A quiet word or two of mourning, for the death of the printed newspaper industry

By Darrell Bristow-Bovey

So South Africa’s The Times newspaper, from whence this article derives, may soon not be a newspaper anymore, and that makes me terribly sad.

See: Print Newspapers: SA’s The Times print edition set to shut down, staff to be retrenched

I like writing for a newspaper. I like knowing that the words I’m typing will be turned into something real, capable of being folded or smoothed or rolled up to assist in house-training a puppy. I like that you could spill your coffee on them and no harm done. I like that they exist in the world in a form that my dad would have recognised.

My dad read the newspaper every day. He would flick and fold and crease the pages and frown or hum or tut. He would start on the sports page and work forward and do the crosswords and shake his head at Fred Basset and demand, like every other sentient person who read Fred Basset: “Why’s this supposed to be funny?”

He loved the newspaper. He loved poring over it for an hour before complaining: “There’s nothing to read in this damn thing!” And he liked that he could read it and get the crime and politics and sport and opinions and everything else, get a varied slice of the world, and then be finished with news for the day.

He didn’t have to keep checking in and catching up all day long, dismaying and infuriating himself with a non-stop drip of over-hyped updates lest he fall an hour behind everyone else in learning of some new atrocity.

When I started writing columns for newspapers there was no internet, and soon there’ll be no paper, and I’ve seen the difference that makes to the writing. Back then a column was sent into the world as part of a packaged whole: you didn’t read a column, you read a newspaper that contained a column.

There’s nothing to read in this damn thing

There were no individual click-figures or specific data on who was reading what; for the most part you were judged only by whoever hired you, according to their tastes or intuitions.

There was some degree of creative freedom in that: the specific and disciplined freedom to apply a particular point of view and patiently build a readership, to grow a demand rather than feed one, to write rather than chase clicks to bolster your ego or protect your job.

Click-chasing has a pernicious effect on writers. Let’s say that you’re an author of delicate or nuanced political thinkpieces. Once you’ve noticed that any piece you write that’s enthusiastically critical about Jacob Zuma or that amplifies the volume on whatever the short-lived current outrage might be is instantly and automatically clicked twice as many times as any other piece you write, no matter the respective quality of thought or expression involved, it takes almost masochistic self-control to keep hoeing your own row, shunning the rewards of giving the public what they have already decided they want, working harder for less instant gratification.

Commercially this makes sense and for the majority of readers it gives an instant bread-and-circuses dopamine bump, but it has a deforming influence on individual writers, and over time it damps down all but the loudest and often the coarsest voices.

It makes discourse more strident, because there are only so many things you can say about Jacob Zuma so after a while all you can do is start saying them more forcefully or colourfully.

That’s fine on the level of an individual article, but when everyone is doing it the effect is gradually to ice out those writers still anachronistically trying to find public space for the quirky, the delightful, the innocently entertaining, the gently interesting.

Why craft something small and quietly diverting when instead you can just agree with everyone about Donald Trump?

Oh, but forget newspapers themselves: I’m going to miss The Times. The Times reached a hand to me when I needed one, and since then I’ve worked with some of the most splendid editors and deputies and subs and fellow columnists and friends.

Each morning at breakfast I go to the front door and bring in the paper and I sit over my coffee and toast and start on the sports page and work my way forward, and I feel, just for a moment, a little bit closer to my dad.

The Times Editor’s Note: Darrel has agreed that this (his) column will continue in a new digital-only version of The Times should the proposal currently being presented by The Times management be ratified. 

This article was published by The Times Newspaper, soon to be an E-dition edition only. zimbabwedigitalnews.com is sad to see the death of printed press. May newspapers live long, in any format.

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