12 March 2016

Thoughts: The Coming Demise of Newspapers

I happened to buy a copy of New Scientist last week*, on impulse, at the checkout in (I think) Marks and Spencer's food bit and I was shocked at how slight it has become.

It's a magazine I used to read years ago (yes, and there's the point...) first when I was doing A levels, waiting for the copy in the school library and then when I was doing my degree and PhD. I subscribed to it for years, eventually cancelling because I no longer had time to read all of every edition. Back in those days, my life pretty much was physics: with other distractions - family, work - it seemed hard to find time. The same thing has happened with other magazines I've subscribed to in the past: The Listener at one time, New Statesman.

I have also pretty much stopped reading newspapers daily. I still get them on Saturday and Sunday: my morning then is focussed on the book reviews, eating breakfast while I see what's out there. I have to admit though that I buy far, far more books because of recommendations from Twitter,  or just from scrounging around to see which of my favourite authors have something new coming out soon, than because of a thing I see in the paper. Although it does still happen, and in any case, the review bits are nice to read just for the bookishness.

How long, though, can this last? I'm under no illusions that The Guardian and The Observer can keep being published indefinitely just so I can luxuriate in a few pages of book reviews. Like New Scientist - though perhaps not to the same extent - their physical version has diminished: when I used to buy them to read on the train in the morning there were all kinds of supplements - like the Guardian tech section - that aren't published on paper anymore and that I don't actively seek out online. It can only, I think go one way.

My son took me to see Spotlight a couple of weeks ago. (Son is the cinema enthusiast in this house). It wasn't a film I'd have chosen to see - confronting, dwelling on a nasty subject (the abuse cover-up in Boston, USA - and wider) and without an obvious good ending (how could there be?) Not that I only like cosy uplifting films, but still. However it was  revelation and actually very enjoyable. Not only for the story itself - the horrors that had gone on - but for the story of a team of journalists who uncover the truth. In some ways it was a very old fashioned film - it could have been shot in black and white, everyone wearing hats, with cries of "hold the front page!" (did that ever really happen?) The Web was happening - there were puzzled discussions of how to put up a link to the story once it broke - but it was secondary. When they needed to look up lists of priests in the Boston diocese, the jouralists went down into the cellar of The Boston Globe and went through dog eared old yearbooks, which, of course, we filed away. (My workplace recently abolished its reference library: I don't know where the stuff previously kept there has gone, but I fear it went in a skip).

Spotlight is in effect a celebration of - perhaps an epitaph to - a time when newspapers and journalists were a power, when they could get things done. I'm sure that falling circulation and the loss of advertising have curtailed that and while technology may have provided some alternatives I suspect that more has been lost than gained.

I felt the same way on reading Lauren Beukes' wonderful book The Shining Girls (link is to my Amazon review). One of the themes in this book is the power of popular journalism, in the right hands, for good. Of course it's set a good decade or so back. Today I feel more gloomily certain than ever that that book couldn't be written about now because the readers and the advertisers just aren't there anymore.

This fits. I think, into the "law of unintended consequences" heading. Yes, we all have these wonderful shiny new toys and SO MUCH TO READ. And responsible, factual reporting will continue, somehow (though if it has to load three flashing ads, seventeen listicles and six pop-ups before you can read the content, perhaps not for long...) But we will consume it so differently and I think it will be a long, long time -if ever - before it has the heart and moral authority of The Guardian or The Boston Globe in their pomp, or before it sits there on the coffee table in the physics department or the sixth form library, waiting to plant seeds of ideas or liven up a dull morning.

Anyway, that's enough from me. This month I'm editing the village magazine which goes out in hard copy only and is distributed free, though with ads. And deadline is looming...

*For the article on the anomalous bump in HLC data that CERN has spotted and which may point to new physics. It's an interesting piece, do read it!


  1. I'm with you on New Scientist. I still read it every week, but it doesn't take long now.

  2. It actually makes me feel rather guilty!