Hold the front page: rail travellers in 1850. In the 19th century it was predicted that newspapers would become “the greatest organ of social life”. Image: Time & Life Pictures/Getty.
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Newspapers: still the most important medium for understanding the world

Once new media themselves, newspapers have gone on to outlast cinema and television – but for how long?

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself
Andrew Pettegree
Yale University Press, 448pp, £25

The News: a User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, £18.99

Anybody who says they can predict the future of newspapers is either a liar or a fool. Look at the raw figures, and newspapers seem gripped by terminal illness. Since 2000, the circulation of most UK national dailies has fallen by between a third and half. The authoritative Pew Research Center in the US reports that newspapers are now the main source of news for only 26 per cent of Americans against 45 per cent in 2001. There is no shortage of Jeremiahs, particularly from the wilder shores of digital evangelism, who confidently predict that the last printed newspaper will be safely buried within 15 years at most.

Yet one of the few reliable laws of history is that old media have a habit of surviving. An over-exuberant New York journalist announced in 1835 that books, theatre, even religion “have had their day” and the daily newspaper would become “the greatest organ of social life”. Theatre outlasted not only the newspaper, but also cinema and then television. Radio has flourished in the TV age; cinema, in turn, has held its own against videos and DVDs. In the first eight months of 2013, US hardback book sales rose 10 per cent while ebook sales fell. Even vinyl records have made a comeback, with sales on Amazon up 745 per cent since 2008.

Newspapers themselves were once new media. Yet as Andrew Pettegree explains in an elegantly written and beautifully constructed account, it took several centuries before they became the dominant medium for news. This was not solely because producing up-to-date news for a large readership over a wide area became practicable and economic only with the steam press, the railway and the telegraph. Equally important was the idea that the world is in constant movement and one needs to be updated on its condition hourly (or even monthly) – a concept quite alien to the medieval world and probably also to most people in the early modern era.

Now, we expect change, as Alain de Botton argues in his playful inquiry into how we read and use the news, to be “continuous and relentless”. We think some extraordinary development may alter reality: a proposal for a new motorway or railway, a cure for a disease previously thought untreatable, a revelation that a once-admired celebrity molested under-age girls. To our ancestors, the only realities were the passing of the seasons, punctuated by catastrophes such as famine, flood or disease that they had no reliable means of anticipating. Life, as de Botton puts it, was “ineluctably cyclical” and “the most important truths were recurring”. Even if regular access to news had been possible, the medieval world wouldn’t have seen the point of it.

This is not to deny that details of new laws and taxes, armies and their movements, or who was in or out of favour at court were eagerly sought. Travellers were closely questioned as to the news they brought. But it would have been perfectly normal and acceptable to say, as a BBC announcer did on Good Friday 1930 (to much subsequent mockery), “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight, so here is some music.”

The medieval world received news orally. First-hand information from people who had witnessed important events was highly prized, at least by those, such as merchants and property-owners, who had some interest in its accuracy. To larger audiences, news might be conveyed by drama or song. Written accounts were mistrusted because the writer was not usually available for cross-questioning. This helps explain why, despite Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the mid-15th century, the development of newspapers was so slow.

The first commercial news services, which emerged in 16th-century Italy, were confidential weekly handwritten briefings, known as avvisi, sent to selected subscribers including many of Europe’s rulers. They still dominated the Italian news market in the early 17th century. These avvisi possessed, Pettegree writes, “a subtlety and flexibility lost in a public printed document”. The scribes who copied them out doubtless felt as insecure in their employment as today’s newspaper journalists. But the apparently obsolete means of production guaranteed their exclusivity, their intimacy and, in the eyes of their readers, their reliability.

Early printed newspapers, though they had the potential to reach a wider audience, tended to imitate this elite form of communication. Most of their news was foreign; domestic news carried too many dangers of attracting government censorship or worse. They rarely attempted analysis or comment. For readers ignorant of leading European political figures, shifting international alliances or the geographical location of German principalities, they offered little assistance. To many readers, newspapers must have seemed to offer, as Pettegree puts it, “an undigested and unexplained miscellany of things that scarcely seemed to concern them at all”.

For most of the two centuries after Gutenberg, the news pamphlet was a more successful medium. It appeared sporadically when, in the publishers’ judgement, a big news event created a significant market. At its best, it could present news as a coherent, connected and complete narrative, without the half-truths, unanswered questions and loose ends that always characterised even the most high-minded newspapers. Pamphlets allowed readers to dip in and out of the news as they chose, opting for subjects that piqued their interest or seemed to affect their lives. Above all, they reflected the incontrovertible and eternal truth, almost entirely lost to our own age, that news is more urgent at some times than others.

Newspapers, by contrast, offered mostly routine and unresolved events: as Pettegree describes it, “ships arrive in port, dignatories arrive at court, share prices rise and fall, generals are appointed and relieved of command”. Is that so very different from the celebrity relationships that today’s downmarket papers so painstakingly report? Or the daily ministerial and opposition manoeuvres that form the daily diet for broadsheet readers? Is the latest shift in Labour social policy or the latest boyfriend of a minor Coronation Street actor of any greater importance to readers than developments in the Muscovy court that early modern papers faithfully reported?

For all the cacophony of information that surrounds us, no medium now reliably performs the service of the early modern pamphlet, giving us narrative news with a beginning, a middle and an end. In January, the journalist Ron Hall, a founder member of the Sunday Times Insight team in the 1960s, died. In its early days, Insight’s job was to give a context to the week’s news, often challenging conventional wisdom about what it signified. The Times obituary said of Hall that he was “a master of reductive research, assembling as many sources as possible, eliminating redundant information, then focusing on the shaping of the core story”. Sunday newspapers no longer have sufficient resources (or perhaps sufficient journalists like Hall) to do such a job with conviction. “Instant books” – of which the Insight team produced several – have largely gone out of fashion, as have TV news documentaries such as World in Action. The closest approaches to news narrative at its best come from radio (particularly Radio 4’s Analysis) and the weekly or monthly magazines.

If de Botton’s frustratingly diffuse book has any central theme, it is this: that, as he puts it, “news as it exists is woefully short on the work of coordination, distillation and curation”. Nothing can be discussed or reported calmly. Read any British daily paper (with the sole exception of the Financial Times) and you are assailed by examples of cruelty, injustice, falsehood, hypocrisy, greed and incompetence, sometimes in a single story. The “fury” expressed by somebody or other – often the newspapers themselves – spills over into radio, TV and social-media sites. There is no hierarchy of rage, no modulation of tone, no admission of uncertainty. As de Botton observes

We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared about so passionately only hours ago.

A good test of the truth of this observation is to take a random sample of ministerial resignations from more than few months ago and then try to remember why the minister had to go.

Today’s news is full of loose ends. Is anybody now following what the government or the EU is doing about bankers’ bonuses? Or what has been established about British complicity in the torture of suspected terrorists and who was responsible for it? Or what is being done by whom about global warming? Or what is happening to newspapers themselves in the wake of the Leveson report? If people are increasingly cynical and apathetic about public affairs, the responsibility lies with the news media as much as with politicians. De Botton writes:

There are dynamics far more insidious and cynical still than censorship in draining people of political will; these involve confusing, boring and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganised, fractured and intermittent way that. . . the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

In Pettegree’s account, newspapers, which eventually came to be seen as part of the natural order of things, struggled for a long time to find a role. Journalism as a full-time trade from which you could hope to make a living hardly existed before the 19th century. Even then, there was no obvious reason why most people needed news on a regular basis, whether daily or weekly. In some respects, regularity of publication was, and remains, a burden. The daily paper’s pagination – usually dictated by advertising rather than editorial requirements – or Newsnight’s 50 minutes to fill each weekday night requires sustained drama and urgency, which cannot be varied according to events.

Online news sites avoid the rigidity of periodical publication. Particularly if access is free, readers can dip in and out according to how they perceive the urgency of events. Increasingly sophisticated search engines and algorithms allow us to personalise the news to our own priorities and interests. When important stories break, news providers can post minute-by-minute updates. Error, misconception and foolish speculation can be corrected or modified almost instantly. There are no space inhibitions to prevent narrative or analysis, and documents or events cited in news stories can often be accessed in full. All this is a world away from the straitjacket of newspaper publication. Yet few if any providers seem alive to the new medium’s full potential for spreading understanding and enlightenment.

The anxiety is always to be first with the news, to maximise reader comments, to create heat, sound and more fury and thus add to the sense of confusion. In the medieval world, news was usually exchanged amid the babble of the marketplace or the tavern, where truth competed with rumour, mishearing and misunderstanding. In some respects, it is to that world that we seem to be returning.

Newspapers, Pettegree speculates, may have become established only because, at some stage in the 18th century, they became a fashion accessory – a badge of status for the country squire in Somerset or physician in Montpelier, previously deprived of knowledge of what happened in circles of metropolitan power. But they have never been very good – or not as good as they ought to be – at telling us how the world works. Perhaps they now face extinction. Or perhaps, as the internet merely adds to what de Botton describes as our sense that we live in “an unimprovable and fundamentally chaotic universe”, they will discover that they and they alone can guide us to wisdom and understanding.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman and the Independent on Sunday

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund: opportunities in volatile markets...

The Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund is a straightforward portfolio that combines bonds and global equities with the aim to deliver a regular income. It is run by James Foster and Jacob de Tusch-Lec. James also manages the Artemis Strategic Bond Fund whilst Jacob also manages the Artemis Global Income Fund. Whilst past performance is not a guide to the future, the Monthly Distribution Fund has returned 76.7%* since launch in 2012. Its current yield is 3.9%. It is also the top performing fund in its sector.*

Political uncertainty and the actions of central banks continue to create market volatility. In this article, James Foster talks about the opportunities this has provided and which areas of the market he considers most attractive.


The approach of the European Central Bank (ECB) has been both broad and radical. The increase to its quantitative easing (QE) programme has helped to push the yields on an even wider range of government bonds into negative territory. The cheap financing it offered to banks was less expected. To date, however, it has done little to ease fears that European banks are in trouble. The performance of bank shares across Europe (including the UK) has been abominable. Returns from their bonds, however, have been more mixed.

Bonds issued by banks and insurers are an important part of the portfolio. We increased our positions here in February but reduced them subsequently, particularly after the UK’s referendum on the EU in June. Our insurance positions have increased in importance. New Europe-wide solvency rules were introduced at the beginning of the year. They make comparisons easier and give us more comfort about the creditworthiness of these companies.

As part of its QE programme, the ECB announced that it would start buying corporate bonds with the aim of reducing borrowing costs for investment-grade companies. After months of preparation, the purchases began in June. The mere prospect of the ECB buying corporate bonds proved as significant as the reality. The implications, however, could be even more profound than they initially appear. Bonds of any investment-grade issuer with a European subsidiary are eligible.

Moreover, the ECB has changed the entire investment background for bonds. Companies are more likely to do their utmost to retain their investment-grade ratings. The financial benefits are so great that they will cut their dividends, issue equity and sell assets to reduce their borrowings. We have already seen RWE in Germany and Centrica in the UK undertaking precisely these policies.

High-yield companies, meanwhile, will do their utmost to obtain investment-grade ratings and could also lower their dividends or raise equity to do so. This creates a very supportive backdrop to the fund’s bonds in the BBB to BB range, which comprise around 28% of the portfolio.

The backdrop for higher-yielding bonds – those with a credit rating of BB and below – has also been volatile. Sentiment in the first quarter of 2016 was weak and deteriorated as the risk of recession in Europe increased. These types of bonds react very poorly to any threat of rising default rates. With sentiment weak in February and March, they struggled. However, the generosity of the ECB and stronger economic growth readings helped to improve sentiment. Default rates are higher than they were, but only in the energy sector and areas related to it.

We felt the doom was overdone and used the opportunity to increase our energy related bonds. Admittedly, our focus was on better quality companies such as Total, the French oil company. But we also increased positions in electricity producers such as EDF, RWE and Centrica. In a related move, we further increased the fund’s exposure to commodity companies. All of these moves proved beneficial.

One important area for the fund is the hybrid market. These bonds are perpetual but come with call options, dates at which the issuer has the option to repay at par. They have technical quirks so they do not become a default instrument. In other words, if they don’t pay a coupon it rolls over to the following year without triggering a default. In practice, if the situation is that dire, we have made a serious mistake in buying them. These hybrids have been good investments for us. Their technical idiosyncrasies mean some investors remain wary of these bonds. We believe this concern is misplaced. For as long as the underlying company is generating solid cashflows then its bonds will perform and, most importantly, provide a healthy income, which is our priority.


In equities, our response to the volatility – and to the political and economic uncertainties facing the markets– has been measured. We have been appraising our holdings and the wider market as rationally as possible. And in some cases, the sell off prompted by the Brexit vote appeared to be more about sentiment than fundamentals. We will not run away from assets that are too cheap and whose prospects remain good. We retain, for example, our Italian TV and telecoms ‘tower’ companies – EI Towers and Rai Way. Their revenues are predictable and their dividends attractive. And we have been adding to some of our European holdings, albeit selectively. We have, for example, been adding to infrastructure group Ferrovial. Its shares have been treated harshly; investors seem to be ignoring the significant proportion of its revenues derived from toll roads in Canada. It also owns a stake in Heathrow Airport, which will remain a premium asset whose revenues will be derived from fees set by the regulator whether the UK is part of the EU or not.

In equities, some European financials may now be almost un-investable and we have lowered our risk profile in this area. Yet there are a handful of exceptions. Moneta Money Bank, for example, which we bought at the initial public offering (IPO). This used to be GE’s Czech consumer lending business. The Czech Republic is a beneficiary of the ongoing economic success of Germany, its neighbour, and unemployment is low. The yield is likely to be around 8%. And beyond financials, prospects for many other European stocks look fine. Interest rates that are ‘lower for longer’ should be seen as an opportunity for many of our holdings – notably real estate companies such as TLG Immobilien  and infrastructure stocks such as Ferrovial – rather than a threat.


For high-yield bonds the outlook is positive. For as long as the ECB continues to print money under the guise of QE it will compel investors to buy high-yield bonds in search for income. The US economy is also performing reasonably well, keeping defaults low. Despite the uncertainty created by Brexit, that oil prices have risen means we can expect default rates to fall.

At the same time, there are a number of legitimate concerns. The greatest, perhaps, is in the Italian banking system. A solution to the problem of non-performing loans needs to be found without wiping out the savings of Italian households (many of whom are direct holders of Italian bank bonds). Finding a solution to this problem that is acceptable both to the EU and to Italian voters will be hard. Other risks are familiar: levels of debt across Europe are too high and growth is still too slow.

* Data from 21 May 2012. Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling to 30 September 2016. All figures show total returns with dividends reinvested. Sector is IA Mixed Investment 20-60% Shares NR, universe of funds is those reporting net of UK taxes.

† Source: Artemis. Yield quoted is the historic class I distribution yield as at 30 September 2016.



Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling. All figures show total returns with net interest reinvested. As the fund was launched on 21 May 2012, complete five year performance data is not yet available.


To ensure you understand whether this fund is suitable for you, please read the Key Investor Information Document, which is available, along with the fund’s Prospectus, from artemis.co.uk.

The value of any investment, and any income from it, can rise and fall with movements in stockmarkets, currencies and interest rates. These can move irrationally and can be affected unpredictably by diverse factors, including political and economic events. This could mean that you won’t get back the amount you originally invested.

The fund’s past performance should not be considered a guide to future returns.

The payment of income is not guaranteed.

Because one of the key objectives of the fund is to provide income, the annual management charge is taken from capital rather than income. This can reduce the potential for capital growth.

The fund may use derivatives (financial instruments whose value is linked to the expected price movements of an underlying asset) for investment purposes, including taking long and short positions, and may use borrowing from time to time. It may also invest in derivatives to protect the value of the fund, reduce costs and/or generate additional income. Investing in derivatives also carries risks, however. In the case of a ‘short’ position, for example, if the price of the underlying asset rises in value, the fund will lose money.

The fund may invest in emerging markets, which can involve greater risk than investing in developed markets. In particular, more volatility (sharper rises and falls in unit prices) can be expected.

The fund may invest in fixed-interest securities. These are issued by governments, companies and other entities and pay a fixed level of income or interest. These payments (including repayment of capital) are subject to credit risks. Meanwhile, the market value of these assets will be particularly influenced by movements in interest rates and by changes in interest-rate expectations.

The fund may invest in higher yielding bonds, which may increase the risk to your capital. Investing in these types of assets (which are also known as sub-investment grade bonds) can produce a higher yield but also brings an increased risk of default, which would affect the capital value of your investment.

The fund holds bonds which could prove difficult to sell. As a result, the fund may have to lower the selling price, sell other investments or forego more appealing investment opportunities.

The historic yield reflects distribution payments declared by the fund over the previous year as a percentage of its mid-market unit price. It does not include any preliminary charge. Investors may be subject to tax on the distribution payments that they receive.

The additional expenses of the fund are currently capped at 0.14%. This has the effect of capping the ongoing charge for the class I units issued by the fund at 0.89% and for class R units at 1.64%. Artemis reserves the right to remove the cap without notice.

Any research and analysis in this communication has been obtained by Artemis for its own use. Although this communication is based on sources of information that Artemis believes to be reliable, no guarantee is given as to its accuracy or completeness.

Any forward-looking statements are based on Artemis’ current expectations and projections and are subject to change without notice.

Issued by Artemis Fund Managers Ltd which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.