Why Paying It Forward Enhances the Journalism Profession Around the World

In September 1966, the Columbia Journalism School accepted and enrolled for the first time since its founding a student from Liberia.

Fifty years after graduating in June 1967, I can count the many ways in which the school helped launched my career. On return home in 1968, I was appointed Director of the Press and Publications Bureau where I had commenced my practice of professional journalism in April 1964 before pursuing a J-School degree.

In 1972, I was elevated to Assistant Minister for Information in the now Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. I resigned this post in December 1973 and traveled with my family to Nairobi, Kenya to become Director of Information at the All Africa Conference of Churches, becoming responsible for helping churches throughout the continent to develop communication strategies and training young journalists from East, West, Central and Southern Africa. While in Nairobi, I collaborated with the Information Directors of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), both in Geneva, Switzerland, and the London-based World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), to establish the African Church Information Service (ACIS), which circulated worldwide a weekly package of news and features about Africa and African churches.

Following the end of my tenure with the AACC in May 1980 we returned to Liberia to launch Liberia’s first independent daily newspaper, the Daily Observer. When it was launched in 1981, it was the country’s only daily. It was another four years before another daily, Footprints Today, appeared. Though my family and I were severely persecuted by the brutal military regime of dictator Samuel K. Doe, with five closures, several imprisonments and three arson attacks—the third of which totally destroyed the newspaper—the Daily Observer still remained a trailblazer.

We were the first newspaper to prove that newspaper publication could be a viable business in Liberia. Today, there are at least 16 dailies in the country, and another 45 weeklies and occasional newspapers. At the outbreak of the Liberian civil conflict, my family and I sought exile in Gambia, where we founded the Gambian Daily Observer, that country’s first daily and first professional newspaper.

Upon our arrival in The Gambia in August 1990, we found only seven journalists in the whole country. Within three months of the Observer’s launching on May 11, 1992, there were over 40 journalists, most who worked for the Observer as freelancers. Two Gambian Observer reporters have so far graduated from the Columbia Journalism School. 

When someone asks ‘why do I give back to my beloved Columbia Journalism School?’ the answer is obvious: the school has done too much for me and helped make me who I am, an African journalist known all over the world, receiving in the process several international awards, including three from the International Press Institute (IPI) as one of the 60 World Press Freedom Heroes.

Anything we, the Columbia Journalism alumni community, can contribute to help put students through the school makes a great contribution to the world and to the enhancement of the journalism profession around the globe.

For example, who from among the classmates and professors could have predicted what would become of the school’s first student from Liberia, against a backdrop of profound change and upheaval in the U.S. and around the world?

To contribute to the school's scholarship program on Giving Day visit: Columbia Giving Day 2017