When news of the merger between RJR and the Gleaner Company broke, I felt what I always feel when I hear of media consolidation: disappointment and a little dread. I love journalism and I regard it as a craft, but hearing of mergers and acquisitions, I am reminded of the reality- that it is a business. I learned this early on, perhaps the first day of journalism school, when our instructor asked us our opinion on the purpose of newspapers and news delivery. After several idealistic, poetic answers about democracy, justice and the pursuit of truth, he told us bluntly: “No, newspapers exist to make money.” It took me awhile to ponder and accept that. It was a difficult thing to process for a young student then, it is undeniable now.
The economic landscape for the news delivery business has buckled, eroded and disappeared altogether. It is now reforming. The business model of selling advertising is unrecognizable, although there seems to be two consistencies: consolidation and innovation (for example, start-ups such as Global Post, ProPublica and in Jamaica On the Ground News Reports).
In the United States, for example, six corporations control 90 per cent of media (note this figure is from 2012). This compares to 50 in 1983. In Canada, where I went to school and worked as a journalist since pre-Google days, a handful of companies control the majority of all types of media, including Internet service providers. The subject is such a topic of concern in Canada that Parliament prepared a paper on the topic in 2012.
So what does this all mean? Why does it matter who owns what? And what does it mean for Jamaica, which has three daily newspapers, 30 radio stations,three “free-to-air” television stations and dozens of other foreign channels? Academics continue to ponder these questions, so I will leave that to them, but I can speak from experience and observation.
But first, here is a brief summary of the merger. Radio Jamaica Ltd. will purchase the media subsidiary of the 180-year-old Gleaner Company in an all-stock deal that will see the exchange of 1.2 billion shares on a one-for-one basis. Existing shareholders of each company (RJR and the Gleaner) will hold 50 per cent of the consolidated entity. The entity will be publicly owned with a 14-member board of directors and will trade on the Jamaica Stock Exchange, pending regulatory approval. A Q&A from the Gleaner indicates that there will be 10,000 shareholders, with no individual owning more than a 10 per cent share of stocks. The Gleaner reports annual revenues of $3.2 billion, while RJR reports $2 billion.
Just to give you and idea of market penetration, the Gleaner has a 77 per cent share on Sundays, Television Jamaica a 72.5 per cent market share for TV and RJR radio brands capture one fifth of listeners (all figures courtesy of Dr. Forbes’ blog, and if you want even more information, go here and here) So roughly three quarters of Jamaica’s population who access all media types will be consuming information that originates from one source. Put another way- that’s five radio stations, three cable television stations, one free-to-air station, a print newspaper with overseas markets and online distribution systems.
(As a side note, it seems that management is particularly worried about foreign competition. In a press conference and in the Q&A, they referred to foreign competition but would not specify. I suspect it is Digicel and other ISPs currently circling the market for opportunities.)
So there is a little snapshot of the current situation, but now back to my experience. I have worked as both a freelance journalist and an employee of all types of organizations, from start-ups to multi-nationals. I can tell you that fears of layoffs are founded. I never lost a job due to consolidation, but I have seen it happen to many friends and peers. I have, however, felt the drop in atmosphere when a large national organization purchases a start-up. While I don’t have direct evidence, there were a few instances in which I suspected my editor was more concerned about how the story would affect advertisers’ and publishers’ perceptions of the paper than the satisfaction of airing a story that needed to be told.
So here are the facts, from a journalists’ perspective. Consolidation costs jobs. In the case of the Gleaner/RJR merger, the newsrooms will likely be combined. So this means print and Internet journalists will probably be filing radio stories. This is actually common now, there is no such thing as “print” journalists anymore. You must know how to report the news from a variety of platforms: writing the story (and they must be short, because both print and web space has shrunken- nobody reads long stories anymore); taking pictures; providing accompanying social media updates; getting video footage, as well as sound and filing a radio story. Then you put the packages together by editing. This takes awhile.
So there is less time for everything. To verify information, to seek out additional sources, to ask experts for context. Journalism suffers. And the sheer decline in the number of and variety of stories. If there are fewer reporters, there are fewer stories being reported. There is less time to do in-depth reporting, investigations and provide the richness of context and history. Most stories are now just quick hits that create more questions than answers.
The bottom line is that there are fewer journalists doing more work. (Again, I urge you to go to Dr. Marcia Forbes’ take on the merger- she provides some insight as to the business side of things. She also advises young journalists to diversify themselves, which I agree with and I have had to do.)
This is how the merger will affect the journalists themselves, as well as the delivery of the news. But how will it affect society? This is what fills me with dread and disappointment. Because fewer voices, fewer stories, mean less information and a smaller spectrum of opinions and perspectives.
Most media houses have a publisher or a CEO. This person is supposed to stay out of the newsroom so as not to influence the production of news. And in my experience, this is usually the case. But as a reporter, you can’t help but soak in the culture. For example, I was a business reporter- I had to adopt the mindset of a businessperson and the accompanying philosophies to understand and report the news. This is just natural and unavoidable. So imagine one man is now influencing the culture of the production of news in Jamaica’s most influential newsrooms for television, radio and print. And this reality is even more striking in such a highly partisan, polarized nation such as Jamaica.
It is obvious that the Gleaner and Observer represent two different political points of view. (Jamaica’s television and radio outlets seem more independent, less partisan). The Gleaner and Observer don’t even make an attempt at neutrality. But at least there are counterweights in the form of other independent media houses and types of media- i.e. RJR, TVJ, etc. Now those media houses will pump out news from the same source. This can only harm the health of a democratic society.
It is interesting to note that newspapers originated as partisan tools. As historian Daniel Howe explains, in the 1820s “many if not most newspapers…were organs of a political party or faction within a political party, existing not to make a profit but to propagate a point of view. Since custom inhibited candidates for office from campaigning too overtly (especially if running for the presidency), partisan newspapers supplied the need for presenting rival points of view on the issues of the day…rank and file Democrats and Whigs paid subscriptions to their respective party newspapers, and advertisers paid to reach them. The general high level of political awareness maintained by the press meant that the parties could depend on a broadly based mass of donors; they also kept their financial costs to a minimum by receiving many contributions in kind…”
It has been well-established that a healthy, free and fair press is essential to a functioning democracy, and always has been. Here is historian Howe again: “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.”
And I must also bring in Alexis de Tocqueville: “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 themselves in this society. In other words, the press relayed information and opinions that “guided judgment” and subsequent actions. 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.
In general, the same can be said about Jamaica. I have observed that people do read newspapers, moreso than in North America. They are also avid consumers of radio and television. And they are not just passive recipients. You hear people discussing and debating news frequently. The stories and editorials provide food for thought, as well as fuel for debate. While they are admittedly often sensational, the content seems to serve as a unifying force, especially in the constant quest to keep politicians accountable.
In explicating this merger, I am not trying to attribute any nefarious motives to those involved. Rather, I’m simply attempting to flesh out the realities of the news business and the economics of trying to keep afloat an industry that is floundering. People everywhere have become accustomed to getting information for free, but providing information of high quality and value take resources. For example, the New York Times invests $300 million per year in its journalism, acknowledging that its reputation for high quality news is its brand.
People deserve the truth, especially when it comes to holding politicians and authorities accountable. In a nation that has struggled with corruption, this is especially crucial. I don’t doubt that individual journalists, editors, etc will continue to do their jobs with integrity and commitment. I just hope that the business side of things doesn’t engulf them in their pursuit of the truth.