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Why I miss reading newspapers the old way

Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today, explains why a rare inky encounter left him with a warm feeling and a sense of perspective.

I read a newspaper yesterday. And I really enjoyed it. Actually I read many newspapers every day but in digital form. However, as I made a pair of two hour flights in two days I made the unusual move of reading the print versions of several British national newspapers in my Airbus window seat.

One reads newspapers in print and online in completely different ways. Tomorrow's cod and chip paper is a very different kettle of fish to scrolling down on your iPhone. Online you move around like a heat-seeking missile in search of your quarry. You see what is 'above the fold', quickly scan the toolbar. And, of course you can search. It's in and out. Smash and grab.

Much is 'curated' these days. The whole world of data gathering means that content providers know what you like and direct you towards more of the same. You can have specially tailored bulletins emailed to you. News has become bespoke. Our obsessions - I refuse to use the overworked 'passions' - must be served.

The talk is that the Home Page - the digital equivalent of the front page - with the splash is history, as so many arrive via Google search and social media at the particular story they wish to read. In the old days the hacks had the power to pronounce what was important and required our attention. That's no longer so.

Reading something made from trees is rather different. You wander around, backwards and forwards. You also stumble across unexpected pleasures. It is this serendipity which is so pleasurable. I found stuff in the FT, The Times and the Independent's i that I miss entirely when I read online because I simply didn't know it was there. (This, incidentally, is what we aim to provide with the print version of MT. Something immersive and satisfying.) So you read an unexpectedly touching obituary of someone you have never heard of, and learn of a life well-lived. You read letters which are somehow always wittier and more wholesome than the rabid outpourings found in the comment bit under digital articles. (Who thought Times readers were so coarse and awful?)

I'd go further. In an increasingly complex world where we drown in content being showered over us from all directions it's very hard to remain a generalist. Few are rounded these days. Everyone has their Thing and doesn't wish to be bothered by irrelevant flotsam and jetsam. 'Don't bore me with Europe. All I want is the footie'.

But this is the stuff of life. I'd even venture to suggest that in a democracy it's our duty to try to remain wide, Catholic in our interests. We should resist this fragmentation otherwise we are all just narrow, single-interest lobbyists. Bigots, even.

Newspapers still wield very considerable power and command respect among other media, which still take the lead from the old school Fleet Street inkmeisters. Really clever people who think brilliantly and can write beautifully still find homes on newspapers. There is still plenty of wisdom on the printed page. On Sky in the evening and on the venerable Today programme in the morning the papers are pored over to find out what we should think. They are respected for their judgements.

But newspapers are in very considerable distress, as we all know. Circulations are diving, advertising is harder and harder to shift, even at rock bottom prices. Those who try to earn revenue by sticking content behind a paywall don't find life at all easy. The Sun gave it a go and threw in the towel. (In the mass market digital news content just has hardly any value whatsoever when there are petabytes available gratis.) At least three national papers are currently for sale and the FT has just been off-loaded to Nikkei, which, one hopes, will prove a reliable guardian to a rare powerful and influential British global brand.

Newspapers are not giving up without a big fight. Rupert Murdoch, for all his faults, still loves them and there is even talk about taking on Google and Facebook in the courts. You could argue that the whole ghastly phone hacking phenomenon was a direct result of the cut-throat, desperate rivalry between competitors in a shrinking market.

A new, sprightly campaign from Newsworks, the umbrella organisation which represents news brands - and which, incidentally is led by my predecessor as editor of MT - has just produced another marketing campaign reminding advertisers of the unique levels of reader engagement that papers still command. Those who read papers love them and would be bereft without them. The 24-year-old MT web editor for whom I am writing this hasn't read a national daily made from a pine since 'about April'.

Nevertheless, for me the prospect of relying on The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to tell me what is going on in the world is a grim one. Lord knows what news content Facebook thinks it might put onto my screen, as my ads are often for slippers and three bed new builds in Crawley, which suggests it has a strange idea of my profile.

However, last week the picture that changed a government's mind about a vital policy - the one of the Kurdish child washed up on a Bodrum beach - was seen by me and most other folk first on Twitter albeit showing that a newspaper, The Independent, had gone with such a graphic shot. The viral effect could not wait for a paper to drop onto my doormat the following morning. But even so, as I waited in the Heathrow queue for passport control the ink on my fingertips made me feel rather nostalgic.

First published in Management Today.

by Matthew Gwyther 10/09/15

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