Vaneisa: The People in Print—the problem with T&T’s media

One of the panel discussions at the recent Bocas Lit Fest focused on the fate of newspaper columnists in today’s environment. Themed “They Don’t Write Them Like They Used to: A Discussion on the Present and Future of the Newspaper Column,” it ended up with a rather bleak prognosis.

Among the symptoms of its malaise was the general decline in newspaper readership; the increase in social media platforms as sources of news and information; the desire for short articles (titbits really); and, a surfeit of columnists writing on the same subjects with little variation in approach.

Writer at work…

All valid observations. Technology has had a heavy hand in redirecting attention spans and lifestyles.

We don’t have to recreate the world that once was, but we can try to recapture those elements that were meaningful. Truth is, some things are timeless and priceless, and have nothing to do with the evolving forms of technology.

We have so much information at our fingertips, but do we know how to process it?

But that’s not what I want to look at; my focus for now is newspapers.

In today’s news…

It might be odd for people to associate the current Guardian newspaper with the richest culture of fine Caribbean writing in its features sections. Reviews of all sorts were regular—books, films, art, theatre—the quality was superb; even the social events were treated with finesse.

I do not recall food and restaurants occupying any appreciable space, but that would have been a reflection of the time.

I have an intimate knowledge of the content of the paper from its inception, having helped to compile its exhibition to mark its 75th anniversary in the early 1990s.

Reviewers knew what they were writing about, and they wrote sometimes scathing, sometimes adulatory articles that gave context and a general appreciation of the nature of the subjects under scrutiny.

They were edifying, to say the least; not at all like the press releases coming from the people who put their work on display and know that unless they send out something, they could never hope for discerning coverage.

So, we get notices that things have happened, not reviews. This is a disservice to the arts, and one reason why people are not interested in reading.

While it may be true that people are reading newspapers less, I suspect they are still reading, just finding their subjects of interest for themselves. They don’t have to take what the newspapers deem to be worthy of attention, they can choose to search for what they want.

It seems to me that the newspapers have to reconfigure themselves, bearing in mind that the news they present is hardly exclusive, and what would make them stand out is the quality of their features. In this category, I include columnists.

Many years ago, when Kathy Ann Waterman (now Justice Waterman-Latchoo) became editor-in-chief at the Trinidad Express, she set about radically shifting the thrust of the newspaper’s approach to coverage.

Then Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister-elect Keith Rowley speaks to reporters in Port-of-Spain, after a brief meeting with President Anthony Carmona on 8 September 2015.
(Copyright Alva Viarruel/ AFP)

Her idea was that the core of everything that was to be written should focus on people, how it affected them and what their lives were about.

It was to me, the golden years of the Express. Brilliant writer that she is, Kathy Ann understood that ultimately, sensitivity to the circumstances surrounding ourselves led to deeper understanding and empathy, and people could identify with stories that were also theirs.

I’ve never understood why that initiative busted. In hindsight, I figure that it was too unpalatable for the traditional old boys to stomach.

An editor on the job.

I recall that one editor had referred to my own inclination towards that approach as “soft”. Newspapers, like so much else in our wretched societies, have been defined in minds that cannot budge from outdated notions.

That mental stodginess is easily responsible for the rise of the quacks who offer opinions that are so devoid of intelligence that one would be tempted to see them as attempts at buffoonery were it not for the chilling consequences.

How else does one explain the continued existence of the Minister of National Security?

Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds.

Or the echo of his concern about our national image being sullied in the comments of a columnist who referred to the “appalling lack of patriotism” from citizens who “defend foreigners who set out to denigrate and demean their own country”—as if to say that the activities highlighted do not exist except within seditious minds.

Freedom of speech is to be supported. Without it, we are vulnerable to the whims of those wielding power.

To come back to the issue of newspaper columnists and the comments that there are too many repeating the same things; it is worth making the point that newspapers have succumbed to the call of the financial bottom line and prefer to have retirees writing for free, rather than invest in people who actually have interesting things to say.

Marina Salandy-Brown, who had moderated the panel discussion, invoked one of our fine former newspaper columnists, Jeremy Taylor, to define the best traits: good quality writing, fresh thought, something worth saying, being informed, and the capacity to tell the truth, even about themselves.

She also pointed out that columnists are cautious because of the fear of backlash. I know that the savagery of social media posts has made many worthy writers reluctant to expose themselves.

It’s worse now that they may also have to contend with the possibility of sedition charges. Sigh.

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