I bought The Guardian yesterday for the first time in months. It was a bit like bumping into an old boyfriend and finding that the years have been unkind: recognisably the same, but thinner, less interesting and still going on about the same things it had been five years ago.
My love affair with The Guardian (which, until then, I had read for nearly 20 years) started to wane about a year ago. First, The Observer became a shadow of itself; then the editor of the “Weekend” magazine appeared to go on extended leave, leaving the magazine to replicate the same edition every week; and slowly the newspaper – particularly the Saturday edition – started to lose substance. And by substance I don’t particularly mean pages: it began to feel as if all of the editors had left the building. As if no one was putting care and attention into choosing what went onto the page; no one was returning articles to columnists that had clearly been dashed off over lunch; and no one was thinking anything more than “will this do?”.
The thing that bought the relationship to a staggering halt was the iPad edition. It seemed to have been designed with no thought to what was good about a newspaper. For a start, there wasn’t a crossword. The category headings were strangely ordered, giving – for me – undue prominence to sections like Obituaries, a section I never seek out but often read, because it appears at the right point; an opportunity to reflect and look backwards after the hurly burly of news and current affairs. It appeared to lose the idea of serendipity that a really good newspaper (like a really good radio station) offers as a matter of course: while I will happily continue turning the pages of a paper to the end and allow a Business article to catch my eye, I will almost never click on a tab marked “Business”. My self-identified interests are narrow, and I want them to be challenged by a good newspaper editor who shows me the things I should care about. And, most sadly of all, it didn’t feel as if there was anything to read, the layout of the pages confirming the sparseness of the content. On the ultimately paginating and scrollable device, it felt as if there was nothing longer than three-or four-hundred words.
I still look at The Guardian homepage most days, but I’m clicking through less and less often. While my requirement for rolling current affairs in one place has been lessened by Twitter, my interest in comment and analysis (the sort of article that is still interesting to read the day or the week or the month after an event) certainly hasn’t. My interest in what I will now lazily call Proper Journalism and Good Editing certainly remains, and it’s lack of a sense of an editor that pervades both the website and the newspaper.
A 5-minute visit to The Guardian site on Friday afternoon – while I was putting off the last email of the day at my desk – allowed me to glance at a whole slew of articles that I found again in the main newspaper on Saturday. A rather charming piece by Zoe Williams about the town with the lowest male:female ratio in Britain (not exactly a time sensitive scoop) was on the homepage at 5pm on Friday afternoon and in the newspaper on Saturday. A little bit of scheduling could have sent the online version live at midnight on Friday; putting it there on the afternoon of the day before felt like an admission that there was nothing much interesting to say, that they needed to fill a gap so were doing it with whatever came to hand. Surrendering to the importance of churn without having anything of substance to churn.
I notice I’m reading more of The New York Times, which still publishes longer articles filled with investigative reporting, comment and debate. The fact that I’m a reasonably avid reader of Twitter means, I think, that headlines pass before my eyes throughout the course of most days: I’m absorbing the ebb and flow of the news cycle without often needing to click through, so I have more time to read proper stuff. I don’t need to spend 30 minutes each day finding out what happened the day before, because the intake of that kind of news has sped up to almost the pace of my heartbeat. So I have a spare 30 minutes to engage in proper analysis, compelling storytelling and long-form discussion.
The sort of thing I would like to read needs good commissioners – the sort of editors who challenge their contributors and look at the ways stories unfold over the time, the sort with the courage to sack their columnists and find someone new, the sort who commission long-form articles for the magazine rather than simply take extracts from books. I have spare attention and want to use it up; I want to be challenged and provoked by big crashing waves, not provided with additional flotsam that I need to push out of the way.
I cannot, as yet, bring myself to spend my money with Murdoch or succumb to The Telegraph, so I don’t read a newspaper at all. A Tory government of the kind we have now should provide an easy heyday for liberal journalism, so I hope The Guardian editors come back. I miss them.