Monday, October 15, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            About seven weeks ago, a rep of the New Zealand Herald rang me up and asked me if I, as a non-subscriber, would like to receive free delivery of the newspaper for four weeks. Absolutely free, she insisted, and with no obligation to subscribe if I didn’t want to.

            Being an impecunious chap, I accepted on this assurance.

            I also felt a little twinge of pity for old Granny Herald.

            Television meant that evening papers took a battering and began to die before morning papers did. The morning Herald’s Auckland evening rival the Auckland Star disappeared years ago. But even newer media and “news platforms” (starting with the internet) mean that morning papers are now taking their own pounding. As a former Herald executive said in the recent article in Metro, the Herald’s circulation has fallen from a peak of nearly 250,000 in the 1980s to little more than 170,000 now. It continues to fall. So, inevitably, does the newspaper’s advertising revenue. I knew that the “free delivery” offer was one of the Herald’s stratagems to win back both readers and advertisers.

            The other stratagem was the newspaper’s re-formatting from broadsheet to tabloid, which occurred halfway through the free delivery period. (The Auckland Star also went tabloid - shortly before it folded.)

            It was quite interesting to receive a daily newspaper in the house for four weeks, having not received one for many years.

            I do not wish to be hypocritical about newspapers. If I see one in a cafĂ© or waiting-room, I will of course pick it up and read it. I have frequently written for newspapers. For exactly ten years I was film reviewer for the (defunct) Auckland Star. I used to contribute frequent book reviews to the Dominion-Post and I still sometimes contribute book reviews to the (weekly) Sunday Star-Times, to which I do subscribe.

            But I have my misgivings about daily newspapers.

            In the first place, who really has time to read them daily – apart from the elderly, the unemployed or those who don’t have more substantial things to read?

            In my four weeks of receiving a buckshee Herald, I found I had time to glance over the headlines and give the rest of the paper a quick squizz before dashing off to work. By the time I returned home, if I wanted any news I would either watch our (admittedly very defective) free-to-air television news half-hour, or I would go on line and check out the BBC and other sources. I looked at the Herald after work only to make sure that I wasn’t making a superficial judgement on it.

            In the second place, I did not find the mix of news and opinion in the Herald any more detailed, informed or literate than what can be found on line or in non-print media. I found trivia stories often given front-page play (as they often are on TV bulletins, of course). While there was some political and economic analysis, it was overwhelmed by the plethora of regular featured columnists, who more than anything came across as a bunch of opinionated nobodies. Give me a newspaper columnist, and I will give you a peddler of commonplaces or popular prejudices. (Okay, okay – I’m being a columnist myself here, and you’re welcome to treat me to a few stones if you think I’m living in a glass house).

            Then, curiously, there was the matter of the new format (although you will notice that the Saturday edition of the Herald – where there are more classified ads to accommodate – remains a broadsheet.). When the weekday Herald switched to being a tabloid, there was of course a media campaign to tell us how much more convenient this was. On cue – and perhaps having been given a media handout from the Herald – the TV news said that, after all, there had only ever been broadsheets because, hundreds of years ago, governments taxed newspapers per page, so canny newspaper owners adopted the broadsheet format to have fewer taxable pages.

            Probably true, but nevertheless one of those convenient bits of ‘history” that are retrieved only when there is an ulterior motive.

            Rationally or otherwise, I reacted badly to the tabloid format. Sorry, but added to the newspaper’s other defects there was now the obvious visual association with the down-market sleaze-press. The (defunct) NZ Truth or News of the World.

            So I had two rational, and one emotive, reasons for giving a negative judgement on this newspaper.

            Many moons ago, I used to teach adolescents a course on newspapers and their importance in the world. Much of the material I used was drawn from “Newspapers in Education” material. The unspoken assumption of the course was that newspapers were a way of helping people to be literate, and separating them from the illiterate non-newspaper-reading masses.

            I no longer believe this. At this point I hope I don’t have to convince you that I am a literate person who (as you might have noticed) does quite a lot of serious reading. I am not turning away from daily newspapers because I can’t cope with them. I am turning away from them because I don’t need them.

            In response to an earlier posting, one reader has already told me that nothing can replace for readers the “viewing portal” that is a well-laid-out broadsheet page. The sentimental part of me agrees, but my reason is not so sure about it.

            My main experience of four weeks free delivery of a newspaper was to acquire much clutter in the form of newsprint. We were glad to dispose of it in the paper rubbish collection. You, if you do not like what I have been saying, may blip me off screen and I will leave no mess.

            I did not take out a subscription.

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