionally by really tough men who don’t take no for an answer. All my bosses were men who went the extra mile and there was nothing like excuses in their dictionary. They worked so hard, persevered and when they saw I was willing, they showed me the ropes. For them, it was either go hard or go home. I have told the story about how the then News Editor at The Sun, Musa Ebomhiana, gave me my first chance; there was nothing like too much work for him. My first line editor, Mr. Dipo Kehinde and I would set out around 9:00am, to visit a minimum of three police stations daily for stories and I had to write three crime features daily. That was a minimum of 15 features weekly. And that was just crime; I had to contribute to the health, environment, politics, and business desks. The then Daily Editor, Mr. Femi Adesina, defended me and defended my work with all his heart. The Saturday Editor then, Mr. Steve Nwosu, would not close the paper if he had not spoken to me. Do you know what that meant? That the editor of one of Nigeria’s biggest Saturday papers would not go to bed until he spoke to a 20-year old undergraduate? He would call me and say, ‘Toyosi, I’m about to close my paper, do you have any scoop for me?’ And because I knew he would ask, I tried often to keep an exclusive for him even though I was with the daily paper. My second line editor, Mr. Rotimi Williams, was not satisfied with covering crime in Nigeria. We went to Cotonou, Benin Republic, almost weekly to cover crime. I knew all the smuggling routes, illegal arms manufacturers, receivers of stolen goods, etc at Nigeria’s borders. My first editor at the Punch, Mr. Casmir Igbokwe, insisted that I wrote the cover story weekly in addition to filling all the crime pages and investigations. The Daily Editor, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, would include me in big deployments of the daily paper even though I was with the Sunday paper. The then Controller of Publications at the Punch, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, would see me at the gate, park his car and ask me what I was working on and give better direction. Sometimes, he would ask me to join him in his investigations. I remember when he wrote about me in his column, which was quite popular then. Everyone was calling my parents to congratulate them, even my grandma heard about it as her customers who read Punch were the first to tell her in the market. Let’s not even talk about my next line editor, Mr. Joseph Adeyeye, who taught me editing. He was extremely thorough and hardworking. He would make me edit Sunday Punch minimum of five times weekly, everything mattered – from text to colours, to lines, pictures, headlines, punctuations, news currency, etc. I would go home and wonder if there was no easier way of earning a living (laughter and laughter). My current line manager, Solomon Mugera, who is a news guru, is clear about the BBC vision and expects me to lead Anglophone and Francophone West Africa to meet its part of the 500 million 2020 BBC target. This involves getting BBC Hausa, BBC Afrique, BBC Igbo, BBC Pidgin and BBC Yoruba, to deliver on reaching more audiences in West Africa. I was and I’m still properly trained by the best. So what you see today is both nature and nurture.
While you are soaring high, some other young people are taking their lives in various ways especially with sniper. What do you say to young people?
You have to be determined to make it in life. Honour God, honour yourself, honour those in authority and honour your craft. Don’t look at what anybody is doing, what car they are driving, their expensive phones or the designer clothing they adorn. Whatever you do, try to be the best. Just be focused and keep looking for opportunities. Better yourself at every chance you get.
Believe in yourself and don’t listen to negative talk. Be with positive people that support you and don’t hesitate to let negative vibes go. Totally shun negative company. Life is sometimes hard but your break will come if you keep at it, it often does. You just have to be the biggest champion of yourself and be irrevocably committed to your goals.
As an editor at the Punch Newspaper, did you get to a point where you wanted to throw in the towel? Were there challenging moments?
Yes, being an editor is gruelling work; I can’t quantify how tasking the job is. Apart from the editorial content and managing people, I also had advert and circulation targets.
But I had so much support from family, friends and the management and board of Punch that included Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, late Mr. Wale Aboderin, Mr. Ademola Osinubi, and Mr. Adeyeye who believed so much in me. On days when I felt like throwing in the towel, I couldn’t because of them. I just couldn’t let them down, so I trudged on.
How do you handle male admirers?
I don’t take admiration from people for granted; I thank them and move on.