Let The Sun Set. Let’s Have The New York Times Instead.
With Rupert Murdoch in town to clean out the Augean stables of News International, the general theory is that he’ll leave the Sun newspaper twisting in the wind and concentrate on overseas arms. And why not?
Choice isn’t everything. The UK may have eleven or twelve national newspapers but it now lacks a single newspaper offering a quality benchmark as high as the New York Times. The Times and the Sunday Times took an appreciable step down to populism when NI became involved in 1981, and that was a deal predicated on the restructuring (i.e. breaking) of the print unions in favour of new technology.
Everyone knows that print unionists’ behaviour in the seventies was detrimental to a free press, but while we concentrated on the end of hot type, the Times brand was turned into an upmarket version of the Daily Mail. This was not the fault of the journalists; the newly reactionary tone of The Thunderer was decided by directives from above.
The Sun launched an even more mealy-mouthed attack on public sensibilities, with its now notorious headlines and features – and yet even this stance was preferable to its next incarnation, when it became a toothless slave to soap celebrity and manufactured telly rows.
Like the News Of The World, the Sun stopped causing outrage long ago. Murdock recognised that its readership (and the readership of the Times) could be pandered to and satiated without wasting money on real news. Technology is partly to blame – no longer do journalists spend a year court-reporting, and it’s impossible to spend your day conducting interviews and fact-checking when you have to file not one but ten stories in the same time.
The New York Times maintains a position that is the envy of the world thanks to a rigorous awareness of what it has to lose. In the same way, BBC Radio Four provides a level of excellence that encourages others. The problem, of course, is that so-called ‘quality’ programmes (like ‘Newsnight’, which fights to contain so much information in a small slot) have tiny audiences compared to almost everything else.
One thing changing the landscape is the quality of online podcasts in NYC and London that make most of the old radio stations, which were designed to be heard in factories, sound dated and redundant. And if we want trashy gossip we can also get that from the internet, which leaves newspapers as something of a baroque luxury.
This suggests that it’s the papers at the top that will gain, and the ones at the bottom that will be edged out. I don’t count the Daily Mail, which maintains its hugely successful figures by merely parroting readers’ fears and suspicions back at them.
When computer technology first changed our world, we thought it would free the poorly paid from drudgery with essentially robotic jobs being handled by machines, but that’s not what happened. Those jobs remained – there’s always someone who can be forced to work longer hours for less – and the middle-range jobs, accountants, managers, engineers, technicians – were the ones replaced by technology. So it is with news – the internet has created millions of providers who happily work for nothing, and the middle-range professionals have lost their jobs.
The mantra is that ‘content cannot remain free’ and yet the evidence still points to the reverse. The reasons for closing the Sun and the NOTW is the result of shameful corrupt practices first learned in the 1980s, but closure would not be considered an option if these papers were effortlessly successful. In the same way, paper books will continue (and perhaps even hardbacks, although I’m not sure what purpose they’re meant to serve) but as a luxury for the middle classes.
If the tabloids all collapsed tomorrow and we gained the New York Times in their place, would there be a public outcry about the loss of information about Strictly Come Dancing? Of course not, because it’s now provided by online content. The problem here is that the New York Times would have to carve its reader demographic from the UK broadsheet pie; recent research showed that when the NOTW vanished, its readers did not join other newspapers. They simply broke a long-outdated habit and stopped buying.
If the Sun goes, we’ll miss their bottom-fixated headlines, but very little else.