Thursday, May 30, 2024
Ignite the mind.


My Media Story: to become a leading woman in media, create a table for yourself and perfect your niche – Jackie Opara-Fatoye

When Jackie Opara-Fatoye was nominated for our LightRay 100 women in Leadership Project, we were thrilled! For us, that spoke a lot about how she has impacted her space. When you listen to her speak, you can tell how passionate a journalist, editor, journalism coach and media communications consultant she is. Her insights and tips for women in media are on target. While she bagged her first degree in Mass Communication from the Madonna University, Okija, Nigeria, she has gone on to study media management at Fray College, South Africa and numerous certificate courses in science journalism, data and solutions journalism. She is a fellow of the United States National Press Foundation, Fellow Association of British Science Writers Diversity Scholar, and the regional deputy editor for SciDev.Net, a science and development media organization in the United Kingdom.

Take a chair, grab a drink and enjoyed this interview ‘meal’ with us.

By admin , in Ignite iThink! Super Conscious Woman Series , at October 17, 2023

We were so happy to receive your nomination for this interview. It shows you are making some impact within your circle of influence. And talking of influence, the digital space has now become the new currency, and for the media, its impact has been unpredictable. How important is this shift at this time in your career? And why do you think tech, AI, and digital skills are important for a journalist?

Thank you so much for your kind words. I have been in the journalism digital space for a while now, it is the space I am accustomed to – seeing that it has become more important for many media houses is energizing and encouraging for more people to come into the space.

I believe AI is an important tool for journalism – it surely will make journalism easier to do, without taking away the skills of the journalists. Change is a journey, if you miss the path, better get back in line or you go into extinction. You notice that some of the media houses that did not catch up with the digital space are struggling to stay relevant – this could be the same instance if journalists or media houses fall behind. Also, because Journalism involves gathering and analyzing datasets to determine if a story exists, AI will make this aspect of the job easier by cutting the time spent on this particular work at hand

What more do you think the media and development space can do more or gaps that you’ve identified need to be closed?

I think one thing the media houses need to do, is do more impact and solution journalism – they need to build trust and inspire hope in people. This helps the media to play a crucial role in improving the livelihoods and people and communities at large – stories that are able to influence policymakers to bring about the changes that the people need. One of the ways this can be done is if there are more collaborations – it is time we move from competition to collaboration – If more journalists and media houses collaborate, we will function more as the fourth estate of the realm – by serving as a bridge between the people and the government. Collaboration also works better in terms of looking for big and global funding. More conferences and symposiums for journalists and by journalists need to be held more frequently to become a strong voice in issues that affect not only Africa but the world at large.

The media is a powerful force of change – that has the capacity to influence people’s decisions and even mould character whether positive or negative. We need to be more aware of the power we possess as media personalities – this means we have to help young people by ensuring they receive news or media products through their own type of channel – because they have the staying power to consume other types of negative information – we have to find a well to break through their walls – if we do this, it will help a lot with misinformation – because now, they are watching, reading and listening to accurate and factual information about happenings and event around the World. Whether we like it or not, the Gen Zs have to ability to curb misinformation if we can break through their own channels of communication – this is one of the gaps we need to deliberately seek to close – engage with the young people through the channel they are on -to help break the scourge of dis-information

When was the first time you knew journalism was going to be your passion and career?

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a journalist. My dad always read newspapers and I always wondered how it was produced, he also always made sure that we watched the 9 PM news. I was then caught in between doing broadcast or print journalism – I earlier worked as a radio presented during my youth services years in Jigawa State [Northern Nigeria] Radio and then Freedom Radio, before I settled into print journalism and then moved on to the digital space. I like that I possess the ability to transform lives through stories, it makes me feel like I have some special powers – I look at myself as a powerful woman because of journalism – bringing to life issues that are able to improve livelihoods, help people with information that can save their lives.

Jackie Opara moderating at the SciDev.Net side event at the Africa CDC CPHIA conference in Kigali, Rwanda(December 2022). PC: Opara.

At what point did you feel your career was no longer just a job you showed up to? How did you pivot or even change the course of your career?

One time, a long time ago, I interviewed a woman living with HIV while I was working with Leadership newspaper in Abuja – I was so concerned that I didn’t want it to end until I found a way to connect her to a community of people living with HIV/AIDS – they took up her case, counselled her and showed her how to get treatment – it was at this point I knew how important my work is – and that was what introduced me to science and health journalism However, I noticed that science journalism was not in the front-burner of media channels, you hardly see any science news make the front pages of the newspapers or broadcast stations – I started to find ways where my work will receive attention and reach as many people as possible. So, I started searching for international media platforms to that publish African stories – through social media platforms – that was how I began my freelance journalism journey.

What were some of the struggles for you in the early stages of your career, and how did you overcome them?

It would be the abysmal payment or outright non-payment of salaries. You know when you have a lot of ideas on how to do your work and you see that there is no form of motivation whatsoever – That makes you lose steam. So, I decided to use Google and social media platforms to search for global journalism opportunities. I found some freelance writing opportunities but discovered I needed skills to break into the sector – so I paid and applied for some freelance journalism courses –That was how a new path forged for me, my stories have appeared in a lot of global media platforms including my stories have appeared in Research Africa, Nature News, SciDev.Net, Forskning & Framsteg, IPWATCH.ORG, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, the University World News and many more. I am currently the SciDev.Net Sub-Saharan Africa desk regional deputy editor.

Let me also mention that discipline, resilience, initiative, good communication and always seeking new knowledge to enhance my career were part of the main reasons I overcame the struggles – I made sure to rule out unnecessary excuses and always look for opportunities for growth – I also made sure to join journalism communities to network and stay in touch with some of my colleagues both local and international – because I mostly work for the international media, I sort of lost touch with some of my Nigerian colleagues but I found my way back and I am constantly seeking new connections with women in the media especially because I believe we mostly have similar challenges – coming together is always helpful – like a problem shared – is on its way of getting solved.

Do you still have any current challenges you’re trying to overcome?

I have a mindset that believes that challenges are part of life, it should be expected, Whenever they come, I deal with them as best as I can and move on. I like to say that silence is the enemy – when there are challenges and you don’t speak up and just bottle it in – as a journalist, – you stand a faster chance of getting a mental breakdown. I try to speak and solve whatever issue quickly and not dwell on them because the longer it takes you to speak up and solve the challenge, the bigger it becomes – so I try not to be silent in the face of any challenge.

What are some of the barriers you think have prevented you from hitting the career target you’ve set for yourself?

Initially, motherhood was a barrier, I had to step out of journalism for a while until I was able to balance motherhood and my career – It is working well now – but I have always reached every goal I set for myself, I set new goals every other year. Some may take time, but I don’t stop working on them until I see the results.

Jackie Okpara at the Africa Development Bank’s Africa Economic Conference in Mauritius. PC: Okpara.

And how do you plan to overcome them? Why is it important for you to overcome them?

Like I said earlier ‘silence is the enemy’ When there are challenges and you are confused on how to deal with them, first speak about it with someone you trust and are comfortable with – critically assess the issues – and be objective. I do judge myself a lot and I am not afraid to call myself out – known where I defaulted and make amends – when it becomes someone else, still break down the issues and always speak to someone who is in the best position to work with you to solve the challenge – and the most important aspect for me is adding prayers to the challenges – like communing with my ‘CHI’ [spirit] and praying to God. Also, I always make sure that I come with clean hands – always play my part and do what I need to do. If someone is deliberately trying to make life difficult for you – God and the universe will come through – it is good to note that the universe pays attention to the oppressed – if at any point these challenges are man-made, so long as your hands are clean – you will be vindicated. this is what I do and it has worked

What are some of the stories or projects you’ve done that were the most impactful in the course of your career?

The journalism fellowships I applied for got me the opportunity to work in South Africa and the United Kingdom – These experiences levelled me up and my freelance journalism blew up – my stories have appeared in a lot of global media platforms – until I became a force to reckon with in my sector. I coordinate affairs for the Nigerian Association of Science Journalists and one of the things I do is organise a freelance journalism masterclass to teach members and any journalist interested in taking the path on how to pitch stories for global media platforms.

One of the reasons that prompted the master classes was because members of the association started leaving to other beats – not really their fault 100 per cent but the organisation they work for transferred them to other beats – and the association kept dwindling – we then came up with the idea of the training – now we have more than 20 members, some of them started as full time freelance journalists, reporting for international platforms, some maintained their positions but started actively looking for opportunities to learn more, seek for grants for stories, fellowship, and new knowledge and because of that they have been able to move up in their career and the association is waxing stronger.

I have toured the world doing good stories and gaining experiences that are making an impact in the global science journalism and communication sector and also taking along with me journalists who have decided to take the path that I am on.

What career projection are you setting up for yourself you intend to meet up?

To evolve my skills, catch up and learn new ways of doing journalism. I also give myself a target of embarking on at least three new courses or fellowships in line with my niche of journalism every year.

Jackie Okpara With fellow Africa Science Journalists in Kigali, Rwanda. PC: Okpara.

What training programmes or short courses have you attended, which you applied on the job, made the most impact for you?

I have actually lost count, to be honest. I am big on knowledge and always seeking to know more – a lot of it has had a profound impact on my career path until now. I think I would talk about the first one that really did the first magic – that would be a course I did on freelance journalism – almost ten years ago – it ushered me into international reporting – and led me on to the path I am right now – and it doesn’t end there – there is still a lot more to achieve.

What suggestions will you give media owners or heads of media businesses to help boost morale, effectiveness, and reduce toxicity in the workplace?

There needs to be a total overhaul. The way is it run now, less value is placed on the journalists that do the work and risk their lives every day. Media organisations should be open to and create solid collaborations with global media players and develop projects that are fundable and will make impacts in the lives of people and communities at large- this is even what I say to journalists too – always go for projects that will create positives impacts – in doing that you are always paving ways to improve their own livelihoods.

If you were to reimagine your career, what would you do differently, starting today?

I have already done what I would have done differently because at the initial stage, I was not comfortable with payments and the working environment, so I found my way into the global media as an international journalist. I would have perhaps started earlier doing what I am doing now – reporting on the world stage.

How and what can women in media begin to do differently and better to hold their own space within the media industry?

Discipline – and create a table for yourself – always find a niche and perfect it such that when people think in that sector, your name will be mentioned.

Journalism is not a job that you do in hunger because how will you get innovative stories that will make an impact on an empty stomach? Also, this lack also makes many not see opportunities even if you place them under their nose. To be able to break free, journalists must actively and deliberately seek out opportunities – and I tell you, they are many out there waiting to be taken. They must look beyond their stomach and strive to move out of their level by setting goals that they need to achieve, short-term goals, long-term goals – to make it easy, break the goals into small pieces to keep them motivated. As they achieve the small goals, it keeps everything moving.

To women in media: “. . . .create a table for yourself – always find a niche and perfect it such that when people think in that sector, your name will be mentioned. Journalism is not a job that you do in hunger because how will you get innovative stories that will make an impact on an empty stomach? Also, this lack also makes many not to see opportunities even if you place them under their nose. To be able to break free, journalists must actively and deliberately seek out opportunities – and I tell you, they are many out there waiting to be taken. They must look beyond their stomach and strive to move out of their level by setting goals that they need to achieve, short-term goals, long-term goals – to make it easy, break the goals into small pieces to keep them motivated. As they achieve the small goals, it keeps everything moving.” – Opara.

Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud of yourself and continue to inspire you to do more?

Looking back at my journey, it seems as though I started from nothing – I spent a lot of time trying to find my footing. In retrospect, I am most happy that I did not give up, I had valid reasons to give up especially when I started having kids – so I always tell myself now: ‘Jackie, well done for not giving up!’ Because if I had, the journalist that I have trained so far – that are now doing well because they went through me to get to where they are – the fact that they are succeeding is a huge part of my accomplishment – there is no African country that I step into that I don’t have one or two journalists waiting to get me at the airport – I even avoid telling them so they don’t spend their money – hahaha. This is also the reason why I am moving strong – that I have a role to play in my sphere of influence and I am impacting the lives of people carrying the torch of change – and that they do not have to do this job in hunger.

What tips in personal development, career pursuit, network strategies, and wealth creation would you advise other women in media, including men, to tap into?

Discipline. They need to create time to learn new ways of doing journalism, be alert, scout for new opportunities and follow through. It is important to always upgrade your knowledge and strive towards excellence. In my journalism journey, I have worked with many editors who want different things, my stories have appeared in Research Africa, NatureNews, SciDev.Net Forskning & Framsteg, IPWATCH.ORG, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, Mail&Guardian, Afriscitech, University World News and many others, take it from me when I say, there are no short cuts.

I coordinate affairs for the Association of Science Journalists in Nigeria, also a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists I earlier said. I have seen lots of journalists get discouraged a lot due to lack of remuneration, so what I do now is share opportunities and speak to my fellow global editors to share opportunities too in their organisations for journalists to pitch stories. I also have a freelance journalism master class which was meant for science journalists but is now open to all journalists to learn how to pitch good stories and get paid for it. If you are not disciplined and constantly strive for excellence, you really cannot make a mark locally or globally as a journalist.

How do you balance your personal life, work, and family expectations? Which aspects give you the most challenges, and how were you able to overcome them?

My husband is so gifted with schedules and timing – maybe because of his military background, we operate like we are in the military – we plan our schedules together – including the kids in a way that it does not clash and everyone has their time to do work, school, the time we also need to be together as a family, the time for exercises – that’s really because of me, as I spend long hours sitting in front of the computer. We sort of also get our minds prepared when something happens to disrupt our well-planned schedule – the mind is a powerful thing – when you are well prepared in your mind that problems and challenges are a part of life, it kind of helps to prepare to re-organise yourself without so much pressure

Tell us something about the media industry you would like to see change for the better? And why is this change important?

I would like to see more partnerships among journalists and media owners – that is one of the ways that we can overcome some of the challenges in the media.

In the next 3-5 years, where do you see yourself?

I see myself helping to lead and develop impactful stories – stories that will be capable of changing the world and also be at the forefront of advocating for a better working environment for African journalists – we are somewhat excluded in opportunities that are able to move our career –I have lost count of many opportunities I lost because visas were denied. These are some of the issues I will be advocating for more firmly in the coming year– and also science journalism is at the centre of my heart – I will always carry the torch when it comes to science journalism – that is where you will always find me – leading the pack.

What are your current role and responsibilities you handle?

I am the regional deputy editor at SciDev.Net Sub-Saharan Africa desk. I edit, report and shape news coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa and for Africa Science Focus. A podcast that focuses on giving journalists in Sub-Saharan African countries a space to report news on science, health, technology, climate change, agriculture, education and development stories. In my position as the regional deputy editor, I work with freelance journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa to help shape news stories to make an impact and contribute to policymaking.

How do you think the Nigerian media can up its ante to compete more favourable with international media organisations?

There needs to be a total overhaul. The way is it run now, less value is placed on the journalists that do the work and risk their lives every day. Media organisations should be open to and create solid collaborations with global media players and develop projects that are fundable and will make impacts in the lives of people and communities at large- this is even what I say to journalists too – always go for projects that will create positives impacts – in doing that you are always paving ways to improve their own livelihoods.

If you were to reimagine your career, what would you do differently, starting today?

I have already done what I would have done differently because at the initial stage, I was not comfortable with payments and the working environment, so I found my way into the global media as an international journalist. I would have perhaps started earlier doing what I am doing now – reporting on the world stage.

Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud of yourself and continue to inspire you to do more?

Looking back at my journey, it seems as though I started from nothing – I spent a lot of time trying to find my footing -, in retrospect, I am most happy that I did not give up, I had valid reasons to give up especially when I started having kids – so I always say to myself, Jackie, well done for not giving up – because if I had, the journalist that I have trained so far – that are now doing well because they went through me to get to where they are – the fact that they are succeeding is a huge part of my accomplishment – there is no African country that I step into that I don’t have one or two journalists waiting to get me at the airport – I even avoid telling them so they don’t spend their money – hahaha. This is also the reason why I am moving strong – that I have a role to play in my sphere of influence and I am impacting the lives of people carrying the torch of change – and that they do not have to do this job in hunger

What tips in personal development, career pursuit, network strategies, and wealth creation would you advise other women in media, including men, to tap into?

It is important that you have a ‘nose for news’ and pitch it well in such a way that when an editor sees it, it sparks an interest – that is the first gateway – learning how to pitch.” – Opara-Fatoye.

Speak out anytime you feel you are not treated right. Office politics really scares me, but whether we like it or not, it happens – so I speak out without fear. I know some women do not speak out because they feel if they do, they may be at risk of losing their jobs – but then, if you are silent, you will allow people to create a narrative that is not associated with you and your brand. So, as women, we constantly how to make our voices heard.” – Opara-Fatoye.

Discipline. They need to create time to learn new ways of doing journalism, be alert, scout for new opportunities and follow through. It is important to always upgrade your knowledge and strive towards excellence. In my journalism journey, I have worked with many editors who want different things, my stories have appeared in Research Africa, NatureNews, SciDev.Net Forskning & Framsteg, IPWATCH.ORG, Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, Mail&Guardian, Afriscitech, University World News and many others, take it from me when I say, there are no short cuts. I coordinate affairs for the Association of Science Journalists in Nigeria, also a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists I earlier said – I have seen lots of journalists get discouraged a lot due to lack of remuneration – what I do now is share opportunities and speak to my fellow global editors to share opportunities too in their organisations for journalists to pitch stories. I also have a freelance journalism master class which was meant for science journalists but is now open to all journalists to learn how to pitch good stories and get paid for it. If you are not disciplined and constantly strive for excellence, you really cannot make a mark locally or globally as a journalist.

How and what can women in media begin to do differently and better to hold their own space within the media industry?

Discipline – and create a table for yourself – always find a niche and perfect it such that when people think in that sector, your name will be mentioned. Journalism is not a job that you do in hunger because how will you get innovative stories that will make an impact on an empty stomach? Also, this lack also makes many not see opportunities even if you place them under their nose. To be able to break free, journalists must actively and deliberately seek out opportunities – and I tell you, they are many out there waiting to be taken. They must look beyond their stomach and strive to move out of their level by setting goals that they need to achieve, short-term goals, long-term goals – to make it easy, break the goals into small pieces to keep them motivated. As they achieve the small goals, it keeps everything moving.

In your years on the job, have you ever experienced burnout, mental fatigue, or mental health crisis? How did you handle it? How can women and men in the media reduce burnout, and mental health breakdown, or prevent it?

I think this is one issue that is not talked about enough. For me, I have a husband who is meticulous with time – he found a way to plan our times around work and home, such that nothing clashes – We compartmentalize our schedules in short times and take breaks of 5/10 minutes every hour – I do same with my work so that my brain and my mind, my body work in a synchronized way. Once, you lose your sanity, you may not get it back 100 per cent. Whenever anything is too much for me, I take a break – I also let whoever is working with me at that time – For example – I give specific time when I can deliver a project – I will make sure that is balanced in terms of work deadlines and mental deadlines.

Let’s talk about online harrasment… have you experienced it in any form? Or any other threats on the job? How did you deal with it? What steps can women in media take to prevent or deal with online harrasment, etc?

I have not experienced online harassment – hopefully, I don’t. If I do, depending on what it is, I will know what to do then. Just like I said earlier, silence is the enemy – if you keep quiet in the face of oppression, you have more to lose – find a way to talk about it – look for someone who is able to solve it and find an amicable resolution –

I think one of the steps to take to prevent or deal with online harassment, especially for women in the media is to identify and report immediately, mute, block them and take their online security more seriously.

If you were to suggest women, indeed journalists in general, can up their ante on online security and how women deal with online harassment, what tips would you give?

My number one tip would be to disable locations – before I post whatever pictures I post online, I must have left that location. This is very important

What are some common mistakes you have observed journalist make in the course of their career you’ve observed? And why do you think this happens?

Not exploring enough. I noticed that since some have been boxed into poverty, they believe that there is no hope and some don’t have the discipline to follow through with new ways of doing journalism. They need to create time to learn new ways of doing journalism, be alert, scout for new opportunities and follow through. It is important to always upgrade your knowledge and strive towards excellence.

How do you chill, relax, while giving attention to your wellbeing?

Honestly, I am an indoor person. Work does really take me around a lot. But what I tried to do is explore different restaurants and cuisines, however, I prefer staying in my house and watching movies with my family. These days I watch quite a lot of Korean series (we both smiled at this. Korean movies are quite the hit in Nigeria this days (she grins broadly).

Talking about life skills, what kind of support do you think women in media and communications need to overcome different forms of barriers to excel and thrive? And why do you think having these kinds of support is important?

We need to support each other as women because we have similar issues because when we support ourselves our voices are louder. I am so happy that some organizations have taken account of specifically encouraging women to apply for positions, grants, and fellowships – I know that those organizations are aware of the home-front challenges women have. We are built for multi-tasking, so creating an enabling environment for women to thrive is the responsible thing to do.

What strategies would you recommend for women to break the gas ceiling into the management cadre in the newsroom and stay relevant?

Good work. The work will speak for you when you are absent during decision-making. No excuses, sometimes, there is a valid excuse, but if you look deep into your schedules, you will know you can make.

Jackie Opara-Fatoye, Regional deputy editor, SciDev.Net. PC: Opara.

“I had valid reasons to give up especially when I started having kids – so I always tell myself now: ‘Jackie, well done for not giving up!’ Because if I had, the journalist that I have trained so far – that are now doing well because they went through me to get to where they are – the fact that they are succeeding is a huge part of my accomplishment – there is no African country that I step into that I don’t have one or two journalists waiting to get me at the airport– Jackie Opara-Fatoye.

What tips would you give women on how to navigate the office politics in a male dominated environment where, for example, bias about women in top positions is seen by some men as emasculating?

Speak out anytime you feel you are not treated right. Office politics really scares me, but whether we like it or not, it happens – so I speak out without fear. I know some women do not speak out because they feel if they do, they may be at risk of losing their jobs – but then, if you are silent, you will allow people to create a narrative that is not associated with you and your brand. So, as women, we constantly how to make our voices heard.

What is the navigation path for women who are freelancers or staff who want to transcend into becoming international journalists, such as yourself, while based in Nigeria?

I started with taking courses that will enhance how I can pitch stories that can fit into the global media while addressing African issues, taking the route of impact and solutions. It is important that you have a ‘nose for news’ and pitch it well in such a way that when an editor sees it, it sparks an interest – that is the first gateway – learning how to pitch. Learn how to drop cold emails to editors – search for media platforms that take stories – there are quite a number that take good stories in whatever beat that is covered – it is not a walk in the park – but if they stay on course – success is near.

I have seen lots of journalists get discouraged a lot due to lack of remuneration, so what I do now is share opportunities and speak to my fellow global editors to share opportunities too in their organisations for journalists to pitch stories. I also have a freelance journalism master class which was meant for science journalists but is now open to all journalists to learn how to pitch good stories and get paid for it.” – Opara.

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