A slow news day

Newspaper publishers should forget the freebies, says Jim Davies. Playing to the strengths of their products – quality, portability and design – will bring readers back

Had we but world enough and time, we’d read the newspapers. As student, I remember leisurely Sunday mornings, tucked up in bed with some lissom creature, lazily trawling through all the supplements with hot coffee and toast. It was a welcome weekly indulgence, a delicious ramble through the people, politics and opinions of the time. And yet now, this kind of carry-on seems passé and almost decadent, a wanton squandering of one of our most precious commodities – time.

Today we want our news instantly, and on demand. The recent spate of numb-bum weather has shown just how inadequate newspapers are as
a medium for keeping people informed – assuming the poor frozen-fingered paper-boy has managed to make it to your door in the first place.

Because despite their name, newspapers aren’t really designed for news – they’re more of a record of yesterday’s events, a post-rationalisation of what’s already happened.

For an up-to-the-second picture of what’s happening, the Web, radio and, increasingly, social media like Twitter are far more effective, which is why newspaper circulation is declining almost as rapidly as my beloved football club – Liverpool.

Newspaper readership peaked a decade ago, and it’s now wobbling around the same mark as it did in the 1970s. But even so, more than 60 per cent of the UK adult population still read a paper regularly, and for the older generation they remain very much part of the ritual of everyday life, a valuable connection with the wider world, a daily companion that comes with the crossword.

Newspapers have tried every form of bribery to stem dwindling circulations – cutprice subscriptions, collectable wildlife posters, free pizzas,
DVDs, competitions – but what they really need to invest in is design. I’m not talking about tweaking the masthead, but a root-and-branch rethink about what defines a paper, and how to play to their strengths – of which there are many.

For starters, they are eminently portable – they fold perfectly, slip neatly into bags or under armpits. Mobile phones may match them here, but for scope and font size they simply aren’t in the same league.

Yes, laptops are morevisually generous, but even a MacBook Air eventually gives you shoulder ache. Newspapers are instant too, you don’t have to faff about searching for stuttering wi-fi hotspots before you can get stuck in. And you’re extremely unlikely to get mugged for one, no matter how dodgy the neighbourhood.

Graphically, of course, newspapers have always had huge potential as a showcase for photography and illustration.

To set them apart from an extremely variable Internet, it’s important that standards are kept sky high, and that new printing technologies are
explored and exploited as they become available. In producing a finished artefact, newspaper editors have far more quality control than Web masters, who have to deal with the unpredictability of Web 2.0.

Reader interaction may have its place, but scanning endless inane comments and mindless vitriol is just as depressing as reading the obituaries.

In an impatient world where everything’s getting faster and more frenetic, more and more of us are coming to realise that it’s important that we take time out to enjoy the simpler things in life.

Maybe even put on the coffee, get the toaster stoked up, and take the good old papers to bed.

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