The Guardian - A Review

by @edent | # # # # | 9 comments | Read ~158 times.

One of the things I love about Private Eye is the columns I don't read.  Corners of the magazine dedicated to the gossip of the classical music world, the perils of modern architecture, positively incomprehensible reports about big business buying into football.  I care for none of these subjects, but I'm immensely relieved that they are reported on somewhere.

The Guardian's Saturday edition strikes me as a long form version of Private Eye, but written by those who would never use a sentence where a paragraph would suffice.  Full of long rambling articles about the truly trivial and incomprehensible.

After the Guardian's excellent reporting on Trafigura, I decided to help their coffers and circulation figures by purchasing a copy of their paper - breaking ten years of abstinence from paper-based news.  As I've reviewed their website, I thought I'd review their paper from the point of view of one who is deeply familiar with online media but unfamiliar with print.

What A Lot Of Paper

What A Lot Of Paper

Background

In 1998 I bought my last newspaper.  My parents always had newspapers at the weekend and - due to a stock of vouchers given away in Freshers' Week - I assumed I'd follow in their footsteps.  In halls I was one of the lucky few with a permanent Internet connection.  Every morning started with a scan of http://news.bbc.co.uk/, a browse through USENET and one or two international newspapers' nascent websites.  I haven't bought a paper since.

Nowadays upon waking, my Blackberry has already downloaded the headlines from the BBC, Guardian and a hundred different news sources all, seemingly, for free.  Why would I buy a newspaper?

The Paper

The first thing that struck me was the user interface.  Actually, scratch that, the first thing that struck me was the price. £1.90! Nearly two quid.  For someone unaccustomed to paying for news, that's quite a tall order.  I gather that the weekly paper is "only" £1 an issue.  For £1.90 I was expecting quite a lot.  I don't think I found value for money.

User Interface

So, the user interface.  I remember a kerfuffle a while ago about the Guardian moving to a Berliner format. Supposedly easier to hold and read.  Utter nonsense. To even try to read this paper on a commuter train would be a recipe for disaster. Huge unwieldy pages and, to add insult to injury, no staple in the middle!  Even though I was placidly sitting on my sofa, pages kept falling out!  Perhaps reading a newspaper is a skill that has atrophied in me - but having to continually shift my grasp on the sheets was a chore.  A simple staple through the middle would make for a much more pleasant reading experience.

One good thing though.  The linear nature of the paper meant that I was forced to read stories I would otherwise have skipped were I on the web.  A newspaper is presented like a book; you read each page in turn.  You're perfectly free to skip over a story - but I found myself reading at least the first paragraph of each story.  On the web, I pick and choose. I never have to read a story about childcare, sport, Scottish politics etc.  It was refreshing to get a wider view than my usual self-selected reading.

Adverts

Naively, I thought that there wouldn't be much advertising.  We're continually told that there has been a collapse in the advertising market. I assumed my couple of quid would pay for the majority of this paper.  There was advertising on nearly every page. Some pages had nothing but advertising!

What struck me was the sheer randomness of the adverts.  When reading an article about the Lost City of Atlantis online, I'd expect to see adverts for cheap holidays to Greece, SCUBA gear - maybe even a computer game.  In the paper, it's Abbey mortgages and Moben kitchens.  The adverts are randomly placed, unrelated to the text and somehow, highly intrusive.  One section of the magazine has a full page advert disguised to look like a normal article.  Yes, it says "Advertising Feature" at the top of he page - but it's otherwise presented as another piece of journalism.

It is even bundled with separate advertising sections. Little leaflets drip out of every page littering the floor.  They're the equivalent of pop-up ads and just as annoying.

Reviews

There seem to be three separate sections which do reviews.  The main paper reviews classical music, theatre and TV, the Guide does games, clubs, websites, theatre and television. Then there's a whole section called "Review"!.  Why split over three different bits?  Why are some reviews barely a paragraph and yet others are A-Level essays pontificating on the deeper meaning of art.

Blogs

There are some articles which, to my eye, are little more than blog posts.  Nick Duerden writes about taking his daughter to see Disney Princesses on Ice. Apparently girls like sparkly things.  Who knew?

David Hare has also written an interminable essays in the magazine.  While I'm sure that it's of great interest and importance for his readers, I resent having paid for such... Well.. flotsam.

These articles are not news - they're just blog entries.  Only, for some reason, I'm expected to pay for their ramblings.  There are plenty of better written and more interesting articles being posted every day on blogs round the world.  I suspect that's the idea behind The Blog Paper.  I'm as guilty as anyone of writing self indulgent tosh on my blog.  Entries which are of no interest to anyone other than me.  But I don't expect anyone to pay for them.  I don't bundle my writing in with my work.  "Hey, boss, I'll finish that report you're paying me for - and I'll throw in an essay about how my wife doesn't understand me!"

What it really highlights is that opinion pieces aren't news.  They're not even journalism except in the most litteral sense of the word.  They are barely a step about "Have Your Say" sections of news websites.  Indeed, the Guardian's own Comment is Free section shows that anyone can write a similar article.  Tellingly, the comments in CiF show the utter contempt most readers have for opinion pieces.

Sport

I hate sport.  One reason why I am usually loath to buy a paper is massive sport sections. I was feeling guilty about buying the Guardian only to recycle the sports section unread.  Evidentially, Guardian readers, like me, were last to be picked at PE. The sports pages are mercifully short (16 pages) and fitted neatly into my recycling bin.

Etc.

What A Jumble

What A Jumble

There's just so much that's confusing about the Guardian in paper form.  So many different, overlapping sections.  Different shapes, sizes, grades of paper.  Long rambling articles, tightly focused analysis, full page pictures, full page adverts, a list of every comedy club in Britain, a review of an obscure restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  Don't get me started on the pathetic "Free Gift" which is meant to entice me like a child to a bland breakfast cereal,

What does the Guardian want to be?  Is it news? Is it "lifestyle"? Is it review? Is it academic essays? Is it everything jammed into one ill-fitting format because "That's what newspapers are"?

It's a format that in incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 30.  It's an insular little work with only one page given over to readers' comments.

Demographics

My moaning comes down to a question of demographics.  There is only one slice of the population which matters. Me.  No one else.  It's hideously ego-centric to think this way but I do. Why can't I buy the Guardian without the sports section? With an expanded technology section? Charlie Brooker on the front page and David Hare banished from view?

Well, on the web, I can.  This paper in physical form has to please everybody. An unenviable job and one I suspect is impossible.

My Conclusion

Love The Guardian - Hate The Paper.

I'm sure I'm depressingly close to their target audience - but whole swathes of the paper are lost on me.  I love reading the Guardian's news online and on my mobile.  So why do I hate the paper version so much?

The web allows us to see how many people click on each story. See who reads, how long they read for, what they read next, where they came from and where they go to.  I suspect if you were to put the newspaper fully online, it would become clear that some sections of the paper survive through inertia alone.  Can anyone really be interested in Mark Lawson blethering on about people who don't speak like what they ought to? Or Lucy Mangan's meanderings on "Are You There God? It's Me, Margret"?  They are there to fill space.  Their sole purpose is to reaquaint me with the joke behind Polly Filler and her ilk.

Anyone who has read Flat Earth News cannot fail to recognise that the newspaper industry is in crisis. Journalists are too stretched, deadlines are too tight and money is in short supply.  How can newspapers be saved?

Well, there are easy solutions. Stop writing articles for space filling reasons. Retrain the "journalist" who wrote about celebrity trends in the "noughties" and get them to write about news. Recognise that - if you're committed to a finite space resource like paper - you have to trim the fat, not the meat.  A review of a book does not need to be a undergraduate essay on the author and contain a huge photo of her and her dogs. By contrast, a review of a computer game, club, or bar needs to be more than a puff-piece paragraph.  See what your readers want - make a paper that they can use.

Is an article on Russia taking state control of all TV channels really worth a tenth of the space as an article by Alan Rusbridger where he tells us that Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and Comment is Free are pretty cool?

Above all, kill the quaint.  Tradition is no more than monkey folklore.

What reading The Guardian in paper form has taught me is that the web allows me to easily ignore the turgid or vapid - paper is less forgiving.

But there, of course, I've argued against the existance of Private Eye's hidden gems.  Perhaps someone, somewhere is desperate for an obituary of David Troostwyk and I am an ignorant philistine.

I will continue to read the Guardian; but I won't be buying it again.  While its journalism and newsgathering are excellent, for £1.90 I expect not to have to throw half of it away, unread and unloved.

9 thoughts on “The Guardian - A Review

  1. ianvisits says:

    Like yourself, I have given up on the generic newspaper market which aims to be all things to all people.

    However, I have replaced reading the generics with reading the specialists.

    I get more - and generally better quality - writing from the likes of The Economist, New Scientist, etc. I occasionally dip into the more political magazines to get some broader opinion based writing, but it is a choice to do so.

    To have personal opinion slotted in between serious news is not just distracting, but actually quite annoying as I like my news to be factual, not opinionated.

    I still like the print format for serendipity discovery though, something which is harder with reading publications online as it is often easier to skip headlines that don't appeal. As you also noticed, in print, you at least read the leading paragraph of each article.

    I look forward to more magazines coming out in e-book format though, as I can resize the fonts at will and not have to rely on my glasses to be able to read the magazine.

    Maybe then I can have the best of both worlds - the page turning disciplines of the print format, but with some of the digital tools that make reading online so much easier.

    1. I too look forward to ebook versions of papers - but I do wonder if they'll fin a niche between the linear world of today and the intricate linking of hypertext.

      I was always told the best way to judge a newspaper is to find a story with which you have intimate familiarity - then count the number of mistakes. That will tell you how accurate the rest of the paper is.

      As much as I enjoyed New Scientist when I read it - it's just more convenient to read on my phone than remembering to buy the magazine & take it with me.

  2. James Heaver says:

    You've read the saturday edition which isnt an accurate reflection of the newspaper proper. The saturday edition is designed to be read lazily in bed, nursing you through the various stages of hangover.

    While you may stand by many of your comments if you read the weekday edition, i'm sure you'd find it far less random, far more coherent and understandable.

    I love reading The Guardian and The Economist in print form. I can read them on the loo, I can read them on the train. I am more likely to read more of them. I enjoy reading all those obscure articles in Private Eye, not because I'm interested in orchestra politic, but it gives a wider insight into the world.

    The news I get online is the news that defines me - tech, design, queer politics, open rights, freedom.

    The news I get in print is the news that defines the rest of the world.

    James Heaver
    (23 and 3/4)

    1. You're quite right. I should also buy the weekly version. Is it smaller? I really can't imagine reading it on the loo.

      Good point about seeing the rest of the world. I find that serendipity in twitter and, to an extent, in the "Related Stories" links on websites.

  3. "One good thing though. The linear nature of the paper meant that I was forced to read stories I would otherwise have skipped were I on the web."

    "The news I get in print is the news that defines the rest of the world."

    These comments are the simple reason that I subscribe to the week and still purchase 2-4 papers a week (no particular preference)
    The random act of discovery, that enables me to have a broader view of the world than just the mobile/tech related news that I would otherwise spend my time reading on the web

    Like you though for the actual news headlines, this has been transplanted to digital for the last ten years and in the last three completely to my phone

  4. Improbulus says:

    Your points apply not just to the Guardian, of course, but in a sense all print newspapers.

    I agree with the serendipity issue. The inclusion of stuff you're not normally interested in may be annoying but also helps discover things you might not otherwise have.

    There's another point also - if people are "too" selective about what they read, they may find themselves only reading viewpoints which they agree with and be confirmed in their narrowness, rather than those which challenge them and make them think. Twitter may provide serendipity but as one mainly tends to follow people with similar attitudes, it won't necessarily provide the alternative viewpoints.

    1. I agree. There's something to be said about reading sources whose politics you don't agree with. At the very least it helps you understand how other people view the world.

  5. While I share some sympathies with your article (the leaflets!! Let me pay a whole £2 to be leafletless!), I personally love the Saturday Guardian exactly because of its diversity. It's the only paper I read, so it's actually £1.90 spread over the week, and has an acute interaction with its online counterpart which feels very professionally informal. To say that you can read better articles in blogposts is to say that there's no point in bakeries because anyone can bake their own bread. To my mind, they are two different entities. Like you, have a paper in front of me inadvertently encourages me to enhance my world view. This is a paper written by journalists who actually care - you can email any of the writers and often get a response back in minutes. To judge an article by its pageviews is to agree that the most popular is the best - is that really your view? Do you think MC Hammer is a fantastic artist simply because he sold millions of albums?
    You are right though, the speed of the Sport section ending up in recycling is almost a sport in itself at my house too!

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