The Question Marker, The New Yorker, In-between: An Interview

Solomon Elusoji of The Question Marker

Carl Terver in conversation with Solomon Elusoji of The Question Marker

Solomon Elusoji is the co-founding editor at The Question Marker, an online literary and news magazine that aspires to be the leading voice in the online publication space in Nigeria in quality content and professionalism. He’s brilliant and easy-going, his prose almost corrupted by the crystal clarity of journo writing. It is only timely that I conducted this interview by the time his first book Travelling with Big Brother: A Reporter’s Junket Across China is forthcoming. This interview took place via email, definitely on smartphones, one editor to the other between Akowonjo, Lagos and Makurdi.

DOWNLOAD the July Issue of The Question Marker.

How did you become a journalist? 

I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. Maybe since I was 14. You know, fantasised about it. Like most kids, I had a lot of questions, and I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I got. So I studied Journalism at college and interned at THISDAY newspaper. Never looked back since.

The first thing I read from you was your piece in The Question Marker – ‘The Hausa Broadcaster from China’. I’ve observed that you’re curious about Chinese economic expansion and their interests in Africa. Tell us more about this. 

Last year, I was on a ten-month fellowship at the China-Africa Press Centre in Beijing. So I guess that’s where the interest comes from. Actually, I have a book coming out on that experience. So, yeah, I am interested in China’s economic play in Africa, and also the cultural part of it.

Is China ‘scrambling’ for Africa? Where is Japan – do they have enough market already?

China is scrambling for Africa? With who? The west largely abandoned Africa after the cold war ended. And since the early 2000s, China has increased the level of its engagement with the continent. There’s not really a tussle, in my opinion, even if the US is apparently trying to make up for lost ground with Prosper Africa. Unfortunately, as it stands, Africa is still up for grabs. Japan, Russia, France and the rest of Europe also have interests in the continent. I think it’s time Africans wake up and take charge of their destinies. 

You’re co-editor at The Question Marker. A close look at the aesthetics on the website reveals some borrowing from the New Yorker. How do you want to sustain quality writing in that space, knowing the kind of country this is? 

It was inspired by the New Yorker, which I believe is the best English language magazine on the planet. But the goal is not to replicate it. Like you’ve observed, we are Nigerians. We operate in a different space, economy and culture. For most of our readers, English is not even the first language. And the financials are pretty awkward too. We started out paying our contributors, but after the third issue, it dawned that that was unsustainable. So what we are doing now is to print our own money, backed up by the magazine’s equity. The end goal is to create some sense of ownership. Still, this is an experiment. The pitfalls are obvious to anyone vaguely familiar with the accumulation of capital. But we are having fun and that, I think, is enough

Are you going to go into print? 

Maybe if we ever become profitable digitally. But that’s not the focus. We have an initial ten-year plan and print is not in it.

READ: The first issue of The Question Marker

In your first issue, all your pieces touched on Nation and Nigerian issues. Does that reflect why your contributors are Nigerians only? Is The Question Marker Nigerian first? 

Of course, Nigeria comes first. We look at the world through a Nigerian lens; for us, Nigeria is at the centre of the world. And from that centre, we can write about the world. We are very conscious about this.

Were you thinking of Newswatch in the process of starting the magazine? 

One of the main reasons why I co-founded the magazine was because I couldn’t find a publication that combined political reporting with literature. There are a number of fantastic literary magazines in the country, including Saraba and Praxis. But they are not abashedly political or journalistic. And the mainstream media and blogs that focus on the politics and reporting, don’t emphasise language. And that’s why the New Yorker was a good template.

Will readers have to subscribe to TQM in the future? And, editor’s note, March Issue: you introduced a funding platform for TQM. You want to raise 100 million naira by July 2019. How is this going?

At some point, readers might have to pay a token. This was actually the original model we started with – a digital paywall. I have no doubt, even now, that people will pay for continuous quality content. But, sometime in February, I read Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News. Rusbridger edited the Guardian UK for decades before stepping down a few years ago. His journalism memoir affected me deeply and I began to shift towards the Guardian UK model of open journalism. By the time we announced the virtual fundraising in March, I was already trying to convince my co-founders to drop the paywall model. By April, we were already tightening our purse strings and trying to figure out what was going to replace the paywall as the main source of revenues. Advertising was the obvious choice. And that brought us full circle, to a place we weren’t ready to dabble into. We have a steady flow of traffic, but nothing close to the numbers required to actually rely on advertising to drive revenue growth. So if we weren’t collecting money from readers or advertisers, how do we pay contributors? We decided to print our own money.

Meanwhile, the virtual fundraiser is currently failing, spectacularly. A few people have pledged, but I don’t think we are going to meet our target by July. But that’s because we didn’t promote it. By the time we announced it, we were already thinking differently about how to capitalise the business. 

Don’t you think the people who can actually support you in this case are not online? Businessmen, political stakeholders and the like. Most of them still read the old-fashioned way of print. 

Ah, print is not going away soon, even if we are not thinking about it now. And you are right when you say most of the old-moneyed and political class are still stuck on paper and will probably remain so till they are replaced. But everyone we are trying to reach has a smartphone or a laptop or, at least, has access to one. So printing isn’t the best use of our limited energy and resources. Of course, we will get into print someday, but I’ll rather pay a young writer now than finance tree-cutting.

Who is your best writer at the New Yorker? Who was your best writer in the days of Dele Giwa’s Newswatch?

Ah, that’s a difficult one. I really like David Remnick’s writing; Rachel Aviv’s storytelling is out of this world. Then there is Patrick Radden Keefe. But my love for the New Yorker has less to do with the individual writers than the magazine’s overall editorial character, its quality prose, its commitment to truth and accuracy, and its ability to inform, enlighten and, when possible, move readers. And that’s exactly what we are trying to build at The Question Marker, albeit with way less money and resources.

I didn’t read Dele Giwa’s Newswatch. I was born in 1994, years after he died. I’m sure there are some old copies stored somewhere, but these archives are not on the internet, they are not readily available; someone needs to digitise those publications.; I believe they will be invaluable to people like me who are struggling to make sense of Nigerian history.

Ah. You read some different writers from mine at the New Yorker. I thought maybe we’d have a tally on one but alas. Adam Gopnik, perhaps? Amy Davidson Sorkin? Richard Brody? Nathan Heller?

I agree with you that these old papers have to be digitised. Dele Giwa’s Newswatch, which was dedicated to true journalism would be a trove.  

TQM now uses feature photographs that are not designed by its in-house illustrator. When I first saw that most of your feature photos were hand-drawn with a signature that was Question Marker, especially your first issue in January, I imagined how long you’d keep up. What happened?

We’ve never had an in-house illustrator. We can’t afford one. But everyone who has contributed to the magazine is automatically family. It’s a very small group. Very, very small. Even as it grows, we hope to keep our contributors close, compact and distinguished. 

Has a Nigerian ever won a Pulitzer? When do you think this will happen? Is this relevant? Do you think that only prize-winning and well-accomplished writers will one day write for The Question Marker? (And I thought you had an in-house illustrator. Okay.)

Oh, Dele Olojede won one, no? I think prizes are super important. They help to crystallise and reward genius. But The Question Marker will never only be open to prize-winning and well-accomplished writers. I am a founding co-editor and I have never won anything, and maybe never will. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer. Our goal is to publish magnificent pieces from writers with the most-clarifying thoughts. The prizes will follow.

To publish magnificent pieces from writers with most-clarifying thoughts.

What book do you think the young Nigerian read before opting to drop out of school? 

I am not big on lists. Young people should read whatever they want to read. But Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is seminal. 

Why Purple Hibiscus? I am interested in your answer to this question. What paradigm shift do you think the novel will do to the mind of the young Nigerian who wishes to drop out of university?

I am thinking in the context of ‘how to tell our own stories’. I grew up reading Harry Potter and Thomas Hardy and George Orwell, you know, white writers. Even when I got into university, I didn’t have much regard for Nigerian writing, especially fiction-wise. When my friend, Ikechukwu Onyewuchi (who is also a founding editor at The Question Marker) handed me Purple Hibiscus, he said it was going to ‘amaze me’. I took it but didn’t believe him, then I got punched in the face.

Ah. So much. Let’s leave it at that before we go into literary criticism.

What do you think about semicolons? 

This is a very interesting question. I know a lot of people who like to bitch about the semi-colon, but I like it. Maybe it’s not very useful orally; visually, it can save the reader some confusion. But I guess you have to know what clauses mean to use it well.

If Condé Nast approaches you, what are you going to do?

That would be interesting. But we are also concerned about ownership. What we want to build is an institution, not something tied to some personality or corporate agenda. So I am imagining that if we get such a call, our response would be to ask them to come back in ten years. We are still at the learning phase, tweaking and figuring out structure.

Danké, Elusoji. I thought as much

Solomon Elusoji is a co-editor at The Question Marker magazine and a contributing reporter at ThisDay Newspaper. In 2018, he travelled across China and wrote a book, Travelling with Big Brother, which will be published in December 2019. His first novel, about mental health and guns, will be published in 2020.

Carl Terver is the assistant digital editor at Praxis Magazine.

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