Variety the bedrock of newspaper success

Newspapers survive through content varietyOxford, 19/01/2020.

I started to read The Guardian yesterday, while waiting in my local hospital for an eye operation. After throwing away the Travel secton and other assorted rubbish that seems to come with the paper these days, I had some hours to fill while waiting.

Today, Sunday, I picked it up again, intending to finish the paper. Unfortunately my operation did not go well, and for the mmement at least, reading is more difficult than before. After spending a few minutes struggling with the print, I gave up. The fact was, there was nothing in the content interesting enough to make me want to read it.

Unfortunately I find this symptomatic of The Guardian these days. The paper which I, like everyone else, read as a student in the early 1980s, sems to have once more become boringly, politically correct, as it was then.

At the time, iin the 1980s I mean, I was a media student, and I remember the excitement many of us felt at the launch of two major news channels, The Independent newspaper and Channel 4 TV. People wase expermenting wtth different approaches to media then, and audiences were still large enough and undistracted by the subsequent moronities of social media.

Channel 4 is with us still (even if under government ownership), and C4 News for me is now by fat the best news programme on British television. It has gone mainstream of course, moving away from the experimentation of its early days (no news presenters). But for me it remains the quality news programme of choice.

The Independent has fared less well. The paper that I loved in its early days as I switched from the Grauniad has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside. For a while the Independent did become regarded as a serious newspaper, rivalling the likes of the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian for high quality reporting and opinion on the matters of the day.

But decline set in; few markets outside the US can support four broadsheet (i.e. serious) newspapers. And as the new kid on the block, the Indie was always going to be vulnerable to any market downturn. In the years since its launch market conditions became much tougher, with the rise of social media on one hand and the decline of many established, regular patterns of work in the economy on the other (regular public-transport commutes create opportunities to read).

I watched the decline of the Indie with sadness. The paper followed the predictable management strategies of the day, cutting costs wherever possible in the attempt to remaiin afloat. However in cuttng costs, it also cut most freelance contributions to the paper, maintaining only a tight circle of regular columnists for its content. The result, unfortunately, was to make the content largely predictable, and boring. Once you had read a correspondent’s pieces a few times, you would know his or her views on most subjects.

Which of course made it unnecessary to buy the paper. One of the definitions of real news is novelty-value for the reader. And with soclal media providing the instant headlines, the novelty in a piece is the writer’s take on or analysis of the subject. If you can already predict the writer’s reaction on that subject, then there is little novelty left, and correspondingly small attraction for readers.

There is always reader loyalty of course. People like to have their own views reflected back to them by writers they consider as ‘on the same side’. But this is merely reinforcemen tof existing prejudices; it does little to expand readership or buld respect for a publication.

What can do so is the regular appearance of fresh and original views. There is always a need for the regular correspondents of course, but, in my humble opinion, their pieces should form more than around two thirds of a paper’s content, at the most. Above that, and any publication quickly becomes boring.

And this, I believe, is what killed The Independent. With a narrow range of regular contributors, the content became largely predictable and, inevitably, the readership shrank. By killing off any novel (i.e. usually freelance) content, which provided some originality and different views on subjects, the managing editors (and owners) effectively killed their own publication. The present-day online only ‘i’ is a sad reflection of the paper’s former glory.

I would hate to see The Guardian suffer the same fate. I might not read it so much any more, but I still have high regard for its editorial stance on a range of subjects. The paper also gained some fame worldwide under its previous editor, when it was one of the few publications around the globe trusted enough to publish the Edward Snowden files.

In those glory days, we learnt more about the methods and operations of the world’s various undercover state agencies than we had known for years. All thanks to the conscience and courage of one man, Edward Snowden, who for his pains is now marooned within a country considered a rogue state by many in the west.

But that is another story. My point is that the Grauniad gained kudos worldwide for being among the group of newspapers courageous enough to publish his files. The consequences of the worldwide sensation they caused are stil being learnt today.

But stories like those of Edward Snowden come once in a lifetime. How is a paper to survive during more prosaic times when nothing much of importance seems to be happening. As I said, I think only by regular doses of fresh and original reporting. Otherwise, the pit of failure, which holds the remains of many respected publications that had once endured for over a century, awaits.

While in the hospital waiting room yesterday, I remember looking briefly at the Weekend magazine section. Flipping past all the ads and regular opinion-pieces at the front of the paper. I eventually came to an interesting story towards the back of a magazine, about a father’s guilt over the death of his son. It was a very matter-of-story about one man (the author) and how he has tried to compensate for what happened in the years since.

There was nothing particularly special about the writing or the story, beyond the fact that what had happened had been so ordinary, so everyday, that it could have happened to anyone at all. Which is of course what made the story so compelling. So why the editors deemed it fit only for the back of the magazine, rather than the centrepiece and cover story, I do not know.

As is clear, I tend to regard establishment rejection of outside entree-ism with great suspicion. Sometimes the club seems all. But sometimes the club will still be looking away into the middle distance while the foundations are cracking.

I remember being laughed at in my student days, for being naive enough to admit, in my mass-media seminar, that I actually quite liked The Telegraph’s reporting. This was a very un-PC thing to say of course, particularly about the Torygraph within a group composed largely of Guardian adorers and in a school following a Marxist approach to the media.

But, as my tutor grudgingly admitted, the Telegraph did (then) seem to have a large number of shorter pieces on each page, presumably sourced from wire services and other external contributors. Such an approach certainly created more variety on the page, making for a more interesting read, I felt.

That was then. Now, in the twenty-first century, I hope the great newspapers, across all the political divides, can find a way to keep going. Perhaps by increasing or maintaining the variety, or novelty value, of their content. Because I for one find it much more civilised to have a printed newspaper at the breakfast table or on the train, compared to a computer or mobile phone.

© Philip Hunt, 2020.

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