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The wars of too many words

Since the <em>Independent</em> offered its readers more on Saturday, bulk has been the weapon of cho

Looking back, it is ironic that it should have been the Independent, now clinging on for life, that did so much to encourage the bloating of national newspapers. Twenty years ago the paper's founders, flush with early success, introduced the first three-section Saturday edition. It was much like a quality Sunday paper of the day: a front section with news, comment, business and sport, plus a broadsheet review section and an elegant magazine edited by Alexander Chancellor. I was a sub-editor on the paper and I recall two personal responses that now seem quaint. I was excited at the prospect of extra space because I thought I might get more of my own writing published, and I thought the traditional Sunday paper was probably doomed.

Last Saturday I picked up 6.5kg of newspaper from my doormat - all the nationals except the Star. Among these was a Daily Telegraph in 11 sections, including three magazines and two plastic bags, and a Guardian in nine sections, one of them a magazine with no fewer than 160 pages.

The next morning another 5kg of paper landed on the mat, topped by the £2 Sunday Times in all its glory: 12 sections, 144 broadsheet with 28 tabloid and 244 magazine pages. The Mail on Sunday comprised almost 400 pages, and the Observer, 300.

These slabs of newsprint are the chief benefit British readers have derived from Wapping. The landmark 1986 dispute that freed the industry from antiquated printing practices has given us instead all the recipes, TV listings, football, holidays, property, gardening and fashion that we could ever want to read, and then some.

Ever since the Independent offered the readers more on Saturday, bulk has been the weapon of choice in the circulation war - relied on far more consistently than either price or freebies. That is what became of most of the resources liberated by Wapping.

But look at those papers now and commit the spectacle to memory, for it cannot go on; the advertising will not sustain it. This Christmas is likely to be a last hurrah, and given the general outlook for the industry, we may never see such fat newspapers again.

A good thing, too, you might think, because, with recession upon us, belt-tightening all round is surely the best way to ensure the industry survives with the fewest casualties.

The growth in size, after all, has never been matched by a growth in journalism. The extra space has been filled, in rough terms, by working the same journalists harder, so that not only have they been obliged to give up their old lunching and boozing habits, but they have also had to cut back on their investigating, checking and talking-to-people habits.

I am not convinced that readers are addicted to this verbiage, even if it has suited the interests of advertisers and newspaper executives. With fewer pages to fill in the hard years ahead, papers might just be able to manage a standard of journalism the reading public can tolerate and respect. They could make a virtue of it: a return to real newspapers, like the return to real cheese, or ale.

Of course it does not work like that. First, managements, in their wisdom, are cutting journalist numbers before they cut page numbers. In recent weeks the national press has suffered a swath of redundancies - the Independent cutting 90 editorial jobs, and the Telegraph group shedding 50 in the past week.

And, second - this is capitalism, after all - the richer players will continue to play the bulk card for as long as they can afford to, because they want to drive other titles out of business.

Look at the Times on Saturday: 136 pages of general newspaper, with 24 pages of "body and soul", 28 of travel, 20 of money, 20 of books, 64 of listings and a magazine of 106. The Times almost certainly loses more money than the Independent, but you may bet that its owner, with his deep pockets, will be the last to slim down the paper.

This is the moment he has been waiting for, to squeeze not only the Independent but also the Telegraph, the Financial Times and perhaps even the Mail. Who knows, when the recession ends he might have killed off two of them, and wouldn't that be great?

Editing big live stories has always been difficult, a job for people with quick wits, knowledge, cunning and a certain brutishness. In the multimedia world it is all the harder, and anyone wanting a glimpse of what is involved should follow the editors' blog on the BBC News website.

Ten days after the Mumbai attacks it was still untangling problems thrown up by the diversity of modern news sources. Steve Hermann lists "our correspondents on the ground . . . news agencies, Indian media reports, official statements, blog posts, Twitter messages ('tweets') and emails".

Tweets? Gracious, what would Lord Copper say?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech