I fell in love with newspapers at a young age.
It helped, of course, that my dad was a journalist. When I was just eight, I used to creep downstairs early to go through the pile of papers he had left on the kitchen table when he arrived home in the night. I loved the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, the understanding – even then – that I
was holding in my hand a concise summary of everything that had happened in the world. And because I discovered football at around the same age, I developed a habit of reading papers backwards, beginning at the sports pages. It was a habit that stuck with me for years.
As I grew up, there were always newspapers around the house. When I was a student, I would hang around the union reading room. And when I got my first proper Fleet Street job, I was excited to discover I would receive a “newspaper allowance” – I was being paid to have papers delivered to my home. On holidays in Europe, I would seek out two-day-old copies of papers I wouldn’t normally read, just to get that newspaper fix.
Imagine my joy when I inherited an old leather suitcase from my grandfather stuffed with yellowing newspapers he had saved over the decades: coronations and royal funerals, the general strike, VE-Day, Kennedy’s assassination, the first Moon landing… and, more personally, the birth announcement of my father, in the paper he would join as an apprentice reporter 16 years later. This case truly contained the first drafts of history.
One of my treats as deputy editor of the Yorkshire Post was going down to the press hall and grabbing an early copy from the conveyor belt as it started up. While printers checked the pages were in the right order, I would wonder yet again at a daily miracle.
In my final “day job”, on the PA news desk, we were always surrounded by newspapers – even when mounting cover prices meant cutbacks in the number of bundles. It seemed that throughout my life I was never more than six feet away from a newspaper. That all ended when I left PA. I still bought the occasional newspaper, but I fell out of the habit. And, recently, it struck me: I had fallen out of love with newspapers.
Not with the news, or the features, or the sport, or even the columnists. I can get all that online. What I had fallen out of love with was the feel of a newspaper. I suddenly realised the paper felt cheap, the loose leaves had become awkward to handle, and an unread paper left lying around was like a guilty conscience – why had I bought it and not read every word? And what to DO with the paper now?
Newspapers once had secondary uses: to line the cat litter tray, to tape against the windows to prevent the glass frosting over inside, to hold against the chimney opening to encourage the fire to draw. As a child, I used to watch fascinated as my grandfather rolled sheets of newspaper around a knitting needle, tied them in knots and used them as firelighters.
Now? There’s enough in my recycling bag without adding a pile of old newspapers.
But was it just me? When I asked friends, their reactions were mixed.
“That’s so funny you say that – I feel exactly the same and I LOVED newspapers. They just seem old and dirty to me now.” A former news editor said: “Apart from satisfying the mother-in-law’s need for a daily fix from the Mail, I’ve not bought an English newspaper for approaching two decades – and I loved them back in the day.” And from a non-journalist: “A friend brought a newspaper in a couple of months ago and it felt so weird holding it up to read.” Newspapers… weird!
Traditional print still has its fans, of course: “There are always stories I would never read if online, but will if they are presented to me on a page”… “If you have to click on stories to read them, you’ll only choose the ones that you’re already interested in. Having a physical paper encourages you to read everything, including things you didn’t know you’d be interested in” … “I read far more in a paper than online, things just catch your eye. Beautiful.”
But how long can it go on? There will surely come a point when the fantastically expensive business of printing on paper and transporting dwindling numbers of copies around the country will become uneconomical. Even 30 years ago, at the Yorkshire Post, we knew that the cost of sending small quantities to remote newsagents was often more than the little revenue few sales brought in.
My wife likens traditional newspapers to the Gaelic or Welsh languages: still plenty of users, but at what point will they fall out of use because there are too few to keep them viable?
It took 60 years – from 1950 to 2010 – for total sales of daily national newspapers to fall by half. They then halved again in less than 10 years. Latest ABC figures show further alarming falls after the Covid lockdowns. Staying at home has taken a toll. One of the lasting results of coronavirus will be an acceleration towards online news. Nobody I spoke to said they weren’t interested in news – just papers. Many, of course, skim whatever they find online for free, but sales managers might be encouraged by the number who have got into a paid-for online habit: “I have subscribed to The Times app for about four years and don’t find I need anything else. I usually read most of the news section first thing and then dip into the rest (never miss the crossword) throughout the day.”
Many still love the LOOK of a newspaper, even when it is digitally downloaded: “My great joy is reading iPad editions of The Times and Mail at 6.30 in the morning, presented in the same format as the physical paper.” We are clearly still in a transitional period – there’s a huge appetite for news, but no one has yet agreed on the best way to consume it.
Despite all this, weekend papers remain much-loved – increasingly in some households: “I didn’t read papers for years and used to think my parents-in-law rather quaint with their Sunday Times. Now my partner and I relish two real newspapers with our Saturday breakfast.”
My daughter told me: “My husband and I were talking the other day about how I remember you eating breakfast with a broadsheet and how impossibly difficult it would be to eat breakfast with a broadsheet and how impressive a skill that was and how I’m sad I never see you reading actual papers any more…”
Maybe she has a point. Maybe this Saturday I should see if it’s possible to fall in love a second time?
The writer is chief sub of the BJR. He was surrounded by newspapers at the Daily Mirror, the Yorkshire Post and PA. Now he pays for the Yorkshire Post online.