Monday, August 14, 2006

The birth of modern political journalism (with a note on how it might die)

The text of today's sermon, like so many of the others recently, is from C.E. Montague. In this case, A Hind Let Loose (1910), his first novel, a farce about crappy provincial journalism. George Roads, a rising press baron, is talking to an unimportant interlocutor about the town's two newspapers, the Tory Warder and the Liberal Stalwart. I have made a snip in the middle, indicated by three dots.

"Still at it, ain't they?"

"At what?"

"Readying folk to read anything else they can get, to be rid of 'em. Bless you, these old party papers! Party! Good Lord!"

"'Party!' says Burke, 'is-'"

"Burke! I dare say. Some Fenian. Tell you, the thing's played out. Why, look about you; take a business man, average business man. He's got no party; not such a fool. He's fluid, not frozen all up. First this way a bit, then that way a bit - that's him. And d'you tell me he doesn't get up, every morning, fair itching to be rubbed a way no paper in this place has ever rubbed him yet? Kept in touch with - that's what he wants to be."

"What's 'kept in touch with'?"

"Told he's right." Roads' audience grew; his audiences had a way of growing...

"What would you pay," Roads pursued, with a corresponding rise of voice, "to be told, first thing when you got down to breakfast you were drunk last night, or you revoked, or ate with a knife, or something? That's what they call the game, I s'pose, these party papers. Why, look at the last war. Do you folks really want to be told a war's wrong when their blood's up? Or right, a year after, when they're sick of it? That's what they do, between 'em, these papers - blackguard their own customer, turn about; soon as one shift knocks off work at saying the country's a fool, t'other'll come on."

If you detect a pre-echo of the Daily Mail's Iraq policy, you should be warned that "Roads" is not a synonym for Harmsworth; the early career Montague gives him is much closer to the Hulton clan, which would make the half-penny morning paper he's planning the Daily Dispatch. And no one needs to make satirical points against the Daily Dispatch any more.

On the other hand, Roads' reader-frottage approach to editing is the foundation of much modern journalism; papers and writers vary according to who they try to rub. This may be an underestimated driver of newspaper resentment of blogs; it is galling to hear populist rhetoric from writers who can get away with rubbing far smaller groups of people than you. Anyone can be a blogger, true; but good blogs, good political blogs particularly, tend to assume a level of knowledge and a precision of partisanship that no one who needs to appeal to a newspaper-sized audience will dare. Homework assignment: rework the Long Tail thesis to fit what's happening to political writing, bearing in mind that the money's more in the patronage and commissions attracted by blog reputation than it is in AdSense, assuming there's any money at all.

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