Sunday, 17 July 2011

All The News In The World

I've been trying to write this post now for nearly two weeks and, frankly, it's been impossible.

As anyone who's not been hiding down a hole recently will know, Britain is currently going through some rather dramatic revelations regarding, largely, illegal phone hacking undertaken by our then best selling Sunday tabloid "newspaper" The News of the World. This has, at the time of writing, resulted in the shock closure of said 'paper, the arrest of ex-editor and ex-Head of Communications for the Conservative Party, Andy Coulson, the resignation of the NotW's ex-editor and parent company News International's CEO, Rebekah Brooks, FBI investigations into State-side phone hacking, huge payoffs signed off by Murdoch junior, the complete replacement of the Press Complaints Commission and two judge-led inquiries, one into the general hacking and police payments scandal and another into the culture and ethics of the British media.*Phew*

In fact, it turns out that even just what I've written there is now already out of date. I just Googled "phone hacking arrests" and it turns out Rebekah Brooks has now been arrested too. 53 minutes ago and counting. Basically, no matter how fast I type, I have to bear in mind that this is already a historical document. If you're reading this on Monday, you might as well be reading the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With such dramatic news conditions taking place, in which the expression "breaking news" has started to lose all meaning - red hot stories have about 30 minutes until they're reduced to room temperature by the next slab of sizzling revelations - it leaves the more casual opiner (i.e. those of us not doing this for a living) woefully behind the curve to get digital pen onto virtual paper before the world has moved on. In the hour or so that I get of a lunchtime at work, I usually try and pull together useful links and quotes and such for the next post; this week, most of my notes were irrelevant by home time.

It's not just me though, anyone who reads a daily newspaper must be feeling the same. I'd often catch the headlines of The Metro on the way in to work, only to find that by the time I'd had a look at the BBC website, The Metro was already yesterday's news. Flicking through my mate's daily copy of The Guardian, who were responsible for breaking most of this story, seemed oddly quaint compared to the online onslaught.

To me it seems kind of ironic that a relentless pace of a news story about the conduct of newspapers is demonstrating the slow transition to irrelevance that many newspapers now face. Getting the initial 'scoop' aside, once a story is out in the wild, once daily paper-printed updates seem somewhat archaic. This week I imagine journalists must have been submitting their articles of an evening, praying that nothing new broke that either required a significant late-night rewrite or simply made the whole thing seem like ancient history before people started buying a copy in the morning.

The online spread of information is delivered in minutes, even seconds; whether it's Guardian journo George Monboit's or C4's Jon Snow's blogs, or Alistair Campbell's or John Prescott's instantly tweeted commentary, the latest breaking news is there at your fingertips just as quick as you can search. 24-hour news channels pump out updates with mechanical regularity, looping the coverage round and round, updating and amending the narrative as it happens.

So where does this leave the (real) newspapers? Do we still need them or are they, like their news stories, rapidly heading out of date?

To me it seems that the printed press has three distinct advantages: its ability to break stories by investing time and money into its journalists, the in-depth analysis they have room to provide and the fact that by being a physical medium it presents all the information in the same place. The BBC may tell you all the same facts, but they won't give you much of the back story or three different people's opinions while they're at it, or not usually without watching three different programs. Online reporting may be first off the blocks, but they can't guarantee the weight of impact that the morning press can (or perhaps not yet). Most online breaking news is also intended to have a very short shelf life, hastily written in the race to be first, never intended to set the world alight with its insight; similarly if it doesn't make the homepage there's a greatly reduced chance it will get read at all. Journalist's personal blogs are good swift opinion, but always seem mindful of saving the best for their more lucrative main events; those sites that do specialise in more heavyweight analysis, like Truthdig for instance, also seem slightly restricted by it, sacrificing fluidity of reporting for depth of content.

So while I think the printed press is not without its limitations, it still holds its niche in its ability to provide both ends of the spectrum in one handy format. The problem for their future, it seems, may not just lie with the delivery of the content, but probably more in the time that people can dedicate to reading it. People aren't buying newspapers because they don't want to read one, they're not buying them because they don't have time.

It's hard for me to say what it was like 20 years ago, being 10 and not overly interested in the news at the time, and why the pace of life has supposedly increased as such that we can't enjoy a newspaper every day. Perhaps there are more distractions today, more things vying for our attention that we feel sparing a whole 30 minutes or an hour with The Independent is too much. Probably its more likely that we pick up the basics from The Metro, more news through osmosis from the internet throughout the day and top up with Channel 4 News over dinner to warrant any extra time dedicated to a whole other newspaper (cynics might suggest that perhaps a greater percentage of the population would prefer to top up with Hollyoaks and the problem lies down that road instead).

Whatever the true reason for the decline of (real) newspapers, I think that they still currently provide news in a way, both content and delivery-wise, that isn't quite available elsewhere. If we are moving to a print-news free world, I think that we should be careful not to lose more than we gain. I'm not saying that we should all buy papers we don't want or read, but that perhaps those newspapers or other similar services need to think about that gap in the online market and exploit it.

As for Rebekah Brooks' arrest all those paragraphs before, that was hours ago now. A quick Google already shows thousands of links, blogs, tweets and articles offering their own slant on the event; the first part of my post is already history. What do you think I'll do now, wait for tomorrow's papers to catch up on the facts or have a look on Twitter and see what else has happened since?