2016 minus 19: being… better

Posted: 13 December 2015 in 2016minus, media

Years back, when I first started writing comedy as a non-commissioned writer for BBC’s Weekending radio show, I asked a producer how I could get commissioned. “Write consistently funnier, consistently better material than the people who are commissioned.” It was a smart answer to a not particularly smart question. 

And I suppose there’s been an element of that attitude in everything I’ve written – or at least submitted – since then. There are consistently clever, smart people out there who write consistently smart, clever pieces, stories, novels, comic books and the like. Unless I think that what I’m writing is at least as smart and clever as what they’re writing if not better, what business have I in submitting my own work? 

That question though, ostensibly sensible though it is, admittedly and mistakenly conflates quality and popularity. Despite the cynics around, the two often do go together; I may be biased but I enjoy the writing of Neil Gaiman enormously. I’ll go further: it’s rare that I read something of Neil’s and don’t enjoy it. And, I think it’s not exactly news, he’s a successful author in terms of sales. 

There are other authors whose work I enjoy who – for various reasons – are not as successful (in terms of sales) as Neil. I’m sure he’d forgive me when I say my favourite novel predates his own writing; as I’ve said before, it’s THE MAN by Irving Wallace, a novelist I bet hardly anyone reading this blog has read. I enjoy almost every one of Wallace’s books, but THE MAN is by far my favourite, combining several of my interests. 

One could argue – indeed, I’ve seen it argued many times – that while quality is subjective (being personal), popularity is objective, quantitative, in the meaning that it can be measured. Though the numbers are smaller than they once were, The Sun is still the most popular newspaper in the UK in terms of sales, because it does what it does, and what it does is still popular among those who read it. 

Is it the best newspaper around though? Well, that depends how you’re measuring ‘best’. Is the quality of its journalism abysmal? Yes, of course it is; even then though, however you measure quality, The Sun‘s is no worse than the Sunday Sport, say. But arguably, the quality of its journalism is not why people buy the newspaper. 

(For the remainder of this post, I’m specifically talking about news reporting, or reporting in general, including feature work; I’m excluding columnists. My experience of columnists is that it’s rare for folks to judge the quality of a column without conflating whether or not they agree with the point the columnist is making or the columnist’s political views. That’s an area that I may write about… But not here.)

Of course The Sun would argue otherwise, saying that their readers do prize the quality of  their journalism. To be fair to them, it does take skill and effort to write things down to the lowest common denominator, to simplify things down to the simplistic, and to prioritise celebrity peccadilloes over parliamentary politics.

But it’s that very priority of trivia and [I’d suggest] unimportant nonsense that’s the reason it gets bought. Those who buy The Sun – or at least those that only buy The Sun – aren’t interested in the fundamentals of the economy, and the detailed analysis of the Autumn Statement that came with The Guardian, The Times or The Telegraph. They have, I would suggest, little interest in the minutiae of party political manoeuvrings. Their grasp of foreign politics is, one might suggest, limited to “who are the goodies and who are the baddies?” And in many cases, they’re satisfied when the ‘baddies’ are identified as having darker skin.

What British newspaper currently has the best journalism? I don’t know, to be honest. The Telegraph has had very good sports reporting for as long as I can recall, and also very good ‘city’ (i.e. financial) reporting. Or at least the latter was true up until about three or four years ago; as Private Eye has pointed out repeatedly, the quality of that particular segment of the reporting has fallen through the floor in recent years.

The Daily Mail (a newspaper many people wouldn’t even use as toilet paper because you’d end up wiping more shit on than off) has suffered from a split personality for some years now. It’s print version is The Sun with more syllables in its words, while it’s online version couldn’t give a shit about what’s happening in. the world as long as they can identify which personality has put on weight, dresses in similar clothes to their children, shagged someone they shouldn’t have… or ideally all three.

Returning to what I started with, I genuinely don’t know what somoene who wants to be a serious journalist would do today, at what publication they’d aim. I do know that if they want to write material that is as good as or better than what’s out there, it’s a lower bar than it’s been in a long time.


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