The tabloid fault line

The only thing worse than failing to keep one’s blog up to date is to go on about it, so I won’t go on, except to say that I’ve been taking the advice of Alan Coren who – according to his daughter Victoria in her Observer column- said you should not write the first thing that comes into your head, nor the second, but the third. Having failed to get beyond thought number two, I’ve been staying silent.

But I employed the Coren formula on a piece by Peter Wilby in today’s Guardian, in which he used a kind of mantra by the executive editor of the New York Times to highlight the enormous gulf between British and American newspapers. Over there, it seems, journalism is about accuracy over speed; enjoys transparency of sources; prides itself on having no agenda; and is a career based on training and experience.

Wilby’s first thought was that it’s rather different in Britain, and his second is that the American mantra does not serve citizens well. Having had my first two thoughts thought for me, I only had to come up with one, and it is: how did the two journalisms go their separate ways?

In search of answers, I’ve been looking at an obscure and under-reported clash of the two journalistic cultures, when Daily Mail founder Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) guest edited Pulitzer’s New York World, on New Year’s Eve 1900. All the news in sixty seconds, it said on the front page of the British effort, alongside a peculiar hand-written message by Harmsworth himself asking for America’s verdict on his little paper (he shrunk it for the day, to a tabloid). You can see a bit of it here Was this where it all went wrong, or right? Was this just a stunt – or was it the tipping point, a symbol of a tabloid-ish fault line along which the two journalisms divided? The period does seem rich in such clashes: JW Campbell (no relation) has written a book claiming that 1897 was the year in which (roughly) popular ‘journalism of action’ clashed with more reserved, serious journalism, in the USA – and lost.

I’ll have the answer in five years, which is the deadline for a PhD study on which I have just embarked. So if this blog is not updated again until 2012, you’ll know why. In the meantime, if anyone has the answer to the above question and wants to save me half a decade, I will be pleased to hear from them.

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