The State of Journalism in Trinidad & Tobago

Journalism in A Major Financial Capital of The Caribbean

The right to self-governance the world over is and continues to be a battle hard won.  As a Trinbagonian, I’m proud to be celebrating fifty-five years of Independence this year and I’m reminded that as a citizen, independence comes with responsibility, and accountability.

We are accountable to each other as fellow citizens and independent people and should be prompted to consider frequently that no other entity but that of the fourth estate facilitates a functional democracy.  

A Free Press reflects a free people. The roots of independent Journalism in Trinidad and Tobago found itself in the revolutionary spirit of nation building in a fledgling democracy, upon the demise of slavery and the departure of British colonizers.  

Author Juliette Storr (2016) Journalism in a Small Place: Making Caribbean News Relevant, Comprehensive and Independent Canada: University of Calgary Press -  writes that

prior to Independence, per Howard Pactor, Assistant Professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, Gainesville – the earliest colonial newspapers, “were reflective of oligarchic opinion,” and I would add, agendas.

In 1966, four years after Trinidad and Tobago gained independence on August 31st 1962, British media baron Lord Thomson shut down Trinidad’s Daily Mirror and fired its entire local staff in what was intended to be a monopoly power play for control of the media. Thompson had already owned the other existing daily newspaper the Trinidad Guardian.

The Independence movement spawned the likes of literary giants such as C.L.R. James and Dr. Eric Williams. There was a compelling desire to direct our own destiny. The trade union movement and the push for regionalization and collective identity via the formation of the West Indies Federation signaled the certain death of colonialism and confirmed a commitment to write about, reflect and monitor our own domestic concerns.

Fast-forward fifty-five years later, today Trinidad and Tobago has three national daily newspapers. The Trinidad Express, The Guardian Newspaper and The Newsday, each with a myriad past.  The Express born on the backs of recalcitrant staff retrenched at the hands of Thompson in 1966, has cemented its position as the number one paper in the nation, with a demonstrated commitment and uncompromising ferocity to serving as a watchdog and a champion of the public interest.  

If nation-building, confidence and pride were the fuel upon which Independent Journalism was fostered and has burned for fifty-five years, what then will fan the flames that have recently begun to fade amidst rapid technological disruption and the commercial pressures of economic volatility?

According to Wesley Gibbings, President of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), in an April 2016 article titled, Exploring the Caribbean Media Landscape: Mergers, Models and the Practice of Journalism, “what we are witnessing, is a reformulation not only of the business of communication but a transformation of the process of human communication itself.”

Although the permeation of technology has expanded opportunities for a wider marketplace of news, challenges include a lack of enterprising ability of local journalists, digital skills training and financial resources. Digital media has disrupted the advertising revenue model of newspaper journalism already stressed in a small island nation with an economic elite and partisan politics.

In a multicultural, multi-religious society with rising socio-economic inequality, how do we solidify Journalism as a robust and indispensable pillar of our democracy for future generations in the face of formidable financial and technological challenges to journalistic values?

The prospects for the media industry as we know it today don’t posture well. Local newsroom staff have shrunk and fiscal constraints implemented. We need to borrow a barometer from the world of Social Media, where eyeballs congregate to consume content. Relevance matters most to infiltrate the individual virtual worlds we now all inhabit via our ubiquitous mobile devices.

Media managers and journalists should consistently ask of themselves - Why is this important to my audience? Journalism matters most, where and when the reader or viewer most needs to know.  To engender a spirit akin to that which propelled the first press forward, engagement and relevance can inspire trust and loyalty if the public is made personal.

Local veteran technology journalist and professional photographer Mark Lyndersay, wrote in one of a series of articles on Journalism 2017: Rethinking the Newsroom that, “News must evolve from publication and broadcast schedules to streaming newsfeeds that emphasize hyper-local coverage. To unpack that, the idea of a defined publication or broadcast time needs to be abandoned in favor of recreating, with professional authority, the stream of information that a generation has come to expect from their media sources.”

As a weekly religious newspaper, the one hundred and twenty-five-year-old Catholic News, where I serve as Digital Media Manager, has embraced this very ethos as we seek to remain relevant to an increasingly fragmented readership.  Where our views on social and cultural issues diverge from other denominations we are fortunate to operate in a climate of tolerance with room for debate but there remain opportunities for more nuanced reporting, analysis and delivery across media platforms.

The rules of engagement are changing everywhere, but now more than ever we must sharpen the journalistic tools that earn trust, inspire democracy and impact society.