Saturday, 20 June 2009

Hitch-hiking on the info highway

When was the last time that you actually bought a newspaper? At the risk of being branded a turncoat as a former print hack, I have to confess that it’s yonks since I actually shelled out real money for a paper.

My Other Half is another matter – at least at the weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday he nips out to the periptero (kiosk/news stand) and staggers back with something that represents an acre of Amazonian rain forest. According to my calculations, about 2% of that bulk is made up of news – and about one-fifth of that is something that either of us is likely to actually read. The rest is made up of freebie CDs, DVDs, books (without which no household is complete) and a huge pile of advertising bumph that will be stuck in the corner where it festers for a couple of months before I have one of my Whirling Dervish style cleaning sprees and chuck it in the Recycling bag.

It all brings home the simple fact that I never wanted to admit to when I was churning out copy in a newsroom all those years ago. Like so many others, newspapers and magazines are not in the business that we think they're in. They don't really exist to sell information and comment to readers (who can get a much better selection for free online anyway). No, they’re in the business of delivering an audience to their advertisers.

Let’s face it, we don’t want the vast majority of advertising that comes with our Sunday papers. The first thing most of us do when we’ve ripped open the cellophane wrapping is to shake the paper over the bin until the various offers, brochures, leaflets, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all dribble out. Then all that remains is to wade through the ads in the actual paper and all the stuff we’re not bothered about in order to reach that one article or column we don’t want to miss.

That’s why I've taken to surfing the net for my news these days. In fact, I've become a bit of an online info-junkie. It’s not just a matter of getting the absolute latest news at the click of a button (courtesy of the Beeb, CNN, Al Jazeera, CBS, ERT etc.). Nor is it the joy of getting all the background I can possibly digest thanks to Wikipedia, and others. I can also check out the front pages and contents of those papers I no longer pay for. In addition to the online versions of The Independent (which I love for the sheer cussedness of its determinedly-different front page policy) and The Telegraph for its sometimes brilliant (though slightly fogey-ish) writing, I can also shamelessly check out The Sun or even The Daily Hell without jeopardising my carefully cultivated public image (ha!).

AND I can play Dr Who and go back in time to check out what they had to say a year ago.

The Internet is the ultimate democratisation of the information highway (as evidenced by the amount of crap and unreliable information it hosts), and if so inclined you can get a variety of viewpoints in order to hopefully form an intelligent opinion of your own (yeah, I know, wishful thinking).

It can also (partly) eliminate the irritation element of advertising in the Sunday papers. Though my In Box is swamped with Spam mails on a daily basis, all I need to do is hit the Delete button. Online the pop-up ads are quickly dealt in the same way, BUT discreet links give me the option of clicking for more information about that one thing I am actually interested in.

So, why do we keep on buying papers? Personally, apart from the pleasurable frustrations of the crossword, I think people buy them as props. Newspapers are part of our uniform, part of what declares to the world what we want them to think of us. For both the city gent with his FT tucked under his arm or the media type with their Grauniad, the paper they buy on the way to work say something about them. They help confirm our place in the world - and that makes us feel safe.

They’re also good for hiding behind on the train.

The same can't be said for the news sites you browse through. It's an intimate relationship between you and your screen and (hopefully) there's no-one looking over your shoulder forming an opinion about your IQ based on your dot-com of choice. Or are they?

Beware - in cyber-space, no-one can hear you scream.


  1. I confess to buying the newspaper for the crossword and the Sudoku. It doesn't do it for me online - I like the scribbling and the doodling that goes with the puzzle.

    And then I cut the newspaper up to use in artwork, shred some of it for the compost heap and use the rest to catch paint drips.

    Do I read it? Probably about 10% of it. I did once decide that I was going to read The Guardian every day from cover to cover and dutifully purchased the Monday edition... which I finally finished on Saturday. Epic fail.

  2. Have to agree with you about motivations of "dead tree" journos I've come across. A friend of mine in France, for instance, offered her informative & witty blog to several magazines specialising in expat life....However, since it didn't conform to the rosy view they wished to portray to their advertisers' future prey, it simply got binned.

    Agree, too, that in cyber-space no-one can hear you scream. But you can lose your identity! Witness the recent news (and irony) of Nightjack's exposure. The Times revealed the name of this anti-establishment Orwell-Prize-winning blogger and the establishment (via the courts) silenced the blog. Job done!