Earlier this week, I brought out my hammer drill and toolbox. And put up a new bookshelf on the wall next to my workstation at home. Well, I suppose calling it a bookshelf is a bit of a stretch. It is actually a trendy construction of thin slivers of wood and an undulating cable of woven elastic that criss-crosses the wooden frame. The cable simultaneously forms a restraint on things kept on the thin little shelves, but also something from which to hang sunglasses, staplers, two-hole punches and such like.
For all its trendiness the thing was bloody cheap and took no more than twenty minutes to hang on the wall. And I love it. Like most people who have a home office, my workstation has a propensity for chaotic mess. Every horizontal surface quickly accumulates books, printouts, pens, notes, earphones, my daughter’s shoes, protein bar wrappers, etc. If there is anybody who can use smart storage solutions... it is I.
So the trendy shelf was a welcome, and urgent, addition to my office.
However it is also meant to serve a very important purpose: to keep my magazines and newspapers within reach. After years of trying to manage a plethora of print and digital subscriptions, I have gone back to subscribing to a small selection of print titles. But that is only half the battle. New magazines would tumble into my house through the mailbox. And then sit by the fridge or inside my bag for two weeks, completely forgotten. Until I disposed of them two or three months later, still unwrapped.
I needed a way to keep them right in front of me, within easy reach, impossible to ignore. Thus... trendy shelf.
The experiment is working. I have been enjoying my Economist, Jacobin, Nautilus and Observer issues without too much tardiness.
And it is in the process of reading one of these, earlier this week, that I realized something that maybe of interest to some readers of this weekend magazine.
One of the more recent downsides of being in the journalism business, and there are already so many I tell you, is that you have to constantly read alarmed pieces on the perilous state of the journalism business. Really. It is unbearable.
Frankly, I find most of these pieces repetitive and tiresome. And also unbearably inward looking. Let me give you a piece of advice. If you ever come across a piece on the crisis in media, the first thing to do is hit the search button and see if there are any references to ‘readers’, ‘consumers’, ‘subscribers’, etc. You will be astonished at how many of these pieces make no reference whatsoever to the consumers of our product. The majority of these, in my experience, treat the crisis in journalism as a purely supply-side problem. If only we would do our jobs better, it seems, people will immediately go back to subscribing to newspapers and magazines.
But what if they don’t?
I get the sense that many of my more learned colleagues don’t frame the crisis in journalism from the perspective of readers for two reasons, broadly. Firstly, I think it is because this helps sustain the illusion that the crisis is a transient thing. That a few tweaks in quality, technology, design and so on would regain lost days of glory. Readers are all waiting. We just have to meet their demands.
Secondly, I don’t think many journalists like to engage with reader behaviour too much. For fear of seeming to speak down to them. (Or indeed actually speaking down to them.)
Which is why I always find it somewhat unusual that despite being faced with issues of falling readership, plummeting credibility and exploding fake news, most journalists make no attempt to tell readers how to become better, more conscientious consumers of news. Fake news is, I think, mostly framed as a supply problem and not a demand problem.
This is somewhat unusual. Think about it. Doctors will tell clients how to maintain good health. Barbers will give you skin care advice. Uber drivers may give you travel or commute tips. And so on.
Journalists? You are on your own dear reader.
So listen. I am going to give you one piece of advice. Something inspired by own experience using my trendy new bookshelf to stay on top of my reading.
Most of us consume news from a nearly infinite buffet of content offered by the internet. When was the last time you read more than one substantial piece of news from a single outlet on the same day? I don’t mean the quick morning review of news many of us do daily on the BBC, Mint or some other website.
I mean the somewhat more substantial pieces that involve deeper, more engaged reading. Many of us, I think, graze. A piece from The Economist. A Long Read from The Guardian. A New Yorker essay and so on.
Which is fine. But I think much is lost when we don’t consume new the old fashioned way: in print, from cover to cover.
We miss, for instance, context. On the internet every story is like every other story. Identical headlines, fonts, layouts. But in print, suddenly, stories have senses of priority, individuality and identity. Related stories are often placed adjacently, thereby giving readers a sense of context and continuity that the online version can rarely achieve.
We miss, also, nuances of bias and stance. Read one opinion piece by a nutjob on a website and you are tempted to instantly dismiss an entire title as Marxist, right wing or whatever. This may well be the case. But pick up a copy of the magazine or newspaper in question, and you may be surprised at how reading it from cover to cover could temper your sense of its bias. Or at least it may make you realize even biased platforms have their capacity to inform. (This is especially the case given that many titles express enhanced stupidity online to boost traffic.)
Most important of all, perhaps, we miss the focus and engagement that comes with holding a magazine or newspaper in your hands and immersing in it. Nothing beeps, shakes, rattles. There are no auto-playing advertising videos. There aren’t any horrible clickbait links at the bottom. You aren’t exhorted to leave a comment or SHARE THIS PAGE ON TWITTER. The page just sits there, informing.
This might seem odd coming from the editor’s note of a digital-only magazine. But why not spend this weekend with your nose in an old-fashioned magazine or newspaper?
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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