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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.