During what the media dubs a “slow news period”, the Jamaica Gleaner dropped the news that it would start charging for online access to its news stories. In fact, it was December 29, when most people are still shaking off the food coma from Christmas dinner and preparing for New Year’s Eve.
I saw little reaction to this decision, other than a provocative and interesting question from a colleague. Here is a rough approximation of that question: will the Gleaner’s decision to charge for online access have an impact on democracy? The implicit, secondary question here is whether or not newspapers and information have an influence on political participation, which includes everything from informal conversation to voting. I’ve been pondering this question for awhile now and what follows are my initial thoughts. (They are partly underpinned by what I studied while I pursued my Master’s degree in political theory, as well as my 15 years of experience as a journalist).
First, I must say that I have yet to decide how much the media influences popular opinion (and ultimately political participation) here in Jamaica. In general, it is always difficult to determine how much the media is reflecting popular discourse versus how much it is influencing it. However, it is usually a mix of both.
I will say that informal discourse, whether in the media or at the corner shop or church, is extremely important here. Jamaicans like to talk, and they are an opinionated and passionate people, especially when it comes to politics, which are extremely tribal here. In fact, politics can get downright dangerous here, with neighbourhoods divided by political part affiliation.
(For my non-Jamaican readers, there are two main newspapers: the Jamaica Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer, which is owned by businessman Butch Stewart).
I have decided, however, that television and radio are much more dominant in shaping discourse. The Gleaner seems to have some influence, maybe not over opinion, but rather in terms of influencing what people talk about, as well as conversation about political happenings. The Observer seems to have more influence over opinion and discourse relating to stories about sports, entertainment and business. And the Jamaica Star, the most sensational of them all, seems to be read and talked about mainly by lower-income Jamaicans.
With all this being said, I was not surprised that the Gleaner’s move to charge for online access caused very little uproar. This lack of reaction tells me several things:
Exclusive to Jamaica, it shows that most people here buy the print version to read. Anecdotally, I see many more people reading the newspaper than I do in Canada or the U.S. I would propose that those who read it online are more educated and/or of more substantial financial means. This factor, I think, is a function of Internet access, which is, of course, a function of income.
So then we need to differentiate between Jamaicans who read the Gleaner online but now cannot afford to do so, and the affluent who decided to pay for a subscription. This distinction is important because those who read the Gleaner online but now do not subscribe are most likely well-educated and engaged but with lower incomes yet still relatively influential in terms of shaping opinion and discourse.
Not exclusive to Jamaica, people are simply getting their news elsewhere, other than physical newspapers. This is not news. Readership has declined, check out some numbers here. As a result, academics have started to conclude that people are getting their news from a much wider array of sources that usually reflect their political views. The result of that is a much more diverse and polarized social environment. (Not sure if I agree with that, but it seems to be the common academic consensus).
So how does all this media-shakeup impact democracy, that nebulous concept that can most accurately be measured through participation at the polls? (Jamaica’s voter turnout rate, for the record, is abysmally low, like many other countries. The most recent federal election drew only 53 per cent of eligible voters.)
Stretching back to the founding of the U.S. and the current state of affairs, in which journalism is being pitched as a common social good that strengthens democracy, we can draw some conclusions, but first some background.
Newspapers are now attacked for being partisan instruments, but this used to be common and explicit. (I am now obnoxiously going to quote myself from an essay I wrote about this subject a few years back). According to historian Daniel Walker Howe,
Newspapers played an essential role in making representative government meaningful and in fostering among the citizens a sense of American nationality beyond the face-to-face politics of neighborhoods.” Furthermore, Howe writes that “The central role of journalists testifies to the importance the administration attached to the communications revolution and public opinion. While political factions controlled key newspapers, in return newspapers played key roles in politics and patronage.” Newspapers also spurred action amongst the citizenry, Howe writes. They “prodded men to vote while also rousing general popular interest in political events.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in general about the power of the press and its ability to conquer distance and unite people.
de Tocqueville writes: “The sovereignty of the people and the freedom of the press are therefore two entirely correlative things, whereas censorship and universal suffrage contradict each other and cannot long remain in the political institutions of the same people.” Essentially, de Tocqueville sees freedom of the press as a medium through which individuals, who consent to be ruled as one member in a sovereign society, filter the information that situates himself in this society. In other words, the press relayed information and opinions that “guided judgment” and subsequent actions. This information aided individuals as they surveyed and judged the society in which they participated in, and consequently absconded much of his sovereignty to a ruler, to decide whether or not he would assimilate and subjugate himself, or take rebellious action, if he was displeased with society. So the press not only prompted citizens to determine their political views, but it then influenced their actions; which included everything from who they would associate with, to who they would vote for and where they would choose to settle and raise a family.
The aspect of conquering distance and the power of the press to do that is another important factor when analyzing Jamaica. This is not a large country, but it can be imposing in terms of getting around, both financially and just physically. So a national newspaper can provide some unity in terms of providing information and influencing a common discussion and driving the political agenda.
If people are not able to access Gleaner articles online, they will not share them on social media. This will impact discourse and shared narratives. In other words, people (especially those who have the audience to shape discourse) will talk less about things they are interested in and things that they might be compelled to act upon. The inability (I say inability meaning that people will not be able to fit newspaper subscriptions into their budget) to access online news will also impact the press’ ability to conquer distance in terms of the dissemination of information. For example, a story about applying for a skills training program will not reach the same audience it did before it was available for free online.
So going back to de Tocqueville, the lack of online access will erode at the unifying role newspapers play in terms of conquering distance. It will also erode the phenomenon of sparking common discourse and shaping opinion.
So my initial thoughts are that a lack of online access might have a small impact on democracy in Jamaica. However, I think it won’t be drastic, rather things will just change and Jamaicans will adapt. For that is one thing I know for sure, Jamaicans are a resourceful and adaptable people.