Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

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Newspapers: do they have a point any more?

January 15, 2018

Today my newspaper of choice, which I’ve read daily for nearly half a century – The Guardian – became a tabloid. It looks okay, but no longer has anything which makes it stand out from any of the other dailies. The short-lived bold Berliner experiment ran out of steam and money: no-one could have foreseen how rapidly so many people would give up print for online news… and I found myself thinking: is there any real point to newspapers any more?

Once, newspapers were the only news; first radio and then TV scooped them. And now the internet offers instant updates. Once newspapers offered news; now they try to offer everything: a whole range of features, opinion, columnists trying to be funny, cookery, lifestyle, advice on relationships. Once newspapers had relatively few pages and were readable on the day of publication in a reasonable space of time; now there are pages to plough through. Once the Sunday paper was a treat to gorge on.

I only occasionally buy a print Guardian at a weekend, and when I do, it’s frustrating, because I’ve read half of it before, at different times during the week: online articles aren’t attached to particular days, and the overall effect is to make it even less likely I’ll bother with print. And I suspect I only look at about a quarter of what appears online, anyway.

I could never have imagined life without my daily dose of print, and yet, here I am, reading the paper online every morning – no more cold and wet trips to the corner newsagent. It comes rather cheaper, of course, and this is an issue for all newspapers: where’s the money? The Guardian seems, slowly, to be finding its way with a subscription and donation model, helped by the web broadening its world readership. And I grind my teeth about the random and irrelevant US and Australian stories. But they get some cash from me because I love the online crossword app.

The Times disappeared behind a paywall, but I won’t give money to Murdoch on principle, end of story. The Daily Telegraph, which I used regularly to look at to see what the enemy was up to, has developed a ‘premium’ (ie give us money) label for an ever-increasing number of its stories, and this has led to a bastardisation of good journalism, in that most stories now begin with a couple of paragraphs of knitted words that tell you nothing, in order to tempt you to stump up money to read the real article just as it disappears behind the paywall… ha ha, fooling no-one there… On the other hand, I do have access to far more titles, whereas I only ever bought one print newspaper a day.

As I grow older I regularly have to remind myself that I’m not the regular or average punter that most newspapers (or shops, for that matter) actually want; I’m on the margins, looking for something that doesn’t really exist. When I began reading newspapers, I wanted (and found) the news reported clearly, fully and intelligently, and some detailed and thoughtful analysis to develop my understanding of issues. That’s pretty rare now, particularly the analysis, for which I’ve gone to a French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique (there is an English edition) for the last twenty years. English newspapers are full of rent-a-scribe columnists paid by the yard to pontificate, to provoke or to try and be funny, none of which is terribly useful in terms of trying to understand an increasingly mad world.

I can’t see print newspapers existing for much longer; I can see them shrinking to weekly publications focused on analysis rather than news, although I suspect the ‘infotainment’ angle will still dominate. There will be far fewer of them. Someone will eventually sort out how to make micropayments work, I hope.

The thing that depresses me more than anything is the large number of people I see picking up and paying for the Daily Mail, imagining they are buying a proper newspaper, rather than a nasty, right-wing propaganda-sheet. It says something about the very sad state of this country at the moment.

My A-Z of Reading: N is for Newspapers

December 4, 2016

serveimageI’ve always been fascinated by newspapers; I collect them: historical events and countries of the world. So if any of my readers are in a position to get me a newspaper from Mongolia or Greenland – in a local language – I’ll be very grateful, as these are gaps in my collection. Similarly, I’m open to offers for my copy of The New York Times (genuine) reporting the first manned moon landing…

Newspapers have been around for well over three centuries, and one of the things that interested me as a child was that my home town claimed the oldest local paper in the land, the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury as it was then. I cringe at having been brought up reading the Daily Mail, a rag the country should genuinely be ashamed of. But at boarding school we were provided with The Guardian and The Times and it has been the former that I’ve stuck with all my life.

Newspapers were serious publications; I say were advisedly, for they have changed beyond all recognition in my lifetime. They used to be straightforward, black and white publications with perhaps sixteen to twenty broadsheet pages, containing news, sport, a couple of pages of comment and analysis, and different pages on different days reviewing concerts, books and the like. Today we have largely tabloid newspapers, in colour – often lurid – and several sections: far more paper, and far more froth and knitted words filling them. It often seems that any nonentity who can’t write a sentence can be a columnist. And all the lifestyle nonsense and celebrity stuff, even in the most serious of papers. The Daily Telegraph – known as the Morning Fascist to me (know your enemy) – used to be a serious newspaper of record in which one could ignore the rabid columnists and laugh oneself silly at the Peter Simple column. Now it is a shadow of its former self.

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Television and the internet have happened, and newspapers in Britain don’t know what to do with themselves. The Germans have the answer, I feel: serious and sober, few concessions to the latest trends, it seems, and focusing on quality, in-depth reporting and analysis. Le Monde used to do this in France – a newspaper famous for not using any photographs at all back in the old days. But it has changed, and caught the British disease. And Liberation, which mocked everyone and everything, a newspaper for anarchists – look at it now! And the culture of local and regional dailies helps both France and Germany avoid most of the worst excesses of our gutter press.

Let’s be serious for a moment. I’m not buying a newspaper for news any more. News I get online. Even newspapers recognise this and go to print earlier and earlier in the evening. So what can a newspaper offer that the web and television can’t? In-depth reporting, and serious political and social analysis still reads better – to me, but am I just old? – in print. Articles about culture, books, education and music are plentiful online, but I like reading good writing in print. Do I need colour for this? Not very much, to be honest. And do I need a dose of this every day? Again, probably not. A decent newspaper could probably come out twice a week, just as some did a couple of centuries ago, or even weekly, which is what Sunday newspapers do, or in countries like France and Germany where the culture of the weekly news magazine is still strong, what magazines like L’Obs or Der Spiegel do.

Newspapers are wrestling with how to survive and make money in the internet age, but do not seem to be trying much that’s new. Where is micro-payment for articles, where are sensible and clear subscription options in Britain? I feel awkward – I won’t admit to more than that – reading so much stuff for nothing, and I block ads because newspapers farm out advertising to all sorts of weasels who spray malware in all directions. I’d pay for stuff if there was a sensible way and I knew what I was getting if I signed up to a subscription deal. I’ve tried several times to get The Guardian to tell me what exactly I would get for being a subscriber and they haven’t responded… so no money from me.

I can’t see newspapers actually disappearing – though I’d like the Sun and the Daily Mail to, and The Independent has vanished from print, but what will I be reading in ten years time?

On being informed…

December 13, 2015

images (1)    imagesI’ve always felt it’s important to make sure I’m well-informed about what’s going on in the world, and not just what will affect me. This has usually meant reading newspapers and magazines on current affairs, and I think it’s getting progressively harder to keep up with the world…

I discount television and radio, which are by nature less detailed. Television is more concerned with images, even though a picture may perhaps be worth a thousand words. Nowadays it’s about mugshots of nonentities standing pointlessly in front of buildings and holding forth in a few sceonds about issues that need hours… Radio sometimes does better; some programmes on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service are dedicated to analysis in depth.

It is the downhill path of almost all the printed media, particularly in this country, that concerns me most. We once had a quality press that could be counted on to consider important issues with some seriousness. The Guardian excelled in many fields, particularly analysis, the Daily Telegraph in the scope and depth of its news coverage. The Independent used to be serious and once lived up to its founders’ ideals. I’m certainly not convinced it’s just about my growing older, but all the papers seem to aim at frothy lifestyle coverage more than serious news, all aimed at a younger readership who are less likely to buy printed newspapers, and in the process are driving away older readers who might. I know we will eventually fall off our perches (that’s the story of the Daily Express par excellence), but meantime we might buy the papers and respond to the adverts.

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I won’t knowingly buy any Murdoch-owned paper, but the other three ‘serious’ papers have grown ever more trashy. There used to be many columnists who knew their field and wrote knowledgeably. Now Gary Younge has stopped his reporting for the Guardian on the US; Tim Garton Ash still manages to provide reflective coverage on Eastern Europe, and the Independent’s Robert Fisk is far and away the best writer on the Middle East. Otherwise it’s columnists writing by the yard to fill a regular allotted space, no matter whether they have anything meaningful to say or not…

It’s the fact that one needs to write at length to explore and analyse a topic thoroughly that’s at the heart of the problem: today’s reporters (!) and readers either have, or are judged to have, the attention span of a hamster. In English, serious and lengthy commentary appears in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, but, although they do print more general articles, they are, as their names suggest, primarily about books. Le Monde Diplomatique (do not let the title put you off) allows its reporters and analysts the space – one or two full pages, quite often; they write knowledgeably and analyse in depth, from a left-wing perspective. And the magazine is available in lots of different languages. Increasingly I respect and rely on its analysis. There are no pictures (!) and a dossier most months consisting of a series of articles examining a particular issue of world moment.

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How important is all this? I’ve had a bit of a rant here, and don’t apologise for it; I always used to tell my students to beware of anyone who came along offering simple solutions ot problems. Intelligent people deserve better than what the British press currently offers them.

 

 

Newspapers: a digression

December 6, 2015

pravda39It occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time reading newspapers; I’ve been fascinated by them since my youngest years, and indeed have collected them since then, newspapers from all parts of the world bought back by friends and acquaintances who have visited far-flung parts, and newspapers recording great events during my lifetime. Note to readers: I’m still looking for a newspaper in Mongolian script, from that country…). I remember exploring derelict houses looking for old newspapers in my younger days, and finding them, too.

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Newspapers contain frozen glimpses of the past, and that’s one of the reasons I find them so appealing: a history book has an overview, the benefit of hindsight, reflection and analysis, whereas a day’s paper only has what is known up to the previous evening, along with the unknown. So, my copy of The Daily Telegraph dated 7 June 1944 tells us that the Allies have successfully landed in Normandy – that’s all. Yes, now we know that they weren’t flung back into the sea by the Nazis, but readers on that day didn’t, and their perspective was different, and it’s only by going back to the newspapers of the time that we can perhaps understand that.

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Newspaper history seems to me to fall into four eras. There is the period of print only, lasting from the seventeenth to early twentieth century: very sober-looking newspapers, with small print and small headlines, usually only the width of a single column. Pictures appear after the end of the Great War; there are what we recognise as headlines, there are greater efforts with layout and design, and often newspapers of considerable beauty. When we get to the 1990s, colour begins to replace monochrome, eventually driving it out completely, and often producing something rather garish, too concerned with being eye-catching rather than informative, desperate to be as good as TV when that wasn’t possible. And the most recent transformation is still ongoing, with the transfer from print to the web; no-one is sure how far this will go, whether print newspapers will survive or disappear, and whether this will be any great loss or not… Personally, I can’t see the daily print editions of newspapers surviving much longer; I think we may revert to weekly editions, perhaps more magazine-like; indeed this seems to be happening in some countries.

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Britain has some of the oldest newspapers in the world, such as The Times, The Observer and The Guardian; other countries have had to re-invent their press after the Second World War, such as France, where all the dailies had collaborated with the wartime regimes and were shut down; newspapers had to be re-invented in Germany too, many having disappeared voluntarily post-1933 and the rest having been assimilated into the Nazi press. Post 1989, many of Eastern Europe’s newspapers have managed to re-invent themselves after being government mouthpieces for many years… you can still get Pravda, though Lenin might not recognise it!

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Newspapers are ephemera. Many items in my collection are yellowing and crumbling. They were perhaps much more powerful in the past than they are now, sidelined as they are by television and the internet, with plummeting circulations and increasing irrelevance. But their disappearance would be a great loss, I think.

 

 

Ephemera

June 10, 2014

Ephemera: I just love the sound of that word…almost onomatopoeic!

I’ve been thinking about how my reading habits have changed since the arrival of the internet, and wondering about the implications of the changes.

For starters, I no longer buy, and read from cover to cover (apart from the sports pages) a daily newspaper. Partly this is because my newspaper of choice (The Guardian, since you ask) has changed markedly over the same time period, along with all the others: less serious news, and more froth, showbiz, personalities, lifestyle and consumption. Instead I ‘look through’ several newspapers online, and read the few articles that attract my interest. But: do I read them as carefully? do I take in as much of what I read? do I attribute the same weight and importance to those articles? I suspect not, because they are surrounded by dross.

I’ve pretty much given up on magazines, too. I still take National Geographic, partly for the stunning photography, and partly because it takes me to parts of the world I’ll never get to. But even its in depth articles are shorter and shallower that they used to be. The only periodical I’m really attached to is Le Monde Diplomatique, a serious, analytical current affairs monthly, which hasn’t succumbed to the trivialisation that I feel has gone on elsewhere . Can you see my dead colonel’s hat yet?)

Yet I love the wealth of writing I can access online… as a serious reader I can read some of the brilliant stuff on the London Review of Books site, and the New York Review of Books, and Magazine Litteraire. I get the selection of interesting stuff selected by the editors of Arts & Letters Daily. I can look at political reviews, computing magazines…anything I like.

So I read a lot online – or am I just grazing? time-wasting? being sucked in to a world of trivia (except, as you can see above, I’m kidding myself that it’s real quality high-brow trivia, not everyone else’s Mail Online rubbish) and neglecting the real world of books? And if I wanted to do something about avoiding all this eye-candy, could I?

I suppose this all brings me back to an issue that I’ve been interested in, and followed for quite a while now: the idea that reading online, with its ability to flit effortlessly from page to page and idea to idea via a wealth of hyperlinks, is changing the way we think, the way we interact with and process the content of text. Recently I’ve come across several references (online!) to the fact that many students prefer reading real printed textbooks because they feel that they actually take in more than from a digital text. Also, there’s the idea that reading a printed book, with its visual layout and the way we can use it, maps itself onto our brain in a more complete and useful way than a digital book can…

Somehow, when I can tell myself that this is happening to other people, I feel safer (perhaps more smug?!) than when I realise that something similar is happening to me.

Help!

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