NR Digital

The Failing of the Fishwrap

by John Derbyshire
Will your breakfast newspaper meet the News of the World in oblivion?

The newspaper, in the sense of news actually printed on actual paper, is clearly in its last days. The content of a newspaper can be delivered online at far lower cost than is required by investment in printing plants and equipment, fleets of delivery vans, labor, paper, and ink. With fewer people buying the paper product, big advertising accounts have drifted off to TV and glossy magazines and smaller fry have signed up with Google AdSense, while classifieds have migrated to Craigslist and The print edition New York Post I have delivered daily is one of two tabloids, circulation half a million each, serving a city of over 8 million. The only big firms with full-page advertising in today’s copy of the Post are two local discount appliance megastores and the utility company. There are just 75 classified ads, not counting 16 legal notices.

With print newspapers as with poor humanity, the Angel of Death comes in many forms. He came most abruptly to the English Sunday tabloid News of the World, which published its last edition on July 10 after 168 years in print. The News of the World had been the most serious offender in the phone-hacking scandal that, at the time of writing, seems set fair to engulf all of British public life, from the Royal Family to the Football League. The leaders of the parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, administered a coup de grâce to the wounded beast and left its corpse on the battlefield in their long retreat before the forces of law, public outrage — among those whose phones had been hacked were murder victims and British soldiers killed in action — and leftist Murdoch-haters.

There was some nostalgic lamentation over the News of the World’s demise. Not much of this was owed to the actual content of the paper. The British tabloids have always been a low sort of product. They were, for example, keen customers of freelance paparazzo Mark Saunders, who became notorious (and, by his own boast, wealthy enough to buy a house in tony Windsor) from following Princess Diana around the streets of London, at a distance, carrying a stepladder, the better to snap her with his telephoto lens through the windows of restaurants and gyms. Even by these standards, the News of the World was considered low. Back in the days when salacity in a media outlet was still worth remarking on, the paper was commonly known as News of the Screws.

There were some redeeming features that perhaps make the nostalgia excusable. Before that nickname became current, when prurience was as close as a newspaper could get to salacity — we are back in the early post-WWII years here — News of the World had a name, not an altogether dishonorable one, for exposing scams on the public. “Next Week We Name the Evil Men!” was its standard come-on for the last installment of an investigation, and this became a catch-phrase among the British public.

There is also the possibility that the News of the World, through the person of George Orwell, made significant contributions to English literature. Orwell seems to have nursed a minor obsession with the paper. He made numerous comments on it. There is his description of a typical small news vendor in the 1940 essay “Boys’ Weeklies”: “The general appearance of these shops is always very much the same: a few posters for the Daily Mail and the News of the World outside . . .” Or this, from his 1946 “Decline of the English Murder”: “It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World . . .”

Malcolm Muggeridge thought that Orwell’s social commentary owed more to the News of the World than to his own direct experiences. From Muggeridge’s memorial essay on Orwell — one of the best things he ever wrote:

[The poor and outcast in England] had been wronged by [Orwell’s] class, and he must somehow make it up. So he stayed in workhouses, consorted with down-and-outs, and in The Road to Wigan Pier gave what he considered to be an authentic picture of working-class life. Actually, as I occasionally ventured to remark to him, I think his data was derived much more from the News of the World and seaside picture postcards — two of his ruling passions — and even from Dickens, than from direct observation.

Now the News of the World is comprehensively gone, leaving not even a Web “presence” behind. Some other newspapers will likewise vanish without trace, as did the poor old — it published for 150 years — Rocky Mountain News. Others will survive, and in some cases prosper, on the Internet.

It is interesting to speculate whether the last printed-paper newspaper will be a broadsheet or a tabloid. I’d bet on the broadsheet, just on impressionistic grounds from 20 years of noticing the newspapers lying in the driveways I pass on early-morning dog-walks around the streets of my lower-middle-class suburb. The bright blue polythene delivery-bag of the New York Times and the yellow-tinted one of the Wall Street Journal have held up their numbers much better, it seems to me, than the red New York Post or clear Newsday and Daily News.

The Post is, as I mentioned, my own daily newspaper of choice. Breakfast without a newspaper — a paper newspaper — seems unthinkable to me. I don’t want too much of one, though, and I read most of my actual news on, yes, the Internet. A tabloid is just right for a fast introduction to the previous few hours’ events, sprinkled with some seasoning from the low life of the city and the world.

Some of my preference is, I suppose, the kind of regression that comes upon us all later in life. My father’s daily newspaper, the first one I ever knew, was a British tabloid, the Daily Mirror. (We never took the News of the World, which my mother considered “too coarse.” Our Sunday choice was The People, a paper in much the same mold — indeed, when I was old enough to compare the two, I was at a loss to see what Mum found to distinguish one of them from the other.) Once equipped with higher education, I took up broadsheets: the Daily Telegraph in Britain, the New York Times over here. Now, with fading interest, shortening patience, and hardening opinions, I have regressed to tabloid format, and shall stick with it as long as the things are still printing.

The demise of the printed newspaper is one of those techno-historical processes there is no point in deploring. We shall make necessary adjustments. Preteen boys with bicycles will find other ways to make pocket money. Patrons of old-style British fish-and-chip shops will wrap their purchases in something else. Drawers will be lined with Christmas wrapping paper. Some midwives of the old school may need to make changes, too. From Richard Gordon’s 1952 novel Doctor in the House: “Newspaper, that was it! There was a pile of them in the corner, and I scattered the sheets over the floor and the bed. This was a common practice in the district, and if he knew how many babies were born yearly straight on to the Daily Herald Mr. Percy Cudlipp [the editor] would be most surprised.”

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