Column inches

Ok! So…

Imagine you’re a newspaper. Tabloid or broadsheet, whatever. Rolling through the decades. Create an image in your head of a printing press churning out copy with the occasional headline popping up to signify the passing of time – like in black and white films. Got that image? Right!

So it’s the 80’s and you’re king of the hill. Bloated journos, hacks and editors crams the pubs and bars of fleet street with their puffy stereotypical faces and their whisky and cheap cigarettes. Life hasn’t been this good since before TV came along to steal its share of the news. The champagne highs and the giddy lights are paradise. Then it all starts to go a bit wrong. 1989 and Hillsborough happens. A tragedy for all but the press, who feast on it as they do on anything – good or bad. The problem being that the Sun goes too far. And in doing so manages to alienate the readership of an entire city.

It’s the beginning of a long slow and ugly descent in the 90s, when Robert Maxwell dies and the Mirror group pension fund news hits. Papers suddenly start getting it in the neck. They become news, the libel cases, the controversies. The press stumbles punch drunk from one fight to the next. Satellite TV brings in 24 hour news. The internet arrives with all this free information that means people don’t even need to read something physical – they can plug straight into a real-time updater.. like something from the matrix man!

By the noughties the press doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s an anachronism. People who want news get it straight away. Even costly exclusives and stings backfire a bit – cos half the “exclusives” they fork out good money to deliver get reported on the telly and internet before you can say the word “spoiler” – How many people bought the sun cos’ of a “fake sheik” story? Not many… they already knew the score from a hundred other sources. The golden age is over. No longer do the news junkies hang around street corners waiting to fork out for their daily newsstand fix. They can just go online and it flows intravenously. Or they can get it constantly updated 360 24/7 on the telly. Anything that happens is old news by the time those printing presses have finished spinning. Newspapers don’t even have the privilege of being the chip wrappers of tomorrow. They’re out of date before they get to their readers. They litter the streets, train stations and bus carriages like tumbleweed. There are only two places a newspaper really gets read… the commute to work and the commute from work…

In the tweenies it’s worse. People have APPs for god’s sake. They can read a newspaper for free on their PHONE. WHEN THEY WANT. Desperate times! Even the sugar daddy benefactors looking for a mouthpiece on the streets must be wondering how much they can pour into the black hole before they call it a day.

So… what do they do? How do they remain essential to people? The answer is simples. They reinvent. They stop reporting the NEWS – who cares about that. It’s pouring out of every media orifice all the time anyway. People don’t buy a paper for the news anymore. They have a million websites and a host of TV channels that deliver that instantly. Instead they move away from news into opinion. Instead of telling people the news they tell them WHAT TO THINK about the news.

Columnists have long been a mainstay of the newspaper. That irritating opinionated blather from someone who’s famous for nothing more than having an opinion and the ability to read and write (these days they’d be called bloggers). They usually get specific parts of a newspaper called “opinion” or something – the parts of the paper I’d always skip on my way to the TV or letters or sport or whatever. Anything so I didn’t have to be told what to think by someone.

I dont know where to start here, so I wont

I hate columnists… I always have… I can’t fathom how people should would take it upon themselves to set up a soapbox in a newspaper (the meaning is in the title newspaper.. not opinionsheet) as though the infantile brane of the average reader was incapable of forming an opinion of its own. I remember someone telling me that they hated Julie Birchill but loved her column because she was such a great writer and arguer. Yeah – and Hitler was a great orator… should we start going on about how great his speeches were (my god that’s a tired analogy… sorry…lazy blogging – I’ll be misquoting Martin Niemöller next).

Personally I hate Julie Birchill. I hate Julie Birchill and I hate Richard Littlejohn (a man so far from reality that he actually lives out his own catchphrases. His bile is so strong that you couldn’t make it up and the fact that he has an audience is proof that we’re going to hell in a handcart). Even the less opinionated columns. The Lucy Mangans and Tim Dowlings of the world. Why? Why do they write? Who cares about their weekend musings?

I get it - SatNav, life, direction. Its all sooo deep

The problem is this… columnists are taking over. Newspapers no longer have any hold on news. They might roll out the odd exclusive in a bid to look edgy and cool – but they’re putting all their money on the fact that the bleating sheep in the public want to be told what to think. The evening standard is the best example. A newspaper so annoying that they’ve had to start giving it away to offset dwindling circulation. Rather than bothering to report the news with an “opinion” section it is made up entirely of opinion. Like a big opinion cake looking for some vacuous stomach to fill. Every piece of news in there has a little box next to it with a photo of some columnist or other offering an opinion on that piece of news. Earlier this week there was an article on rebels in Libya asking for more weapons. Next to it was a little column saying why we shouldn’t give them weapons (apparently they “wouldn’t know how to handle them”) as though the British military were all avid standard readers looking for advice from a COLUMNIST about how to proceed with policy.

I don’t know where this will end – but I do know that it will continue. As circulations continue to decline papers will become stronger in the stances they adopt on news – until every paper is little more than a daily manifesto on what the editors think we should be thinking.

Except the Metro. I love the Metro.


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