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Trinidad’s tabloids scream loudly, but Barbados’ press could do with some balls

July 24th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Newspapers

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He was born in Guyana and regularly returns there to help build local media, print and TV. Previous posts looked at the Caricom Summit held July 2-5 in Georgetown. Trinidad and Barbados were the final stops.

After experiencing Guyanese ‘journalism’ during the Caricom summit, any order is better. In Trinidad, there is much economic prosperity due to oil and natural gas: ‘What recession?’ they ask here. The economy is healthy but the society has some of the fissures of Guyana.

Trinidad politics
Indians were brought here in thousands as indentured labourers to replace the freed black slaves one hundred and seventy years ago. They live in the south of the island, the African Trinidadians in the North. They have much of the wealth, the prime minister and his ruling PNM party are black and have the political power.

There is much violent crime – especially kidnappings and murders – and that is the staple fare of the super tabloids who make up the Trinidad & Tobago newspaper market. The Guardian, the Express and Newsday are much the same. Screaming headlines on the cover but much content inside. They are big in pagination and include lots of classified ads.

Politics gets a big shout and through that the racial dimension. The leader of the opposition (at the moment) Basdeo Panday is Indo-Trinidadian. He was prime minister until 2001 but was driven from office for alleged corruption. Today his UNC is breaking into bits.

His former attorney general Ramesh Marhaj is leading a ginger group/internal opposition within the party together with another MP – Jack Warner, who runs football in this part of the world, is vice-chair of FIFA and has been the subject of critical investigations on British TV about his dodgy behaviour in that job.

Warner’s son sold the travel packages and tickets for Trinidadians to the to the 2006 World Cup. Panday wants Warner to account for $30m (T&T) of election expenses. Warner says it was money he gave the party so no need to account. This makes the British MPs look tame.

Columnists abound on the pages of the T&T press. Different races. All have views. Many far too prolix for the page. Sub-editing is not a craft that seems to have been found in the Southern Caribbean. But the three dailies and the local TV news programmes – sadly also divided on racial lines – make for lively reading and listening. Crime sells. They certainly put the fear of God into the bank manager cousin with whom I was staying.

Keeping awake in Barbados
Not so Barbados. The problem here for a journalist is keeping awake. The best description for the Barbados Nation and Advocate? Stodgy, boring, dull. They make the Bedworth Advertiser look interesting. Boring headlines and even duller stories. It is like reading a parish newsletter for a nation.

The ‘news’ is based on government news conferences and other press conferences by NGOs and the like. On such sexy subjects like polyclinics, insurance and diabetes. Again, writing is prolix and not of great quality.

Barbados is a very polite and ordered society (the murder rate is a fraction of Trinidad’s) and that shows in its press. The hacks need to get themselves some more balls. The TV news is not much better.

There we have it. Prosperity, tabloid culture, Little England and the news values of British suburbia. Funny how they all travel. But Blighty calls.

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Jon Bernstein: Why ITV’s micropayment plan is unlikely to make the Grade

July 15th, 2009 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Comment, Online Journalism

ITV management had better hope Ben Bradshaw’s deeds are as good as his words, because its faith in an another revenue-generating scheme looks misplaced.

Bradshaw, the recently appointed Culture Secretary, told the Financial Times earlier this week that the BBC’s refusal to relinquish licence fee money to aid other broadcasters with a public service remit was ‘wrong-headed’. He said the corporation’s hierarchy would have to come to its senses sooner or later.

While the BBC fights the good fight against ‘ideological’ forces such as these, part of the network gave airtime to a would-be recipient of top-slicing: ITV’s executive chairman, Michael Grade.

On BBC Five Live last Thursday, Simon Mayo asked Grade about the YouTube Susan Boyle affair (some 200 million video views to date).

After describing YouTube’s proposed revenue-share for the Boyle clips as ‘derisory’, Grade insisted ITV wouldn’t get caught out again:

“We are working on it and watch this space, but we’re all going to crack it, either when the advertising market recovers or a combination of advertising and micropayments which is 50p a time or 25p a time to watch it.

“We may move in time, in the medium term, to micropayments, the same way you pay for stuff on your mobile phone. I think we can make that work extremely well.”

(You can listen to the interview on the iPlayer until midnight Wednesday 15 July. Grade interviews starts around 1 hour, 22 minutes.)

Despite Grade’s confidence there are grave doubts that paying per clip is going to work. Here are four reasons to worry:

1. Micropayments don’t work for perishable goods
It’s an argument that has been made against charging for news stories, but it is equally applicable when you are talking about clips from a reality TV programme.

Quality drama may have a shelf-life and an audience willing to pay for it, but a water cooler moment from reality TV? Not likely.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon still feels vaguely current, but it is a passing fad.

If you’re unconvinced take this quick, highly unscientific test: would you pay 50p to watch the machinations of ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman from the first series of Big Brother?

The correct answer: who’s ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman?

2. Micropayments put people off
Writing back in 1996, social scientist Nick Szabo introduced the idea of mental transaction costs. He argued that no matter how small the payment, it still incurs effort on behalf of the potential buyer to work out if he or she is getting a good deal.

He wrote:

“The reason we don’t do the things is that they’re not worth the brain cycles: we have reached the mental accounting barrier.”

And that in a nutshell is why micropayments are doomed to failure.

It’s a theme Chris Anderson touched on in his recently released book ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price‘. He wrote:

“It’s the worst of both worlds – the mental tax of a larger price without the commensurate cash. (Szabo was right: Micropayments have largerly failed to take off.)”

Unsurprisingly, Anderson advocates free as a preferable alternative to micro, but he’s not alone. New York professor Clay Shirky is with him.

In fact Shirky has been saying much the same thing since the beginning of the decade and his 2003 essay ‘Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content‘ has become something of a set text.

3. Micropayments only work if you control distribution
ITV’s Grade rightly cites mobile phones as a great platform for micropayments.

The network operator controls what is available via the handset, limiting availability and ensuring prices won’t be undercut.

Further, the operator offers a simple and largely pain-free way of paying for goods by adding the cost to a monthly bill or subtracting it from a top-up on a pay-as-you-go phone.

But the web is different – it’s anarchic, open, a free-for-all.

Nobody controls distribution and despite efforts to chase down copyright abusers, there will always be someone ready to undercut your micropayment with an even smaller charge – free.

Opponents of this reading cite Apple’s iTunes Music Store as proof that micropayments can work on the net. But, as Shirky argued earlier this year, the fee-per-track model works because this is a rare example where no alternative exists.

“Everything from Napster to online radio has been crippled or killed by fiat; small payments survive in the absence of a market for other legal options.”

Further, Apple does control part of the distribution, successfully creating a market for the must-have iPod.

So despite Grade’s assertion, it’s unlikely any micropayment system on the internet will turn out ‘the same way you pay for stuff on mobile phones’.

Incidentally, it will be worth watching to see how the smartphone redefines this divide between the largely ordered phone network and the web.

4. YouTube clips drive traffic first, revenues second
If you think about a clip on YouTube as a direct money maker, you’ve got your priorities wrong.

It’s about reach, exposure and promotion. It’s about creating a buzz and driving traffic back to the core.

Did the Susan Boyle clip achieve this? No question.

For starters, video views at ITV.com were up 528 per cent year-on-year and advertising slots for the duration of the ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ season sold out.

Meanwhile, such was the interest around the show, the final was seen by 19.2 million people – ITV’s highest audience since England vs. Sweden in the 2006 World Cup. More eyeballs this year promises high advertising yields next.

In short YouTube kept its part of the bargain.

Would all that have happened had ITV charged 25p a clip? Would 200 million people have checked it out? Will a pay-per-clip Britain’s Got Talent be a winner?

The twist in the tale is that Grade, who steps down as executive chairman at the end of the year, won’t be around to find out.

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.

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