Monday, 16 July 2012

Journalism, Globalism and New Technologies

The introduction of new information technologies to the communications industry has significantly changed the media workplace and applicable business models. Worldwide, media proprietors and managers are wrestling with new approaches to pervasive and irreversible mass media phenomena.

One unfortunate outcome, for example, has been the shrinking share of finances now being devoted to newsgathering and dissemination within media organisations.

However, throughout the years, while some important modalities of production and distribution have changed, the basic value systems driving the practice of journalism have generally remained constant. What is different is the degree to which the continued commoditising of news has influenced a standardising of production values in the print, broadcast media and, now, online and social media – the latter now ironically contributing to a virtual “de-commercialising” of news and information.

Time-worn news values are also now increasingly being met by a standardising of lower production values, facilitated by much faster, more pervasive, less expensive means of transmission. The recent IPI Congress in Port-of-Spain explored the challenge this poses to the traditional media industry and found that a variety of successful and unsuccessful coping mechanisms are being employed.

The ‘fit’ between domestic Caribbean media outputs and international media content is now much more technically snug. This not only facilitates the easier implanting of externally-produced content, but the more efficient exporting of domestic material. I am not, in this respect, impressed by xenophobic pronouncements on “rescuing” indigenous creative content. Trinidad and Tobago has much to gain because of open, liberal conditions.

This situation has clearly offered a variety of challenges and opportunities.

There is now a greater degree of multi-tasking and a resulting elimination of some human tasks. The implications for journalism are also recognisable through much more easily accessible non-indigenous content and the net negative impact of multi-skilling in the production of both print and broadcast media products.

There is growing concern about authors’ rights in the face of changing relationships between content-providers and media operators and the greater efficiency with which news outputs can now move across national boundaries. Not much has however changed with respect to work contracts in the traditional media and their appropriateness in the new era is often questionable.

What remains clear, though, is that enhancing the production and flow of reliable, journalistically-mediated, news and information to our societies can considerably address concerns related to the strengthening of democracy and the need for transparency in the conduct of public affairs. The free press, acting in concert with open government can have the effect of instilling greater degrees of confidence in the future. This certainly constitutes benefits way in excess of clear challenges.

The Caribbean mass media are, however, no newcomers to globalisation and the revolutionary nature of new technologies. Newspapers were first established in the English-speaking territories as far back as the mid 18th Century at a time when primary production for export to European markets, under conditions of colonialism, dominated the socio-economic landscape. Mediated information flows generally pronounced on the relationship between productive capacity in the Antilles and the state of a European market in the throes of dramatic change.

The Industrial Revolution had already begun to change the way Western Europe conducted its business. In trend-setting Britain, the drive to industrialise was fuelled in large measure by the availability of captive markets for manufactures in the colonies and a state of relative peace at home and in the overseas territories.

Newspapers provided a way of reinforcing a status quo which, by and large, co-existed well with rapidly changing circumstances. They served as efficient advertising vehicles for new products, reinforcing geo-political alignments and ensuring the smooth flow of information between the colonial homelands and their overseas operatives. So important was this role that by the mid 1800s, there were more than 100 indigenous newspapers in the colonies.

Radio reached Caribbean shores in the 1930s and television in the 1960s, under circumstances that were no less associated with the fact that the future of the West Indies continued to be inextricably linked to overseas market conditions for primary products and the growing importance of these territories as markets for outputs of the new technologies. The mass media, in that regard, were both a facilitator and a subject of these developments.

Improvements in printing techniques and their impacts on the newspaper workplace could not, in the early years, be qualitatively de-linked from important changes in the modes of production in the agro-processing industries, which, in some instances, provided important inputs into other changing technologies.

Globalisation and change were thus inherent features of the colonial condition in the West Indies with the mass media providing both a mediating role in the dissemination of information on the colonial condition, to both internal and external audiences, and a participatory role as the subject of these phenomena. In the process, a journalism developed which played as much a role in interpreting external circumstances as it focused on the internal condition of the colonies. The challenges today appear to be essentially the same – along with the many new opportunities that have become available.

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