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The role of the newspaper

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CP Scott, one of the greatest newspapermen of all time, long ago observed:

“A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and influences the life of the whole community; it may reflect even wider destinies…. It plays on the minds and the consciousness of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist or it may do the opposite.{{more}} It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces.”

In a very small place like SVG it is difficult for a newspaper to strike the right balance. Profits will be small and any neglect of the business end of things can mean the end of the paper. The country being small, the readership will necessarily be small. Advertisement will be the major contributor to revenue.

The heavy dependence on advertising revenue can be a threat to the paper’s independence. There will be entities that contribute so much to revenue that the paper will be wary of offending them. This is particularly true of Government in small societies where so much depends on the Government. Yet, the discussion and criticism of government policy is the meat and drink of a newspaper. Fortunately, many governments in the region have shown great forbearance.

Dependence on government revenue is not the only factor that affects how the newspaper carries out its tasks of educating and stimulating thought. The cost and availability of personnel to undertake these functions is also critical. Much of the paper’s revenue will be spent on staff who have to ensure they collect and publish accurate data about recent events that are of interest to the public. Without this there is no news and therefore no newspaper.

Given that total revenue is small, there will not be much left to pay opinion writers, even if they were to be at hand. Small circulation papers have coped with this in a variety of ways. At a time when SVG had only one newspaper, that paper had a stable of writers who produced opinion pieces. In those days, education was not universal and many of the writers were self educated. They were grateful for the opportunity to develop their writing talent. Monetary reward did not matter so much, as it brought the writers to the public’s attention. Some would even go on to become legislators and ministers. Of course, a certain amount of that still happens today.

Now that education has become more common, the retired educated do a lot of the commentaries in newspapers. One only has to look at the columnists in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago to see the role played by former academics, civil servants and businessmen. In SVG, we do not have nearly as many of these as do the bigger islands. The founding editor of this paper, the late Mrs Norma Keizer, one-time headmistress of the Girls’ High School, is, however, a case in point. Lawyers have always played their part. Sometimes, this is because they are aspiring politicians. Often it is because they were the only educated persons whose livelihood was not heavily dependent on the Government.

Ultimately, the best means of ensuring a newspaper can achieve the required balance is by being in a sound financial situation. There are several ways of achieving this.

One is by maximizing the paper’s circulation. SVG, with its tiny population, will never have the millions of readers that say, a Japanese newspaper has. In this respect the Internet has been a great boon for small island newspapers. Instant availability through the Internet can greatly increase readership. This is particularly so where the island’s diaspora is sometimes treble its resident population.

A second way is by being involved in businesses other than newspaper production. Worldwide many newspapers are fortunate to be part of conglomerates. Subsidies from the other businesses enable the newspaper to escape the tyranny of the bottom line. At least one newspaper in SVG is in this situation.

Finally, a newspaper can set up a trust fund to which readers and well-wishers make financial contributions. These are then invested and the returns used to support the paper. The English newspaper “The Guardian,” from which the quotation at the beginning of this article is taken, does just that.

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