I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

Ian Jack has written a very interesting piece about the death of newspapers – in The Guardian. Printed papers, he argues, are going to become a niche, luxury product like artisanal (awful word) cheese. I’d prefer to think of them as a luxury artisanal loaf – you can get cheaper, sliced bread in the supermarket, but it’s rather nice to be seen with some over-priced French bread under your arm. And it tastes better.

Ah, The Guardian. The Guardian drives me mad. I love it and I hate to love it and I love to hate it.

I grew up in a house where there weren’t many books but we devoured newspapers. My mum used to read The Daily Telegraph every day. In the 1970s it was a damn fine newspaper – it covered pretty much everything. Even Tony Benn said, I think in 1979 but it might have been 1983, that it was the only paper that had covered the general election fairly. Sundays meant the Sunday Express, when it was a broadsheet, and later, when I had some say in what we got, I’d devour all of The Observer and The Sunday Times every weekend. Each edition of The Sunday Times Magazine was an eagerly-awaited treasure trove of photography and reportage. I started reading The Guardian as a sixth former and kept with it through university days, gradually buying it less and less frequently as I grew older.

Now – I hardly ever buy a paper. We always used to get The Guardian on a Saturday, though – for The Guide, for Charlie Brooker’s scathingly hilarious TV reviews, for Jon Ronson’s column in the magazine, which I loved to hate. Now I hardly ever even read that.

I love my Kindle, and I tried subscribing to The Guardian on that. It was beautifully done, immaculately laid-out. Every morning a fresh paper was delivered automagically (I’m going to get in John Rentoul’s banned list if it kills me) to my bedside.

But here’s the rub: I could not, cannot, justify a tenner a month to read The Guardian on my Kindle when my wife, next to me, is reading all the same content, in colour, on the Guardian web site on her iPad – for free.

I tweeted my frustration – why oh why do The Guardian charge for the Kindle version when they are giving it all away for free on the web site? I couldn’t find any content on the Kindle that wasn’t freely available on the web.

I got a couple of responses – one from someone who used to to work for The Guardian who said “they need to make money badly, very badly that is, and are already committed to keeping the basic site free on principle.”

Well, that’s a noble principle, but it sounds like commercial suicide. I don’t like the Times paywall either, but at least they have a plan, and idea of how to make money – even if I only ever read it when Caitlin Moran tweets that the paywall is down, and I do a quick raid to read as many of her columns as I can before I get escorted off the premises by security.

More interesting were the comments I got from a current Guardian staffer who said “We also charge for the physical paper. Different platforms, different costs, different ad revenues – different business models” and replied to my question about why they charged for the Kindle version by saying “For design suited to the form? For offline reading? For a finish-able edition? To ensure we continue publishing?”

At first I got a bit annoyed by this – was he suggesting that I am killing the paper by leeching for free stories that they themselves put up for all to see on the web site? Then I thought a bit more about what he said, and his points are good ones: you do get the whole paper, as printed, and you can ‘read the paper’ from start to finish. But even when I bought the printed paper it was usually for particular writers – now Grace Dent and Charlie Brooker have tweeted links to their columns before the printed paper has hit the newsagents, and thanks to my iPhone, I am hardly ever offline.

The Guardian web site is great, the Kindle edition of the paper a wonderfully-executed thing – different costs, different business models… maybe they should make them the same, as as far as this consumer is concerned, there’s not so much difference between reading an article on a Kindle or an iPad.

The one odd thing about The Guardian on Kindle is that there are no adverts. I was reminded of American soldiers in Vietnam or Korea who were sent specially-printed editions of Life magazine with the adverts removed. They rebelled – they wanted the adverts as they perceived them as being part of the magazine. I’d be quite happy to have a free or subsidised Kindle Guardian with ads.

So that’s sorted. I just need The Guardian to give Caitlin Moran a job now.

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