On buying newspapers

I grew up in a house that bought newspapers. The Financial Times and The Times (not ‘The Times of London’, incidentally) were always on the breakfast table in the morning. Then I went online, and then I got a job in Finance that required me to be at my desk at 6:30 am and to stay there until 8 or 9 at night, and to spend much of that time reading about technology and telecoms companies that the journalists writing for newspapers didn’t understand. I stopped buying newspapers and adopted the now common pattern of reading ten to twenty articles each day from many different news websites – the Times, Telegraph and Guardian in the UK, the New York Times in the USA, and from any of two dozen other newspapers and magazines that put some or all of their content online. When I added to that the various industry news websites that I keep track of professionally, I could easily see stories from 50 sources in a day. Further, I was an early adopter of RSS, with which I subscribe to over 200 sites, pulling in 300-400 headlines a day. I follow 450 people on Twitter.

Does this make me feel better informed? I am certainly more informed. I can hear about a Taiwanese semiconductor company and be reading its annual report a minute later (Mediatek, if you’re interested). I can see the most interesting points being made at a trade show in Munich as they are made (though I can’t challenge the speaker). When news is moving fast, as during the recent UK general election, I can see opinion and analysis from a dozen well-informed journalists and politicians immediately.

But I’m not sure that more informed is the same as better informed. An executive from the FT recently told me that their readers have said they like its new iPad app because it allows them to know when they’ve finished. You get the stories for the day, and when you’ve read them, you’ve read them, and you can put it away and go and do something else. Nothing but willpower stops me from spending my entire day reading news – endless, undifferentiated news.

So how do I know what news to read? Google News (a bogeymen of newspaper proprietors even though hardly anyone actually uses it) indexes 4500 ‘English language news sources’ and tells me what they’re writing about. But Google’s algorithm thinks that ‘Wales Online’ is my first source for news on the UK budget – it knows what the stories are, but not where I should read them. I don’t need someone to tell me what stories are important, but rather where they are being written about with insight and judgment. For that Google is even counter-productive – the effect of SEO on editorial sites is to make them hard to read and harder to understand. This is why iPad apps, which can dispense with SEO, are easier to use than their associated websites, and it is why Apple launched ‘Reader’ in the new version of Safari.

What I want is something curated. After 15 years of gorging on news online, I would rather like to step back, slow down and outsource my news. I would like a sophisticated and intelligent person to choose what stories I ought to read today. I’d like coverage of major UK and international news by people who understand it and aren’t just rewriting wire content and press releases. In other words, I want a newspaper, not news.

I might even pay.

I have heard a great deal about how news is a commodity, and about how a newspaper that goes ‘pay’ is doomed because all the content is available for free elsewhere. I’m not sure that I agree. Google does indeed have 4,500 English language ‘news sources’, but how many of them will say anything worth reading about George Osborne’s emergency budget later this week? How may will cover the mayoral race in London? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel might (or might not) be a fine paper with admirable SEO, but it leads today on lobbying shenanigans in Wisconsin. On the news that matters to me there are surprisingly few good news sources.

This may be partly a British thing: In Britain, unlike the USA, there has always been a choice of newspapers on the newsstand, and that choice meant something. The Mail or the Express; the Sun, the Mirror or the Star, the Times, Telegraph, Guardian or Independent, or of course the FT. None of these were interchangeable. They wrote about different stories and had different assumptions about how the world should be looked at. If you read the Guardian every morning, and one day were told you had to read the Telegraph, can you really claim you wouldn’t care? (How much has the debate around the Times’ pay-wall been shaped by people who read the Guardian every day but barely look at the Times, I wonder?)

So, if I am a Times reader, and the Time goes pay, what do I do? Switch to the Guardian? Ha! The Telegraph may well go pay too, the Independent lacks substance, the other dailies are pitched too down-market and Google can serve me nothing but irrelevance and newswire rewrites. Blogs give me analysis and opinion but not news – by themselves are not a complete answer. So for the first time in 15 years, I will start paying for a daily paper.