Saturday, August 07, 2021

WEEKENDER: Decline and fall of the 'colour supp', by Wiggia

Fleet Street has gone: the centre of the newspaper industry has been dispersed all over London and its spiritual home is now just a few hollowed out buildings of interest. Even the old watering holes full of journalists are now just tourist attractions; the most famous, El Vino, a bastion of its time for male journalists and refugees from the law courts - the ghost of Horace Rumpole may well stalk the place but that is all - has been absorbed into a wine chain selling tapas to the tourists who still visit the area. Fleet Street is no more; even Micks Cafe - the apostrophe was never there - the original and pretty rough 24 hour, 365 days a year original greasy spoon has gone to wherever those places go to in the sky.

This is not about Fleet Street, though it is about the addition of weekend supplements to newspapers that emanated from there before the street died.

When I left school with little in the way of qualifications and few prospects (a long story and not for here), I was fortunate that I had emerged into the working world during a period of full employment. A friend of a friend got me into a job of little consequence at the time in the ‘print’, an all-enveloping word that meant you had got yourself into the most lucrative trade in the country at the time: a union card in that industry at any level realised well above average wages for what was very little effort. It served me well until I moved on.

Why do I tell this story? In those early days I had access to all the news media on a daily basis; I became adept at scanning a paper in record quick time, even the heavyweights. My favourite was the Telegraph simply because its sports pages were in a different league then from all the others.

It was during this period that Fleet Street as it was then hit on the idea of including supplements in the Sunday editions of their papers. Naturally everyone involved in the handling of the papers cried foul at the ‘extra’ work involved in the handling and distribution of these extras and all got paid extra as was the norm in those days.

These weekend supplements, an American invention, were introduced to Britain in 1962 in the Sunday Times by Harold Evans the then editor. In original form they contained high quality photography and investigatory journalism; the latter has long gone, along with the in-house photographers.

The magazine sections included glossy articles on fashion, cookery, motoring, travel and the inevitable advice on health, wealth and an agony aunt, plus the investigatory pieces.

It was a new fillip to newspapers that finally had a competitor, television, and so they became a staple of the weekend editions and certain papers even started later to include mini mid-week versions as pull-out supplements.

Sadly for the newspaper industry it has not stopped the never-ending slide in sales since those heady days when the Daily Mirror could boast under its header 10 million readers a day. In many cases, only the culling of staff and the cost savings of the digital age in production has kept many titles going at all.

In many ways I must be typical of many of today's readers: unlike the time when I would read all the titles or at least scan them, I now rarely buy a newspaper, not because I don't like the printed word but because all those papers that I once upon a time thought had news articles of merit have now all dumbed down to a common denominator, and I can’t honestly see a revival. How many young people buy a newspaper these days? The digital age is the newspaper for them, and they are not likely to cough up to go behind a paywall either; but my wife stills buys a paper a couple of times a week and naturally I scan it - I have always been a voracious reader, put a catalogue or a phone directory in front of me and I will read it even if it has no obvious interest.

Back to the weekend magazine sections. When I purchased a Saturday edition of the Times last week - a shadow of the former ‘Thunderer’- a weekend section and a couple of pull-outs fell on the table as I opened it. I genuinely have not looked properly at a weekend magazine for some time, but for one reason or another this time I did. So what was new, what was luring me in to read further? Er, nothing. I could have been looking at a version from one of those editions from sixty years ago, minus the photography and the investigatory pieces. Obviously the contributors had changed, but they were all there, clones of an earlier generation of contributors; these are not journalists, in fact real journalists especially of the investigative kind are virtually extinct. No, these all come under the heading of features, people who make a living by writing endlessly about the same subject. Nothing has changed at all in all those years except that features now trump news content.

Until quite recently a couple of sections did still serve a purpose: best buys in travel and holidays did have genuine help in finding good deals and avoiding problems, and the money sections can still be good, plus the original ‘Ask Jessica’ column when she would take up the cudgels publicly on behalf of people who had been taken to the cleaners financially by banks, institutions etc. It was always worth a read; now gone, of course: the replacements if they exist are a pastiche of the original - can’t upset the advertisers, can we?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with feature writers, but the format is moribund. You turn the page hoping for something new, a bit different, to find the same items regurgitated endlessly over the year or years.

There is an awful lot of filler writing. Little is said about the item in hand but word salad fills a large part of most articles. I remember in the early Sunday Express motoring section the writer who filled that page (Benson?) would fill two thirds of the page with the aforementioned word salad every week before the car being reviewed was even mentioned. Nothing has changed. Food writers are good at this: every week the restaurant being reviewed will have an extra dimension that takes up paragraphs, usually a puff piece on how the sustainability in the chef's menu makes him a good bloke or similar; or how difficult it has been to make a living in such a backwater - why go there, one asks, until the same food writer put it on the map. There is a lot of nepotism in this magazine section as well: Coren, Rayner for starters - where would they be without their famous, and in the case of Coren talented, parents.

Before magazine sections the late (lamented by many!) News of the World, ‘all human life is here’ at least had articles you knew were ridiculous and made you laugh, and yet the paper did expose some serious items during its life.

About the only things that have changed are the now endless 'lose weight and eat healthily' pieces. These comprise of favourite actors/actresses/minor celebrities looking for exposure, many of whom like Oprah Winfrey re-appear with same advice after another five years when it obviously didn’t work the last time.

Plus of course the latest work out routines: going to the gym was not an option in the Sixties unless you were an actual athlete, but today pages are given to the latest routines and machines favoured by whoever they can get to endorse it.

Food is the same. The cooks of old who had a page that actually gave advice on something you could cook easily have given way to chapters on exotic dishes from all over the world that contain items that cannot be found unless you have a new world deli round the corner. I am never quite sure why celebrity chefs and these pages of exotic food are so popular when few cook these days or have to; the nearest most people get to a menu is when ordering on Just Eat or ordering two of number 57 from their local Chinese takeaway.

These food sections do serve a purpose though: the adverts for new kitchens, costing £20k and upwards, jostle for position around these pages. No kitchen is complete without a worktop filled with Heston Blumenthal’s latest £1000 blender and bread maker. All can be found in the food sections, they obviously sell as they wouldn’t be there otherwise, but are they ever used or are they an essential talking point in this non cooking world? They are simply an adornment on the work counter along with the very expensive Japanese knives that take more time to sharpen than the job you use them on.

The health sections - always prefaced with ‘ seek advice from your doctor if in doubt’ - have changed from 'my bad back is….and what should I do?' to more salacious items such as 'my husband can’t get it up any more, should I seek help from another?' and the more woke cries for help such as 'my husband has confessed to being bisexual, should I join in to save the marriage?' Tanya replies, 'follow your instincts what have you to lose?' None of that would have been in the early supplements.

Property has never gone away in these extra pages. How to improve your home used to be a Barry Bucknell page on essential woodwork, or how to change a lock; not any more. Now it is how to ruin the look of your property by adding a hideous box on the back with bi-fold doors costing trillions, and however small your outside space is, an entertainment area is a must. A gas-fired barbie or pizza oven are the current go-to’s; even in a climate that only allows you three days a year to use it, you can on those rare occasions fire up and ruin the same few days your neighbours wanted to spend outside enjoying the clean air and sun; and of course as men for some strange reason commandeer the barbie on these days, suitable pinnies and gloves for the man/cook are advertised alongside with advice on how not to burn your wagyu beef from your local artisan butcher.

The property section has always had a regular chart on the best/most convenient/most desirable and priciest regions in the country; even worse are the same charts telling everyone which is the most up and coming area, in one swoop ruining a lifetime of pleasant repose and steady prices.

Allied to the property section, often these days itself a separate item, we have the gardening pages. In days of yore Adam the gardener would suffice with his weekly tips on compost and veg growing all in an easy-to-follow illustrated strip. In this age of the celebrity gardeners that simply won't do; we have them instead of sage advice from an actual gardener such as the much-missed Percy Thrower or my favourite Geoffrey Smith, who would seek out real gardens with real people and not the estates that dominate TV gardening today - anyone who believes that Monty Don actually looks after that enormous multi-garden he appears in on his own, needs their bumps felt! Smith was the archetypal real gardener who could come across on TV:

But gardening today is big business and the supplements all have their celebrity gardeners fronting the sections. To be frank, nearly all just repeat the months of the year every year, but they are responsible for fashion changes and therefore get industry support: from ‘this year it will be mainly Geraniums’ or 'decking is so last year', to whatever, to fancy expensive Japanese secateurs, the adverts back up the articles.

The one big change in all the supplements is some form of celebrity section, either interviews with established stars like Helen Mirren who seems to appear on a regular basis in all of them, or the latest Love Island star very few have heard of and fewer care about; or even worse, the strange weekly up and down page Celebrity Watch in the Times supplement by Caitlin Moran: she actually has three columns a week all on the same themes, herself and celebrities. Amazingly by supplement standards this rubbish is popular, so dumbed-down have the papers become; you can, under pressure, read one of the Celebrity Watch columns and say to yourself 'what on earth is that all about?' and repeat the same thing every week of the year. Why would anyone bother, really?

Of course, she is not alone. The Daily Mail has made a whole online section on the same sort of layout, endless people from TOWIE (see, I am with it!) and Love Island apparently are the most clicked items in the mag, so what do I know? All I do know is it will not save the dead tree press from further contraction. The papers themselves have reduced in real content; apart from some business sections, and you don’t get many clicks there, they have all gone tabloid apart from the Telegraph which was once good and once had easily the best sports section - not any more - and the repetitive magazine sections get bigger and say less.

I used to enjoy sitting down and going through a decent paper like the Telegraph as was, but today on the occasions we buy a paper I find myself scanning it for the few items of interest left. When push comes to shove they all seem to toe a similar line; the consensus among them is like with political parties, they try to appeal to all and all end up very similar, pleasing ever fewer; the weekend sections follow suit.

 It used to be said that yesterday's newspaper was today's firelighter; now it doesn't even last that long.


A K Haart said...

I miss newspapers. I used to find a scrunched up ball of newspaper quite good for cleaning the inside of the car windscreen. Now we don't even have a free newspaper shoved through the letterbox.

Scrobs. said...

I often wondered why an Omega watch was a necessity - it usually had just two hands, no numbers and a price tag of around £3,000!

But I always hoped the bird in the dress ads was actually wearing a nightie - you live in hope...

CherryPie said...

Newspapers and their colour supplements are not what they used to be.

Now I prefer to get my weekly news summary from 'The Week'(I have a paper rather than digital subscription).