Monday, July 9, 2012

Newspapers and the standards of debate

I've my usual column in the Canberra Times today, 'Papers need to lift debate standards'.

It was written after Fairfax announced its shift to tabloid, which occasioned some strange commentary from readers. This, to me, suggested a deeper problem for the broadsheet press.

My original text included references to publications like the New York Review of Books, which includes ongoing, high-level debates, rather than quick, 700-800 word bites. This was removed, along with an observation: outlets that become mouthpieces for specific interest groups - mining, for example - are newsletters, not newspapers. A sample:
When readers vow to cancel their subscription because Fairfax will be publishing in a compact size, they are not simply expressing a trivial preference. They are demonstrating a very weak grasp of facts and reason.  
It is ignorant, because many fine newspapers are now in tabloid format: The Independent, for example, is a smaller sized publication, and maintains a very high editorial and journalistic standard. It seems sadly provincial to see tabloid format as nothing but gutter journalism or a paparazzi glossy. 
This is also irrational because it fails to grasp basic logic. Some salacious and superficial newspapers are tabloid, but not all tabloids are salacious and superficial.  
This failure of evidence and reason suggests a more profound problem for newspapers in Australia, and perhaps internationally. Some of their most committed readers - or at least those who comment regularly - cannot think properly. This does not mean they cannot do their jobs, raise families, pay off mortgages. It means that the higher-order abstract thinking required to make sense of modern ethical and political debates is seemingly beyond them. They cannot dissociate a newspaper's format from its content. How on earth can they expect to assess foreign policy or welfare reform?
(Photo: Library of Congress)

1 comment:

Chris Fellows said...

It's the rumours of a paywall that bother me. Control of the narrative belongs to those who are willing to give their version away for free... I've already noticed my conservative principles slipping since the Oz hid all its good stuff :(