Sunday, April 19, 2009

The second lump of sugar

In our view, the effect of every policy must first be regarded from the standpoint of the workers of the Nation, and of the poorest and most helpless among them. The charwoman who lives in St Giles', the seamstress who is sweated in Whitechapel, the labourer who stands begging for work outside the docckyard gates in St George's-in-the-East ... The policy which annexes even an Empire, wins an immortal battle, raises this man or that to the Premiership, or sweeps the board at a general election, shall appear to us infamous, not glorious - evil, not good - a thing to weep over, not to acclaim, if it does nothing towards making the lives of these people brighter and happier. On the other hand, the policy will appear to us worthy of everlasting thanks, and of ineffaceable glory, that does no more than enable the charwoman to put two pieces of sugar in her cup instead of one, and that adds one farthing a day to the wage of the seamstress or labourer.

That is TP O'Connor, writing in the leader column of the first number of The Star, his popular London evening paper, in 1888. You can find it quoted in Matthew Engel's Tickle the Public, or wherever learned British journalists grow teary about their trade. I came across it again in The Last Chronicle of Bouverie Street, a 1963 book about the death in 1960 of the News Chronicle newspaper, and incidentally of the Star. While I knew some of the details of the Chronicle's demise - others were shocking; I may blog about them later - the Star's story came as more of a surprise.

At the time of its death, when it was rolled into the London Evening News for no more than the cost of its pension obligations and week-a-year redundancy payments to its staff, the Star had a circulation - and remember this was a London-only title - of about 700,000. In other words, it was selling 200,000 more copies daily than The London Paper now manages to give away. But in 1960, that was only enough to make it the second-best-selling evening paper in Britain. And it had been losing money consistently since 1956. The poorest and most helpless, while numerous enough to make for a substantial readership, were not a demographic attractive to advertisers.

The city and the country's biggest evening paper, it should be noted, was not the London Evening Standard, eventual sole survivor of this three-way fight, but the title into which the Star was merged, the Evening News. The Standard won out not because of sales but because it attracted the most affluent, advertising-friendly readers. In the end, raw numbers are not enough. That might be considered a parable for the age of the unique-user count.

The other thought the story brings to mind is prompted by O'Connor's leader - as a good a manifesto for intelligent populist journalism as anyone could hope for. Here's the thing. If the conventional media were swept away tomorrow, expert coverage and scandalmongering-shading-into-muckracking would probably continue without much interruption. There are bloggers and others for all of that. What it might take a while to rebuild is any organisation with a wide enough reportorial reach, and a deep enough attachment to a wide enough public, to keep an eye on that second lump of sugar.

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