Don't write eulogy for print just yet
Glenn Tucker, Guest Columnist
"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them." - - US President Thomas Jefferson, letter to Col. Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787
One hundred and eighty years today, two brothers, Jacob and Joshua deCordova, started a newspaper on Harbour Street. It was called The Gleaner and Weekly Compendium of News. It was published on Saturdays only. This was an uneasy time in the country.
The euphoria of Emancipation six weeks earlier was short-lived when, instead of gaining their freedom, our forefathers were greeted with a long word called 'Apprenticeship'. Those who attempted to explain could do little better than, 'you are free but not quite free'. Confusion reigned.
But the newspaper started off quite well, and by December of that year, the name was changed to The Gleaner: A family newspaper devoted to literature, morality, the arts and sciences and amusements. The mission statement was: 'To please, amuse, and to inform while holding domestic life sacred no attacks on private lives would be made.'
Two years later, the paper expanded to four pages and was published daily except Sundays. The first of two fires destroyed the plant at 146 Harbour Street in 1882, but the building was restored in two weeks. Fifteen years later, the fire that started shortly after the earthquake of 1907 destroyed the building again. In four days, the building was restored.
In 1939, The Sunday Gleaner was published for the first time. If the 1934 launch was a tense period in Jamaica, the launch of The Sunday Gleaner was a tense period for the entire world - World War II had just started.
Over the years, The Gleaner has flourished adding a number of new publications which have all been well received.
I have fond memories of my early association with The Gleaner. In Brown's Town, where I grew up, there was always much anticipation when The Gleaner arrived. It was immediately taken apart, with my parents taking the less-important sections like the front and editorial pages, and us children scrambling for the more critical sections like Leandro and the comic strips. We were able to read and reread them at our own pace and convenience - something I discovered in later years could not be done with television.
My mother, who was an educator, had one solution for students who hoped to achieve excellence in English: "Read every page of every Gleaner." I vividly remember the excited crowds that would gather to wait for The Gleaner when there was something of significance happening in the country.
We heard of events like the trial of West Indies cricketer Leslie Hylton, who was tried and hanged for the murder of his wife, and the Kendal train crash, on the radio. But everyone seemed to need confirmation from The Gleaner.
And when there was a serious discussion of a national issue, every participant came armed with his Gleaner. When, at 17, I headed off to Mico College, Mother made sure that a Gleaner was delivered to me every morning of my three years at that institution. Over the years, The Gleaner created a rewarding relationship with its readers. Today, The Gleaner enjoys a very special place in the collective consciousness of Jamaicans.
But what of the future? There has been much talk of storm clouds gathering over the industry. Brian McGrory, editor of the Boston Globe, confessed that he has "absolutely no idea" what the future of newspapers will be. He added, "Anyone who tells you they know is either lying to themselves or lying to you.
"Circulation is plummeting," he said, "but the number of online readers is promising. Even on a slow day, there are more readers of the Boston Globe than we have ever had in the history of the paper. This means that while the business model is broken, the journalism model is not."
By any measure, traditional print media's audience is shrinking. As content becomes increasingly digitised - and free - readers are turning away from print publications. Peaking at more than US$60 billion in 1950, total print media revenues fell to US$20 billion by 2011, according to The Verge website.
Print media convey tangible presentations that can remain viable for days, months, or even years, provided that someone retains a printed page and refers to it. Distributed through an electronic medium, the same message vanishes as soon as the TV spot ends or the Internet visitor moves to another site.
Print's enduring nature contributes to its status as a trusted source of information. It is still the preferred media source for many individuals, who cannot or do not want to work with current technology, or do not have access to technological items. We still need our appointment letters in writing.
Journalism is not dead or dying, it's just evolving. Journalists need to feel free. But this should not just make them feel safe, it should be seen as opportunity. An opportunity to strive for excellence in their craft. The press should only be under pressure from the citizenry to serve the proper functions of communication in a free society. Chief among them is to prevent the government from deceiving the people.
Journalists form the bridge between the government and the people. A reliable, resourceful, intelligent probing journalism is cancerous to corruption. Journalists must understand the power they possess and their duty to democracy. It is this power, which Thomas Jefferson spoke so frequently of, that enabled two journalists to probe, expose and bring down a president.
Thomas Carlyle knew this when he wrote in 1841: "... Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important by far than they all."
The print-media sun is rising rapidly and brightly in the East, but setting in the West. It is on the ascent in places like China and India, where the populations are becoming better educated, but not doing so well in places like the United States, which does not seem to be quite sure where it is going as a country.
If I were to offer advice, I would encourage those in the newspaper industry to identify a viable revenue model. While the audio-visual medium has its strengths, the static language of words and pictures continues to grow and flourish. Most important, there is an air of credibility on the static word and people feel more comfortable quoting the print medium as a statement of authority. There is a definitiveness to the written word.
The challenge is not to replace the business of print journalism. It caters to the intellectual needs of the serious section of the population. We need to renew it so that it can survive and prosper in today's digital age.