A quiet word or two of mourning as a newspaper dies

10 November 2017 - 07:25
My dad read the newspaper every day. He would flick and fold and crease the pages and frown or hum or tut.
My dad read the newspaper every day. He would flick and fold and crease the pages and frown or hum or tut.
Image: 123RF/Alexander Raths

So The Times - this Times, the one you're reading now - soon may not be a newspaper anymore, and that makes me terribly sad.

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.

Perhaps you're reading this through some sort of screen and clucking smugly at this nostalgia for an abandoned world and outmoded technology. Perhaps you think it makes no difference whether something is written for print or for the internet, but it does.

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 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.

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

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