“Newspapers are dying out, slowly. Many of them have lost their inner spirit… But whatever happens to the delivery system, the news goes on”
Each morning, I do something which my grandchildren (if I get them) will regard as quaint and mildly absurd. I pick up from the doorstep three bundles of woodpulp-paper imprinted in coloured ink, I pour myself a coffee and I spend an intense half-hour reading. My long-suffering family know how difficult it is to interrupt this archaic, nostalgic ritual. Later, I will check out most of the other newspapers online or in a local café. Radio Four’s Today programme may be burbling quietly in the background.
Soon enough, all this will be as one with stropping the cutthroat razor before the morning shave, or listening to the clipclop of horses as the morning milk is delivered. For most, and for almost all younger people, the news now comes hotter, stronger, and above all faster, in a multicoloured digital stream. And yet it’s still the same “stuff,” isn’t it? The news is the news is the news. It’s an addiction. Drink it, smoke it, or inject it, it’s the essential intellectual opium of the modern world.
Without my daily fix of news, more important even than caffeine, I would feel disorientated, worried and dissatisfied; I somehow “couldn’t get on” with the rest of the day. Although I’m in the news business myself, I’m completely normal in living, willingly and self-consciously, inside an impermeable, rubbery news bubble composed of thousands of narrative strands, like badly-written novels torn apart and then shouted out by a grating, toneless choir. Perhaps it’s more like living inside a swarm of bees than a bubble—being assailed and bumped into by the whining insistence that I need to know, right now, about a proposed new rate of taxation; or an interview with an opposition leader in the Ukraine; and the latest from the hacking trial or the revelations about GCHQ eavesdropping. Do I? Not many of these things affect me directly. I don’t much mind about being spied on by the state. I will wearily pay whatever tax is levied upon me, if and when it happens. I’ve been to Kiev and love the Ukraine, but I can’t make up my mind about whether the street protests will produce a decent new regime.
Of course, some news is useful and always has been. Floods closing local roads, a threat to one’s employer, new research which shows that my daily intake of alcohol is twice as damaging to my brain as I thought. If it’s going to produce new migrants living around us, or so move us that we write a cheque, then some foreign news is useful too. But we take it for granted that nine-tenths of the news we consume will have no direct relevance to the way we live our lives. It’s about connecting us with the rest of the human world; so it’s simply good for us, nutritious, the food of adulthood.
Not all of the daily news sticks: most of it simply fades away; those stories that aren’t topped up during the day will have vanished from my mind by the time I go to sleep. But the next morning I, like most people, will be ravenous for more. Why do we do it? Does it make us happier or more engaged social beings? What does it do to our concentration, our blood pressure, our ability to feel empathy? The looming death of newspapers has been predicted again and again but now they really are dying out, slowly. Many of them have lost their inner spirit and deserve to go. But whatever happens to the delivery system, which dates from the time of cigarettes and typewriters, the news goes on.
Two very different books have arrived which help challenge our preconceptions about the news. One, by a history professor at St Andrews University, Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News is a painstaking study of news networks before and during the early days of newspapers. The other, by the popular philosopher Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual, is an idealistic assault on most of what practising journalists do. Neither of these books will have the smallest effect on any editor, whether of a newspaper or at the BBC; but if you believe in the examined life, in reflecting on your own behaviour, both are hugely interesting.
Pettegree’s book, it turns out, is the more subversive. Most of it isn’t concerned with anything a conventional historian of the newspapers would recognise. It’s about the postal services established by the Habsburg monarchs, and the hand written newsbulletins or avvisi which circulated in Renaissance Italy and around Europe for centuries afterwards. It’s about the woodblock- print-illustrated pamphleteering that took off during the wars of religion and about the way news was passed around orally, including through ballads. Only later in the book do we get to “real newspapers” such as the pioneering, if spectacularly dull, London Gazette. At first sight it’s a Tristram Shandy kind of journey but its purpose becomes steadily more obvious and pointed: our appetite for news long preceded newspapers, Pettegree suggests, and will long outlast them, too. Buzzfeed and Facebook may be the future.
Indeed, for much of their history, newspapers were not a very good way of getting the news. Everyone with power or money wanted private information from trusted informants in the know. That was why the market for the expensive, exclusive, handwritten avvisi produced by well-known and well-connected individuals lasted for so long. One of the points de Botton makes is that the news today can often bore us because we don’t have the necessary context and background to understand what it really means. Early newspapers, consisting of short paragraphs of bald fact from around Europe were particularly bad at this: “It is reported from Paris that the Duke of Alva has arrived in Metz.” And? So? Pity the poor Birmingham ostler or Antwerp tradesman trying to make sense of that. But, as Pettegree demonstrates, the necessary context could often be found through partisan pamphlets and propagandistic broadsheets, particularly at times when the Protestant-Catholic wars were raging. It was through essays, ballads, and lurid prints that early-modern audiences filled in the gaps left by terse, dry newspapers
Now, this may seem a long way away from today’s newspapers or TV broadcasts with their emoting, opinion columns and footage of starving children. But de Botton accurately pinpoints the parallel modern problem. When it comes to public policy and foreign affairs we are assaulted by so many facts and figures, and so much complexity, that most of us turn away wearily in search of a juicy, easy story about sex or violence. Think of all those pages you turn over, barely registering what’s on them. Think of the number of times your thumb hovers over the TV remote control halfway through the evening news. We don’t need more facts, whatever the big news organisations claim, de Botton says—we need more context. We need more explanation. In fact, heaven forfend, we need more bias to engage our minds.
But, as I said, the philosopher is an idealist. “In the ideal news organisation of the future,” he writes, “the ambitious tasks of contextualisation and popularisation would be taken so seriously that stories about welfare payments would be (almost) as exciting as those about incestuous Antipodean cannibals.” Alain, mon vieux, ’t’aint going to happen. Before our eyes, challenged by the much faster-moving and time-engorging rivalry of internet sources, both newspapers and television bulletins are giving less context. The columns are growing shorter. The experienced and therefore slightly more expensive correspondents have been fired. What explanation there is, comes increasingly from old-fashioned party positioning which turns off more people than it converts. Television, which I love, is rubbish at contextualisation of complex governmental issues. We are good at showing the characters of politicians—what they are really like—and we are good at bringing back vivid snapshots of disaster overseas, or flooded Somerset. But if you want to understand the figures, or the detailed shift in thinking, you need time. You need to dwell. That means print, which you can go back to again and again.
Some of de Botton’s criticisms of newspaper culture are familiar—the lynch mob approach to politicians, making us more interested in their trouser-zips than their failures or successes in running billion-pound departments, and the way health news bounces us around from one piece of dodgy subacademic research to the next wonder drug, provoking in the wretched reader a state of perpetual nervousness, fear and guilt. (One piece of advice for readers that I would add: the answer to every headline question —Eg “Is this the most evil/ corrupt/silly/dangerous man/woman/MP/policy ever?”— is almost always, no. And if you are pressed for time, it’s generally safe to ignore every story under a headline using the words “may”, “might” and “said to.”)
Sometimes de Botton misses his target. He complains about the low quality and lack of context of news pictures. Really? From the Times to the Guardian modern production and the ready availability of images from around the world produce, most days, fabulous imagery which haunts the reader longer than most of the words around it.
But the essence of de Botton’s critique has a lot of force: the news is too often incomprehensible, boring and vaguely dispiriting. And it presents a world that is more dysfunctional, much nastier and more dangerous than the world we live our day-today lives in. So, if we have an idealistic notion of the news making us better people, it’s mostly failing in its job. We need a new kind of news, produced by a new kind of news vehicle.
It’s certainly the case that news prefers fear and disaster to reassurance and tepid optimism but this, presumably, is not just because journalists are abnormally depressive. It has an evolutionary explanation; scenting danger keeps us alive. We instinctively want to know about the habits that may kill us earlier, the threats ahead to our prosperity and the dangers “out there.” Therefore, we are likely to buy, or switch on to, news outlets that are scary and worrying. Once, that meant news about huge hailstones or spectral armies fighting in the sky—news which demonstrated God’s wrath. Today it’s more likely to be news about abnormal weather patterns which may be connected to climate change, or about tomorrow’s terrorists and social breakdown. But a bias towards fear seems to be hard-wired into us. If Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail woke up one morning and decided to fill his pages with stories about strong, successful families, frugal and prudent politicians, and hard-working, law-abiding teenagers, then he would sell just as many copies as he had the day before. And the next day, he’d sell half as many.
That’s not to say that the newspaper market today is in fine fettle. Why do newspapers remain so party-political at a time when the population at large is turning away from party-partisan thinking? Perhaps because this tendency goes back to the origins of the British press. The period of the Civil War had introduced party rivalry into what had been relatively neutral information-sheets; Whig and Tory interests, brewed, swirled around and sipped in the fast-breeding London coffee houses now became embedded in rival newspapers. From this emerges today’s market, where the unbiased reader may feel that he or she has to read the same story (say, about David Cameron’s tax pledges) in the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian, to get an overall sense of the truth. The need for this kind of triangulation goes back to the early 18th century; Pettegree quotes Joseph Addison on the London papers of the early 1700s: “all of them receive the same advices from abroad, and very often in the same words; but their way of cooking it is so different, that there is no citizen, who had an eye to the public good, that can leave the coffee house with peace of mind, before he has given every one of them a reading.”
Then and now: reading the morning paper in the 1950s ©AKG-Images/Voller Ernst/Gerd Pfeiffer
How long can public enthusiasm last for political party-based newspapers? It’s very interesting watching the Daily Mail, faster on its feet than its rivals, refusing for most of the time to back any of the main political leaders. It may be on the right, but its editor knows that uncritical adulation of the Conservative leadership will lose it sales. On the other side of the fence, Ed Miliband and his colleagues lament the lack of reliable support from the Guardian and the Independent but their editors too have moved away from a party-divided world—or rather, been driven away by their own readerships.
Where does this leave the most self-important, grandiose part of conventional newspaper furniture: the leader or editorial? As Pettegree says, these arrived surprisingly late in the story of newspapers. The notion of anonymous advice or instruction in the “voice” of the newspaper presupposes an institution with solid, well-founded authority, which none of the early newspapers (often run by a single printer or bookseller) could boast. But these days, we are also well aware of the once-shadowy commercial figures behind newspapers, whether they be global tycoons like Rupert Murdoch or recently-arrived Russian investors like the Lebedev family, who own the Independent and the Evening Standard. We also are well aware that, these days, most editorials are written by relatively well-known journalists whose effusions in columns under their own name sit alongside the anonymous prose. When, say, Philip Collins, the chief leader writer for the Times, writes under his own name, a reasonably well-informed reader can judge what he says by reference to his past views and known political position. He was a speechwriter and adviser during the Blair years; he is basically pro-Labour but to the right of that party. But if Collins has been writing the Times editorial, who is he, really? Presumably, he and his leader-writing colleagues are writing as intellectual hydras, a many-headed compromise between their own views, those of the editor, and the basic position of the proprietor. It’s a very curious form of journalism.
Meanwhile, the endless and brutal financial squeeze on printed news goes on. No newspapers have yet gone under, though the Express feels hollowed-out, while the Sun, Mirror and Star all lack their old confidence and punch; and the poor, brave, fighting Independent is up for sale yet again. Am I alone in thinking that, trying to cut his costs, John Witherow, Editor of the Times, is milking his admittedly impressive stable of star writers too vigorously? Caitlin Moran is a brilliant writer but she is not inexhaustible. Over at the Guardian its editor has been able to use his Snowden leaks story to drive into the digital US market with great success. But is his paper becoming a tad monomaniacal on the subject? These are just two small examples of how financial pressures and the digital challenge are shaping the news we get. But they are hardly the only ones. Look at how the Telegraph has just ditched its editor in a row over the importance of online content; look at the fast-growing gulf between the highly successful Mail Online and its newspaper sibling. Look at how the poor Express has redefined news as only those stories concerned with the death of Princess Diana or Madeleine McCann. At least it saves on specialist correspondence, I suppose.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? The hollowing-out of newspapers, a blizzard of increasingly complex and alienating news… the slow throttling of democracy? Grumbly Old Marr’s Almanac.
Absolute nonsense, luckily. Again, back to Pettegree. News, properly understood, is not just what’s in the newspapers or on broadcast bulletins. Nor has it ever been. In the age of Enlightenment, no citizen or subject who wanted to understand the world would rely on newspapers alone. They were one part of a continuing public conversation. For more context, people would go to pamphlets, weekly journals and broadsheets, not all of them published regularly. These “allowed the discerning reader to dip in and out of the news as they chose. They also reflected accurately one great truth inimical to the periodical press: that news was actually more urgent at some times than others.”
That’s certainly still true today—witness Jeremy Paxman wishing that on slow news days he could suggest that viewers of Newsnight switch off and toddle up to bed. But in terms of the really important stories of the day, we now have a perpetual, 24-hour banquet to choose from. One of the most important underlying arguments in neuroscience just now is between those who believe that our brains are our fates, and those who stress brain plasticity—that is, our ability to change ourselves by repeated behaviour. It is the scientific equivalent of the old religious argument about free will and predestination. But if you want to know about it, the newspapers won’t help (not enough words), and a Newsnight argument between two talking heads will leave you dissatisfied. Don’t despair—out there in a bookshop half a dozen lucid, passionate, clearly-written books can set you alight. The popularisation of science, spread through paperbacks and e-books is also part of the wider modern news world. It’s more impressive and having a greater effect than the encyclopaedias of the Enlightenment.
And now, as also then, there are the magazines. In our technical age, if you want to be informed, you really ought to dip into New Scientist and Wired. If you want more context on the great division between the Shia and Sunni worlds, there is—ahem— this publication. Political debate would be much thinner without the Spectator and New Statesman. Alain de Botton, searching for how we can emerge as better people and news consumers, rightly demands this same context and depth in the news. He suggests travel as a way to better understand the world. And that certainly works. I went to Mali to film. I know how it smells, how the light falls on its buildings and how its people dress and talk; as a result if I see the word Mali on a page, I turn straight to the story.
For most of us, of course, perpetual worldwide travel is a somewhat impractical solution. Unless, that is, we do it vicariously through our laptops. For the great news frontier is, of course, online. It has already expanded our idea of news. Newspapers, radio and TV are all in the news business but they do very different things and bring us different kinds of information. Websites have the huge advantage of being able to offer moving pictures, short films, alongside text—and through hypertext links, allow us very quickly to delve deeper and get the kind of context that de Botton wants. The hypertext link may be the most important technical advance in the deep understanding of news since the printing press.
When newspapers die, I have an ideal kind of news website I’d like to see. It would cluster expertise, passion and politics around a subject. Take that toughest of subjects to sell: welfare reform. My ideal website would have interviews with welfare recipients, the latest ministerial speeches and news, interviews with civil servants trying to deliver reform, easy to understand statistical data; and all the best voices on the subject, from Polly Toynbee on the left through to, say, Tim Montgomerie on the right. If you want to know about welfare, that’s where you’d go. It would give us detail, passion, frontline reports; it would properly monitor government action and it would be our rallying-place for everyone affected.
It’s easy to imagine the same kind of thing for different parts of the world; for people interested in food news and water news; and of course for all the endless consumer news that clogs up so many papers today. The nearest thing to it I know of is the aggregated political website, such as PoliticsHome, but I don’t know of many models of this so far—perhaps readers can enlighten me. It seems the obvious way forward. Why can’t I have, in one place, film of what is happening now on the streets of Kiev, plus translations of the latest ministerial and opposition statements, plus a short, handy history of the Ukraine and a profile of today’s Ukrainian nationalists? In such a world, I might well still want whatever newspapers are left, and to catch broadcast bulletins— but more as a menu, a way of directing me to the specialist hubs.
So far, the online news world has had a slightly shabby reputation. On the one hand there are endless feeds simply repeating or retweeting the same basic information; the spread of lazy list-based journalism; and the parasite websites, picking the dirty bits out of the teeth of the major news corporations. On the other hand there is the reactive underworld of almost incoherent anger, the moon-faced, flabby-fingered trolls who reduce all public argument to puerile sexual abuse. Yet as more and more of us turn to our laptops, the news is getting better. When I am researching I like to “read sideways”—that is, find a story or a footnote, trace it down to its origin, and keep going from there. This sideways reading, made possible by hyperlinks, is the essence of the best of what is on the web. On websites such as Buzzfeed, there is delight as well as disappointment. The disappointment is that although there are in-depth essays and some foreign coverage, it’s still a long way from the regular, reliable foreign news service that the average news junkie would expect from the average serious newspaper. The delight is about the ingenuity and creativity of its staff—if you haven’t seen Kelly Oakes’s “If newspaper headlines were scientifically accurate” you are missing something special.
It’s not only possible to become a really well-informed and engaged person by reading the news—it’s getting easier all the time. But relying on a single, under-funded, pressurised editorial team and a dampish wodge of flattened spruce arriving on your doormat every day is no longer the best way to go about it. You just have to be more proactive and spend a bit more time to get what you need.
So are we nostalgics, clutching our cooling mugs of coffee as we leaf our way to favourite columnists, shaking our heads at depressing headlines, all wrong? There is something to mourn as the age of newspapers ends. Andrew Pettegree eloquently explains how newspapers became more important because of war and the rise of the nation state. But their great age came during the middle of the 20th century when the world was riven by ideological conflict and when knowing foreign news really could seem a matter of life and death. It was the time of mass participation in party politics; there was a very large political and literate community, bound together by daily newspaper publication. We were active citizens, not merely shoppers. Remember the days when the News of the World (RIP) carried half a dozen diplomatic stories on its front page, and when the Guardian had an industrial staff of three or four, and a parliamentary staff of more than that?
That reflected a kind of society, with all its paranoia and bellicosity, which was intensely political. We have moved to an essentially consumerist society. Our news is always a kind of battered mirror of the times and so, today, it is heavily biased towards consumerist obsessions—which include the celebrities used to sell us commodities, and a somewhat babyish fascination with our own health. I worry that the online news operations, run by relatively young metropolitans, are disconnected from too much of the reality of day-to-day life in Britain and are, if witty, also infected by a postmodern obsession with the media itself.
But one should not be too sentimental: if, in the great age of the newspaper, we were better informed about trade unions and the Soviet bloc, we were much more ignorant about the workings of our own brains and the existence of dark matter. And about the news itself, we were probably more naive.
De Botton describes the news as a kind of secular religion. It certainly has its judgemental pulpits. Like religion, it assumes it’s good for us and that regular worship will make us better people. Energetically and sceptically consumed, it still can. De Botton quotes George Eliot on art which, like news, helps us by “amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” And that, really, is the purpose of news. It is not simply a febrile addiction but a daily antenna, letting us reach out beyond family, beyond neighbourhood, and into wider humanity. There be monsters; but there be wisdom and kindness too. If we are prepared to put in the effort then, thanks to the digital world, we stand on the edge of a newsgrounded understanding of life greater than any generation has enjoyed before.