Monday, 20 September 2010

Hitch-hiking 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 Ovver Arf 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 - but none of us will ever listen to, watch or read) 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 - even now that some of the online content has disappeared behind pay walls).

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 surf the net (and tune in to good old Radio 4 on the web) 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 its sheer cussedness of its determinedly-different front page) and The Telegraph for its sometimes brilliant (though rather fogey-ish) writing, I can also shamelessly check out The Daily Mail without jeopardising my carefully cultivated public image (ha!). I can even play Dr Who and go back in time to check out the archives to see 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, unreliable information and loons 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 or hedonistic thrill of scanning the Sunday headline over your morning cuppa in bed, 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 Financial Times tucked under his arm or the trendy media type with their Grauniad (sorry, Guardian), 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.

But beware – in cyber-space, no-one can hear you scream.


  1. Ah now... I have *another* reason why people buy newspapers. Some of us anyway. ;)

    Newspapers make fantastic collage material for us mixed media artists! My paper of choice is The Guardian, because the typeface and headers make fantastic patterns. Occasionally, I buy foreign newspapers for the exact same reason! :)

  2. I know you use newsprint for your art, but I'm also pretty sure that you forage for it rather than paying.
    If you could do with some Greek newsprint, let me know, I can save some up and send it over to you.

  3. I do sometimes buy one, but you're right, there's always that 'shake-out' moment to begin with when half of a tree crashes to the ground and into my recycling basket. But I love the supplements. And the crosswords. And the excuse to just sit there, leafing through, pretending so hard that I have nothing else to do ...