Posted tagged ‘news’

Taking the news badly

February 5, 2013

In the course of a recent conversation if had with a group of students while visiting another town (which I won’t name), I suddenly became aware of the fact that none of them knew anything about a story that had been dominating the news headlines for about two days: the French military intervention in Mali. Some of the students knew it had happened but were rather vague on the context, and the others knew nothing about it at all. Indeed two couldn’t place Mali in the correct continent.

I guess we all see our own youth through our current lenses, and so my strong belief that I was constantly politically informed and engaged as a student may be what I want to remember rather than how it was in reality. But I still think I would have known something about Mali or its then equivalent. Perhaps it is more surprising that today’s young people are less tuned in to the news given that there is so much of it. Back then we had newspapers and radio (not much television for me as a student). Now the news are all over everything, from the broadcast media to the internet. In fact my car even tells me today’s news headlines on a screen when I switch on the engine. Nor is it just peripheral stuff. At the click of a mouse I can get detailed and intelligent and varied political analysis.

Does this matter? In fact, would you judge my recent encounter differently if I were to say that all my student interlocutors were studying science? Personally, I don’t think that matters. I believe that educating students means not just supporting them in building up expert knowledge, but encouraging them to see the context in which that knowledge has value. If nothing else, our increasing (and rightful) focus on ethics requires such an understanding. It may be time for universities to look at ways in which a knowledge of current affairs can be part of everyone’s curriculum. Online resources such as The Student Room in the UK provide very useful discussion forums that many students take part in, but they probably do not touch the majority, and maybe in particular those that need them most.

The again, maybe that’s just a patronising comment, and we should leave young people (and older ones) to find out for themselves what matters. And when they find out, they may discover that I know absolutely nothing about it. To my shame.

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The end of newsprint?

June 11, 2012

Today marked a significant watershed in my life. This morning, as I do most mornings, I walked to the nearby newsagent. I wanted to buy a baguette for my breakfast, and copies of the two newspapers that I read every day. I bought the baguette. But I bought no newspaper. As I stood looking at the piles of papers, I suddenly asked myself why I was bothering, as I have apps on my iPad that allow me to read both the papers in question in their precise printed form. And so I went home and read the newspapers on the iPad. And I have to admit that it is possible, just possible, that I will not buy a hard copy newspaper ever again.

Of course we already know that newspapers, particularly those that are not coming to grips with the internet age, are dying. A number of them have already folded, and others are soldiering on, but precariously. Others are trying to save themselves by offering access to their websites in return for a payment.

Until recently I didn’t think that web-based newspapers were the future of news reporting. No matter how powerful the computer or how chic the laptop, it just wasn’t how one would read the news over breakfast. So I thought that the more astute newspapers would survive and would be able to continue to print hard copy. Now, with the phenomenal growth of the iPad and other tablet computers, this may be changing. I actually now find it easier to manipulate the newspaper with my fingers than to mess around with the paper pages. And I am not altogether alone in this.

I have a subscription to an iPad-based newspaper subscription service that, for less than £1 a day, lets me download all my normal newspapers in the exact print format. How can I lose?

And yet, I wonder what the future holds for news reporting. First, will there be a viable business model that sustains a network of reporters and correspondents for a coherent news organisation, not just services that take copy from others? Will advertisers support the kind of model I am now using? Will the anarchy of the internet, and the fact that anybody can set up a news site, destroy the reliability of news reporting? Will the tabloid world change, or maybe even disappear?

An uncertain world lies ahead.

The power of the printed word?

July 9, 2011

I remember accompanying my mother on day trips to Dublin in the 1960s when I was a young boy, and being puzzled by a large billboard poster that used to be displayed somewhere around Palmerstown, or maybe near Heuston railway station (or Kingsbridge station, as it then was). The poster shouted in very large print: ‘All human life is there’ – and then it had the words ‘News of the World’. I had no idea that the News of the World was a newspaper, and so the purpose of this advertisement was a complete mystery to me. I thought it was saying that the world’s news contained all human life – a rather general (if true) statement, and hardly one that needed a billboard poster to make its case.

Well of course, the News of the World of the poster was a newspaper (I need no longer say ‘is’), and as we now know it did indeed contain all human life, very much including the low life. And as anger and dismay at what at least some of its journalists did gives way to thoughts about the wider implications, people are asking whether the News International stable of papers has given too much political power and influence to Rupert Murdoch. This isn’t an entirely new question – in 1992 Murdoch’s Sun claimed that it was the one ‘wot won it’ for John Major’s Tories in Britain – but as the spectacle of newspaper power gets held up alongside its corruption, the question has taken on a new urgency. And there are fears that this worry about corruption could be even more relevant if the Murdoch newspapers can work together with the most influential broadcaster in these islands (BSkyB), under the same ownership.

However, whatever the regulators or politicians may do, it is unlikely that this kind of concentrated media power will be sustainable for much longer. The decline of newspapers worldwide continues to gather pace, as people shift and get their news from the internet and its various outlets, including Twitter. Traditional broadcasting models are also coming under pressure – and BSkyB is still quite a traditional model. As almost anyone can publish a news site, or can broadcast whatever they like, with extreme ease, the media scene is changing fast, and it is unlikely that a Rupert Murdoch will, irrespective of current events and their consequences, be able to wield this kind of influence in future. And that must be a good thing.

All human life

February 20, 2010

When I was a young boy and living in Mullingar, Ireland, my mother often took me with her when she went on a shopping or other trip to Dublin. I don’t now remember exactly where this was, but for a while a large advertisement on a billboard poster could be seen as you approached Dublin, probably around Leixlip or Palmerstown. It simply read: ‘All human life is there’.

As some readers may know, this poster will have been advertising the Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. It was (and is) a British paper focusing on the somewhat seedier and sillier aspects of life, and it has a populist tone. But actually, I had never seen a copy of this paper, and so for me this billboard advertisement was wholly mysterious. What did ‘news of the world’ mean, and what on earth was being suggested in relation to human life?

As it happens a few years ago the late Auberon Waugh, journalist and commentator, mused in an article what it must be like to get one’s news solely from the News of the World. You would have access to prurient stories about royalty and other celebrities, lots and lots of sport, and, er, that’s it. Political news only ever make it if truly seismic,  So if that’s the world you inhabit, you will not have your blood pressure raised by accounts of distant wars or global or national injustices. Instead you could turn your attention to the football results and to photos of topless women. In a recent issue of the News of the World, these were the top stories:

TERRY: Toni falls for JT whopper on fishing hols
VERNON: Tess mauls horny hubby over txts
CHERYL: Star bans husband Ashley from Brits
JACKSON: Hear the tape that could clear doc
CASH: Trade in your old mobiles for money

So if this is the ‘news’ as revealed to you, your world might be very strange, but perhaps rather comforting.

Most of us are where we are, and our direct experiences are formed in a limited geographical area. And so we rely on good news coverage to keep us in touch with the wider world, and where necessary and appropriate to engage with it. But once we restrict ourselves to the coverage and the values of the tabloid media, the great debates about politics, the arts and other subjects will pass us by, and will form no part of our world. But newspapers are rarely politically neutral, and so their readers may be fed a drip-drip of hints and insinuations that are ultimately designed to express a political view at the ballot box, which their readers are reluctant to argue with because, frankly, they have no idea what it’s about.

To thrive as a society, we need a news-savvy population. We need newspapers that really do have a concept of  ‘all human life’ and that are prepared to defend it. We need a population that doesn’t turn to newspapers to be titillated but to be informed and to learn. The Irish newspapers and broadcast media have on the whole been responsible about their role, but the News of the World and other British tabloids are readily available here, and their approach has been more questionable. And while people must be allowed to make their choices, I would hope that most will in the end want to be better informed rather than more excitingly titillated. I really do hope that.