Why Are US Newspapers Better Than Ours?

Great Britain

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A writer at the Daily Mail once told me about her dream story for the paper; one that upsets and angers the reader in equal measure. The Mail is massively successful, selling an average of 1.5 million copies on weekdays, 2.4 million on Saturdays. Only the Sun sells more. Its readers include more from the top social classes (A, B and C1) than the almost anyone. It’s said that Paul Dacre, the editor,  instinctively knows which issues and stories will hold the attention of Middle England.

The New Statesman pointed out that in one year (2014) the Mail angrily reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax, that asylum-seekers had targeted Scotland, that disabled babies were being euthanised, that a Tamil refugee on hunger strike was secretly eating burgers, that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his country, that recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming rather than face medicals, that a Portsmouth school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan, that wolves would soon return to Britain, that nearly half the electricity produced by wind farms was discarded. All of these reports were false.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. The paper gets away with publishing thousands of lies while invading privacy because the penalties for doing so are a joke, and they’re rich. Dacre is private, hidden, humourless. There is no dirt to be found on him, or if there is, nobody dares report it. The Mail is filled with nostalgia for an England that never was. Its website is now the most popular news site in the world.

People don’t read because of ideology, and nor should they. They read because of what interests them. But newspaper power is declining rapidly. The Telegraph (which has some fine reporters) has switched to subscription, which will probably pay off for them as they have a moneyed readership. Subscription fails at the lower end of the market. The Mail has cannily not charged for its site, which clearly accounts for much of its readership. People migrate to wherever news is free.

But how can you trust what you read? As a student I wanted to be a journalist, until it looked likely that the ‘two sources’ rule in the UK was to be dropped. Without it most news becomes hearsay, or is at least suspect.

US journalism is generally far better than ours. Its reporters are grounded in generations of integrity. Papers like the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are deeply respected because of their carefully nuanced, accurate journalism. Such newspapers balance politics, economics and social stories, providing an overview of what is happening in their spheres. They do so with an intelligent understanding of their readership that does not pander to base tastes and untrue stories. The New York Times view of British politics is usually far more accurate than anything we produce.

Of course there are bad news outlets in the US as well; the borderline insane Fox Channel is occasionally worth watching for the way it blurs mad opinion and fake facts. But generally speaking, American journalists face a far more rigorous training-up period to become writers on their papers. They win trust and are honoured accordingly. Here we hire ‘celebrity’ columnists who have ghost writers.

But as digital media replaces paper, people are free to choose where they get their news. And often US papers do a better job of covering the UK than we do. It will be interesting to see if UK readers move to better news sources outside the UK. I’m guessing a great many will still want to read about Celebrity Big Brother stars in the Mail Online.

14 comments on “Why Are US Newspapers Better Than Ours?”

  1. Brooke says:

    Christopher, I get your point, and well articulated it is. However, a quibble about journalism in the States. Print news outlets, the Sun-Times, NYT, are targeted to the business and legal class, and are a different class of beast. Indeed, if you’re in business school here, you must subscribe to NYT and/or WSJ because lecture topics often reflect the headlines. The publishers are not giving up this lucrative trade by lowering standards. And these news assets have access to capital; they moved rapidly to web-based, mobile technology, further expanding the franchise. The equivalent is the Financial Times.

    We call papers like the Daily Mail “Supermarket Tabloids;” The National Enquirer is the oldest example. Each city has its version; in New York, it’s the Post, which today has horrible texts supposedly from people who were killed in the Orlando tragedy. But let’s face it, there will always be a Sarah Palin segment in society who love and adore the bigoted headlines and swear by Fox News.

    I’m encouraged by a wide variety of on-line media (not Huffington Post!). Finding sound news and opinion sources is like Arthur solving a crime– cast a wide net for sources and use your critical thinking skills.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for this, Brooke, and I take your point. I did also choose not to focus on the downmarket tabloids because the US gets too much knocking copy from the UK as it is. Over here this morning the Daily Mail (which does not regard itself as a tabloid, hilariously) chose to completely ignore the biggest gun massacre and hate crime in US history and instead ran a nasty little piece of knocking copy on immigrants. Mail readers, by the admission of its own staff, tend to be ‘suburban housewives who aren’t too smart’. It’s this peculiar middle ground that seems to have no equivalent in the US.

  3. snowy says:

    I’m not sure much has fundamentally changed in the UK papers since these lines were written 30 years ago. [The boundries might have blurred slightly or the race to the gutter become more brazen.]

    James Hacker PM:

    Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

    Sir Humphrey:

    Oh and Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

    Bernard:

    Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.

  4. Brooke says:

    Christopher, the suburban housewife market is exactly the audience for the National Enquirer, etc. That’s why we call them “supermarket tabloids.” They specialize in Princess Di stories and tearing down the educated, like Hillary Clinton, etc. They are sliding down the economic scale because they and their spouses are cannot fit into the new cognitive economy. Sorry but this is a market segment on both sides of the Pond.

  5. George Mealor says:

    Snowy left me rolling on the floor with that one.

    News publishing is largely a West End play, the editors pick and choose the stories that make up what we get to see and read.

  6. admin says:

    I just realised that the woman screaming ‘We need to kill them!’ is a JUDGE. *Drops head in hands*

  7. Roger says:

    Which US papers do a better job of covering the UK than we do? I’ve given up papers ’til we leave/don’t leave the EU.

    I used to go to a pub in Kensington – one of the last ones with a separate public bar. Paul Dacre used to use it too; the regulars maintained it was so he could save 5p on a pint; the landlord said it was because his journalists used the other bar. One of the public bar’s regular customers was an elderly Scotsman who used to denounce Dacre whenever he came across him. As a result, we could see the personified Voice of Middle England peering nervously round the pub door to see if it was safe to come in.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    (American judges are elected, not appointed. If anyone ever asks why there are appointed positions in our country, that’s the example I give. I know there are valid arguments against appointments but a judge that has won a popularity contest to get there is a scary thought.)
    I am a suburban housewife. Housewives in my neighbourhood include a trained dietician, a chemist with a librarians’s degree, another elementary teacher, a volunteer at a mentally disabled community, and a legal receptionist. Most of them were home raising children for large pieces of their lives, but most went back to work until retirement usually for monetary reasons. The media should be very careful how they categorise people.

  9. snowy says:

    Words by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, even those who have never seen the 5 series of Yes Minister/Yes Primeminister, might have faintly recognised JL’s style from ‘Clue’, starring Tim Curry etc.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I feel it is just about time to re-run the Yes, Minister, etc series. There is no need for a re-write because the more things change, plus c’est la meme chose. For example, see above. The books were lovely, too, because the documents were all there with proper headings, notes and all.

  11. KRISTEN OTTOSON says:

    A note to Helen: American judges aren’t elected. They are appointed by legislative bodies. In my state we do get to vote on whether or not to retain an appointed judge, but that’s the only vote we get to give on judges. Political parties like to load judicial vacancies in their own favor, thus the large number of vacant seat we now have in the judiciary. The president appoints; the senate won’t approve. No system is without its problems.

  12. Andrew Meyers says:

    Two quick thoughts:
    As a resident of Chicago, I am blessed with two respected newspapers, the Sun-Times and the Tribune. The Sun-Times is closer to my politics, but the Trib is slightly better written and edited. I realize that this makes me very lucky, and that it cannot last…
    Secondly, I am very surprised to hear you praise our news media over yours. During the horrible events in Orlando, I was getting actual reporting and facts from the BBC online, while every American outlet was spewing rumors and spin.
    (Granted, the BBC is not a newspaper) I routinely look to the the foreign press for a clear view of things here that might be politically charged in the reporting.

  13. Jo W says:

    Hi,Helen! Yes Prime Minister is being run again over here on our yesterday channel and I watched the episode with those lines just last week. It always makes me smile.

  14. John says:

    How good can American journalism be if the Americans commenting here are so uninformed about their own country?
    1. Federal judges are appointed for life. At the state and local level, judges may be appointed, appointed but subject to retention elections, or elected for fixed terms. It varies from state to state.
    2. That every city has its version of the New York Post is hilariously wrong. Few cities have more than one paper, and of those, only Boston with the Herald has anything like the Post.
    3. Newspapers, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal, are not aimed at the “business and legal class.” For one thing, few Americans would use that term. More to the point, most printed papers are aimed at the middle class, and more specifically at retirees. The New York Times is the only general news paper that consistently serves an elite audience. Even the Washington Post, while it caters to the political class, does so while simultaneously serving up middle-class content.
    4. It’s been many years since anyone confused the Chicago Sun-Times with high-quality journalism.
    5. The supermarket tabloids are called that because that’s where they’re sold. The idea that they “tear down the educated, like Hillary Clinton,” is ludicrous. They feast on celebrities and freaks, with far less concern for the truth than any British paper (indeed, most of them disdain the truth, which is far too expensive to obtain).
    6. Turn off your TV, Andrew. Many US news sites, most notably the hometown Orlando Sentinel’s, provided carefully worded, well-sourced coverage of the shooting.

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