In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)

11 thoughts on “In Praise of Newspapers

  1. Brilliant thank you! We buy the Age 7 days a week … I can’t function until I’ve consumed at least part of it with my breakfast!! Not so much luck finding any hard copy we wished to read in the US but did pick up a few local papers in cafes.

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  2. I too love the daily dose of a good newspaper, but definitely doubt the seriousness of a tabloid compared to the inefficient exuberance of a broadsheet. However I have to admit that these days I generally read the Canberra Times and the Guardian on the iPad in bed each morning. The CT is a particular bargain being free (how do they do it?) although the letters to the editor are pretty disappointing. My sole paper purchases are at the weekend: The Weekend Australian (for it great literature and arts reviews, and to see what the Right in Australia are annoyed about this week) and The Saturday Paper (to support a little remnant of left wing investigative journalism).
    Let us keep our fingers crossed for the SMH and the Age!

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    • Yes! That’s what we used to do with the Age in the days before plastic bags. Wrapping rubbish in a tabloid would be more challenging. (I also used to take bundles of the Age to our local butcher; he used the paper as the outer wrapping for meat.)

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  3. Welcome home! Just loved and agreed with your love of newspapers. It is part of my daily ritual and if it does not arrive my day does not start well. Despite having a digital subscription and having the radio on at the same time I still need my paper.

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  4. Hi Tessa, Wish I’d known you were in the UK – would have loved to take you to our city’s The Leeds Library, celebrating its 250th birthday this year! Totally understand your passion for newspapers – and the Guardian in particular is fascinating. Even as a child I shared the upset in 1959 when Manchester was dropped from the masthead – I’m from Manchester and it was a devastating day. There’s a great book “Guardian, Biography of a Newspaper” by David Ayerst pub 1971. Interesting that the Guardian’s current attacks on Jeremy Corbyn are very like its attacks on John Bright back in the 1850s – and equally upsetting to many loyal readers. Ayerst’s book is very much about the great editor C P Scott – personal interest is that my mum as a little girl in a working class family was ill for a year and he invited her to convalesce in his garden where his donkey lived. She never forgot it – and later used to cycle with him on her way to her grammar school Withington – he was famous for cycling to the Guardian offices in his old age. Scott was a founder of Withington – very much set up by Guardian staff to get women to university. I went there too. Sorry for all these rambles – but your wonderful article set many thoughts going. Thanks again! Lucy

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  5. Hello Lucy, what a wonderful response. Thank you! I loved reading about your family connection to C P Scott. When I was preparing the blog post, I read Scott’s centenary essay (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainability/cp-scott-centenary-essay) in which he said: A newspaper’s ‘primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong … The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.’ Still apposite today.
    I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet up during my UK trip. I would love a personalised tour of Leeds Library. Next time! Cheerio, Tessa

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    • Hi Tessa,

      Apologies – only just found your lovely reply – prompted by looking at the next blog today. I always feel excited to see what you’ll come up with next and I’m never disappointed! Thanks so much for the centenary essay link on C P Scott. I’m also enjoying “The Manchester Guardian A century of history” by William Haslam Mills, published in 1922 with a preface by C P Scott. He was one of the main Guardian journalists and a very entertaining writer who strays into giving you all sorts of bits of random information (my style). One of my favourites in the book is his view that Manchester women first found an entry into public life and politics through providing tea stalls for the Anti-Corn Law Association in the 1840s – “It belonged to the middle-class, and it took tea”. The reason for my interest in the Guardian history is that W E A Axon was a journalist with the paper from 1874 to c 1905.I’ve written 5 chapters of his biography so far and he’s yet to arrive in the Guardian office but hopefully one day soon I’ll be tackling that. I remain so grateful to you re Little Derwent’s Breakfast and hope you’re OK to be quoted. Definitely let me know re next UK visit and there’s a welcome for you here in Leeds. The Leeds Library’s 250th celebrations continue with a new book about the library and an international conference on books next week. You would love it! All the best, Lucy

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