On the viability of Caribbean media

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

Chronically vulnerable to small market size, narrow advertising bases, brittle economies, and high susceptibility to natural disasters, the Caribbean media sector was initially keen, in the 1990s, to embrace digital technologies—with a caveat. 

In 2019’s prepandemic Trinidad and Tobago, the chairman of the English-speaking Caribbean’s largest business conglomerate, Norman Sabga, sounded the warning that online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter had already considerably undermined indigenous media viability and needed to be regulated and taxed. There was little resonance of that view even within the media community.

By then, there already was evidence that the relatively vibrant media markets of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados were experiencing diminished revenues from stagnant audience numbers, depressed economic conditions, and the challenge of rising online advertising at the expense of traditional avenues. 

A growing share of already shrinking advertising revenue had already moved to online platforms, Facebook and Google Ads in particular. In Trinidad and Tobago, a 2018 roundtable of media managers estimated that more than 15 percent of all advertising had already migrated to the big tech platforms.

The Trinidad and Tobago Publishers Association is due to review the current scenario in the latter phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is evidence that the cuts have deepened.

In Jamaica, it is estimated that as much as 25 percent of direct advertising revenue, nationally, is being diverted to the platforms—Facebook in particular.  

Media viability has thus emerged as the sector’s key concern in the face of ensuing closures, contractions, consolidations, lethargic embrace of effective online prospects, and the diverting of advertising revenue to non-national entities. 

In Jamaica, there was the merger, in 2015, of the Gleaner newspaper and the RJR Communications Group—publicly touted as a way of exploiting corporate synergies. In Barbados, there have been media layoffs and a general shrinkage in financial fortunes. In Trinidad and Tobago, there has been a nearly 50 percent decline in advertising revenues. 

In the smaller Eastern Caribbean territories, there have been closures, consolidations, and, in a few cases, a move to exclusive occupation of online terrain where, even then, operators are not finding improved conditions.

Small independent operators in the small Eastern Caribbean territories are hard-pressed to optimize revenues in the face of static or dwindling audiences in print media and overall depressed economic conditions. There is, consequently, a greater number of exclusively online operators reliant on both traditional advertising, financial support from diasporic audiences, and, to a much lesser degree, negligible revenues from Google Ads.

Contrastingly, improved macroeconomic conditions in Guyana, characterized by 20 percent GDP growth in 2021 as a result of lucrative oil and gas finds, have occasioned rapid growth in the number of digital mass media outlets—all chasing advertising revenues that are moving away from traditional newspaper platforms.

Mainstream operators not aligned to political parties are being challenged by the growth in content curated by other indigenous and nonindigenous outlets. There are no current estimates of the impact of this on either media audiences or advertising revenue, though there is a widespread assumption that it reflects negatively on media viability in the country.

In Jamaica, a 2021 study on media viability indicators by the Media Institute of the Caribbean noted that “the threats to media viability in light of the financial pressure, coupled with changing media consumption patterns where social media has become a key source of information and content, [are] real and relevant, affecting news, entertainment, and sports media alike.”

The multipronged advances of tech giants such as Google and Meta have clearly exacerbated long-standing domestic difficulties. The rising cost of producing news in the context of microeconomies is incapable of matching algorithmically curated free news and information on social media platforms.

Domestic advertisers are also now more inclined to bypass domestic media by purchasing cheaper space on platforms that have the potential to reach bigger, more targeted markets, including a Caribbean diaspora whose numbers vastly exceed those at home.

As is being contemplated and enacted in countries such as Australia and the United States, there are grounds for collective action to impose fiscal regimes to capture tax revenues in the offshore media business and to direct such proceeds in support of Caribbean journalism.

The slow move to acknowledge intellectual property value militates against an enlightened regional approach to extracting financial benefits. There are regulatory environments in the Caribbean that have been slow to capture economic value in this domain.

The Caribbean region, by reason of small size and limited financial bases, has also not always keenly monitored antitrust behavior even among indigenous enterprises and is unlikely, in the short term, to vigorously pursue its options regarding a ubiquitous Big Tech presence.

Importantly, the required levels of algorithmic transparency to address all Big Tech challenges are hardly matched by observance of domestic policy and regulation.

The way forward suggests uneasy coexistence in the face of sectoral weaknesses and official sloth on the myriad possibilities requiring policy interventions.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Wesley Gibbings is a Trinidad and Tobago–based author, journalist, and press freedom campaigner who has been in the media business for over forty years.