It was a sad day when they stopped using newspapers at the chip shop. There was something fundamentally humbling about seeing yesterday’s front page byline as today’s fish and chip wrapping; journalists need a sense of perspective at times.
But they are sadder days by far when the circulation figures are released now. The chip shop uses plain paper today; our local newsagent closed down last week. It has become all too easy to live without newspapers.
There are many new ways to receive and absorb news, and all are welcome, not least because young people with an alarming absence of curiosity about the world around them will nevertheless read the headlines while checking their Yahoo mail. It is not my place to decry Twitter news alerts or ignore the value of RSS feeds.
But I can’t eat my breakfast without a newspaper, or a magazine. In times of emergency, when the last page of the Guardian has been tucked under the defrosting fridge or shredded for cat litter, I’ve been known to read the Ikea catalogue at the breakfast table. The Times is terrific for a leisurely Saturday lunch; the Halifax Courier is great when there’s only time to stop for a coffee. There’s usually a supplement of some sort, colour or otherwise, to rely on when I’m stranded in the car, waiting for the kids, or a delayed train, or the rain to stop.
There is much to be missed in the selectivity of electronically-delivered news. Back copies of Behind the Spin have pride of place in my office, in seminar rooms, and in the kitchen magazine rack. It was a classy publication, good to look at, substantial to hold, and with fascinating content on every page.
Now I see only the “relevant” items, the feature about Twitter which mentions one of my graduates, for example, spotted and forwarded by a keen student. Here, in front of the screen, I don’t have the time to read the entire online version. (Time is not the only excuse, it must be confessed; eyestrain and arthritic fingers are other barriers. Be warned, all you who spend your days screen-bound.)
Selectivity and electronic options mean that students will choose to read about the Real Jade Goody rather than the Real IRA. They know which celebrities climbed Kilimanjaro but fail to recognise the prime minister of Zimbabwe. This is not cynical supposition but a claim based on sound evidence;
I run a weekly news quiz in seminars and it’s rare for the top score to be more than 4 out of 10. I’ve taught them how to Twitter, but I’d feel a greater sense of professional achievement if they carried the Indy, the Times or even the Mirror into class.
It’s not only the content that is being missed, but also that sense of perspective, required by readers as well as journalists, which is enabled by the graphological nature of the printed page. The juxtaposition of stories on the page is the key to understanding news agendas. (A friend who once worked for the Daily Mail told this story about news values and story placement. It was shortly after the era of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the news desk took a call about the murder of a young woman in South Manchester. A slot was saved on the front page, until the details came in. She was black, and a prostitute. It made two paragraphs on page 8.)
The PR world welcomed Andrew Currah’s Reuter’s Institute report (What’s happening to our news?) and recognised gratefully the value in his assertion: “..we view the PR industry as an integral component of the media landscape, and as a pivotal agent in the gathering, packaging and dissemination of news to consumers.”
Richard Griffiths, head of strategic media, Ketchum UK was quoted recently as saying that “Blogs and websites are not reducing the influence of professional journalism”. His argument was supported by Peter Jenkins, head of PR at the Energy Retail Association: “The rise of citizen journalism means consumers will eventually revert back to trusted news sources. The consumer will become increasingly sceptical and will look to specialist publications rather than blogs to get information.” And Zoe Arden, quoted in the same issue of PR Week, joined in: “No matter how big the blogosphere gets, information provided by a professional journalist will always be more credible”.
So there’s a resounding vote of confidence in “journalism”, but print versions of newspapers need to be part of that media landscape. Andy Green, whose Overcoming Stupidity is propped on my desk, wrote recently about the demise of regional newspapers (where the situation is stark). He bemoans the loss of parochialism and regionalism: “In my part of the world, what makes news in Bradford doesn’t make news in Leeds (ten miles distant). Indeed, regionalism may have been deemed dead in some respects certainly at a local political level where people are not interested in what the councils of Hull, Leeds, Bradford or York have planned for their citizens.”
But he says that in spite of this “I still love the Yorkshire Post and buy it every day. Similarly, as a resident of Barnard Castle I bought the Teesdale Mercury every week when I lived there.
Local is so important in regional newspapers. Back in the day when I was still a journalist – that meant covering the Women’s Institute meeting, the Parish Council and the local art competition. The idiocy of the current situation is that the more you cut the editorial resource, the more you damage a newspaper’s ability to report local news.”
Yes, that news is available and should be available online, but in print as well. It is perhaps time for newspaper readers to fight back, to refuse the “inevitable” accession of electronic media as the only source of news. Co-existence must be possible, and we who wish to be semi-detached from our computers for at least some of the day, may have to state our case more loudly.
Photography by Victoria Louise Crampton