Today, Saturday September 24th, I thought I would treat myself to a print copy of The Guardian. I like the Saturday paper, and it’s always more relaxing to spread it out and dip into the various parts at random, rather than be limited to robot-like serial consumption that characterises reading online.
So, to Waterstones in Brussels, the pre-eminent English-language bookshop in the city. Only to be told, “We no longer stock The Guardian on a Saturday. On a Sunday yes, but even then only without the supplements.”
As I looked around, I was bathed in the reflected light from cover after cover of The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, all proudly displaying the concerns and preconceptions of those isles across the water. Plus offerings from the US and half a dozen other countries. But no Guardian. So, nothing for me to read then. I left in disgust.
So what is the story with the Guardian’s distribution? I’ve had to cope without the paper on the P&O Ferries for years, as obviously at some point in time it has offended the P&O censor. Again, plenty of copies of the Times, the Torygraph and the Wail to be had, but nothing else. Staff are apologetic, company policy apparently. P&O obviously believe that customers either dislike or don’t need any reading that might challenge their (presumed conservative) comfort zone.
But on land, and especially in central Brussels, I used to be able to buy print copies of the Grauniad easily. This is a city where you expect to find all the important national newspapers, from China, from Turkey and even from Indonesia, as well as from the leading members of the EU. For an English-language newspaper, it is a pretty important marketplace.
It’s true that the breadth of newsprint available has shrunk in recent years. This disappearing is inevitable I suppose, as regular readers will now be consulting their preferred organs more often via smartphone. But it can be fascinating to guess the meaning of headlines in a language you don’t understand. And for someone who weighs news against cultural norms, what a paper considers headline news can be a very good indicator of national preconceptions.
I suppose I should really do a more scientific survey, and start checking for copies at the airports and train stations as well as ferry ports. But I’ve a nasty feeling that I’ll unearth the same dismal story. Distribution networks not stocking the paper because, they say, nobody is buying. But certainly the buyers will not be there if nothing is on offer in the first place.
Personally I believe that there is a case for the printed paper. I spend my working life in front of a computer; on a weekend I want to read my news and commentary in a more leisured way, at the breakfast table, or spread out on the sofa. The very last thing I want to do on a weekend is to spend even more time online. And I don’t think I’m alone in holding that view.
The Guardian has a proud history as a newspaper in Britain, and has become known internationally with the exposes in the Snowden saga. But the paper needs to do something about its distribution networks, which have been second-class for years. Shame that the opportunity to read a world-class publication is lost for the sake of a haporth of tar.
And my weekend? I’m afraid I ended up reading the Telegraph …
© Phillip Hunt, 2016.