Newspaper publishers’ marketing departments gather stacks of data on who reads their titles, how, when and where, but why do we read newspapers at all? It is easy for the digerati to sneer at us for our loyalty to this 20th century medium and they point out that our news is already 24 hours old by the time we read it. This may be true but I have come to realise that the reasons I read several newspapers every day have little to do with the news. I know I could watch TV, listen to the radio or surf the net for the latest headlines and I sometimes hear a quick update from the radio – it’s hard to avoid, after all. So I generally have some idea of what the media has conspired to serve to us in any given news period. However, these headlines tend to be sensational or hysterical. When aired on TV, they are usually accompanied by gratuitous pictures of the grieving partner, the scene of the crime, the building where the victim worked, the photo-fit of the suspect and so on, none of which bring any depth to the coverage. I am not interested by these immediate, superficial details but crave, instead, the following day’s considered coverage by a seasoned journalist with experience of the subject. Although even the quality newspapers sometimes run similarly sensational headlines and pictures and contain the same soundbite quotations, read on and your patience will usually be rewarded by substance – background information such as maps, graphs, longer quotes, opinions from experts, precedents, context, history.
It may be that the same story is significant enough to be covered by one of the paper’s columnists in a thoughtful essay on its implications, perhaps a plea to the community for vigilance, to politicians to change the law, or to the judiciary to increase sentences. These comments appear on the “Op-Ed” pages, clearly separated from the news items that inspired them, and tend to express the character of the publication. These pages are the heart and soul of any newspaper. For my money, you could almost keep the rest of the paper and just send me the Op-Ed sections from all the quality press each day. This is where the serious discussion of important matters takes place. The world is a complicated place and it is in our nature to try and simplify it lest we are overwhelmed. I like to have an opinion on the important issues of the day but I need reliable help in forming it. What should we do about the banks, nuclear power, immigration, the electoral system? If you subscribed to the Op-Ed pages of all the quality press you would have a distilled conversation about our response to topical affairs. Including titles from all parts of the political spectrum will flush out all the arguments. There is no good reason to stick only with the paper that seems best to reflect your own prejudices. You must always seek out the alternatives so you can finally be satisfied that you have thoroughly explored the subject before coming to your own conclusion.
My conclusion is that, now the newspaper publishers are offering their products in a variety of digital formats, they should consider collaborating to offer someone like me all the Op-Ed pages for the price of a quality newspaper. Whilst this preference might be of limited appeal, I suspect there will be other readers who are particularly interested in the business pages, or the personal finance section, maybe sport, foreign news or entertainments. Why not serve them the one section from all the papers? I would expect publishers to charge a premium for this service, to prevent readers buying their products piecemeal at less than the total ‘cover’ price. This principle could also allow a discerning subscriber to build his own newspaper by choosing the Home News from The Guardian, Foreign News from The Independent, sports pages from The Telegraph, the business section from The Times and so on. This might lead a publication to focus on its most successful sections or bolster its weakest. It could also encourage a reader to become a new subscriber to the whole publication if the quality of the ‘sample’ section is compelling.
Perhaps a soccer fan who normally reads a red-top could be encouraged to take the sports section of a quality paper for the match reports on a Sunday or Monday.
So, offering content in a more ‘granular’ format is one way that newspaper publishers could co-operate to grow the market rather than confining themselves to competing with each other for a bigger slice of an ever-shrinking pie. In short, I am suggesting that newspapers should granulate and co-operate.