Newspapers should offer an eclectic mishmash of stories

20 November 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 20 November 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
I was talking to my son. He’s so ignorant. I told him, “Go and read a newspaper!” And he said, “What’s a newspaper?” I blame his mother.
Daily Male

When was the last time you heard someone calling out, “Paper lama”? Newspapers are having a tough time these days. The Edge is doing well but it specialises in business news and analysis, so is it really a newspaper? In Malaysia, New Straits Times has been one of the hardest hit, having lost 41% of its circulation since 2012, dropping to 54,490 by the end of last year. This is according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations Malaysia. Readers changing political allegiance could be one reason for the drop, but it’s more likely that people are simply turning to the internet. Barisan Nasional still has millions of supporters and will probably win the next general election by a comfortable margin, but voters seem to be losing interest in government mouthpieces.

Meanwhile, in the US, some newspapers are doing very well. One of Donald Trump’s favourite Twitter hashtags is #failingnytimes, but actually, he has made the opposite come true. The share price of New York Times Co jumped 54% in the first six months of the Trump presidency because online subscriptions increased 70,000 in the first three days following his election victory. Trump’s shambolic presidency has been a godsend for the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, but something of a disaster for US local newspapers that cannot compete for major political scoops and have to placate a conservative readership that supports Trump. McClatchy Newspapers, Inc, which owns 30 local US newspapers, has seen its share value drop 31% since election night.

People still support Trump (strange, but true) and he could well win another election if it was held today, but his supporters don’t seem to want to read about him in the newspapers. Meanwhile, liberals who are horrified by Trump are returning to newspapers in bigly numbers and helping their newspapers make profits in an age when the internet is supposed to destroy the old print media.

Clearly, old-fashioned newspapers still have relevance and a future if they can find a purpose (exposing high crimes and misdemeanours is good) and an exciting way to package themselves. Being a decent newspaper and being strong online must be the way to go but I wonder if looking at what made newspapers popular in the very beginning might help save their print versions.

I’ve been reading some very old-fashioned newspapers, from over 100 years ago. Because of the internet, it’s now possible to access thousands of old newspapers from around the world. I’ve been doing research for a book I’m writing about the 1890s and have found that some countries have been better than others at digitising old newspapers. Singapore has made available The Straits Times from 1831 to 2009 but The Malay Mail, published in KL since 1896, has not. Australian old newspapers are excellent and free, American ones are good but you have to pay and although Britain is good for their local papers, they don’t seem to be interested in digitising the old newspapers from colonial outposts like Malaya and India, which is frustrating.

In the comfort of my home in KL, I have been reading lots of newspapers published in South Wales around 1900. My mother’s family were coal miners there and I’m looking at the parallels with tin mining in Malaya during the same time. Reading old newspapers is a lot like scrolling through the internet now. So much information is crammed onto one big page without any attempt to segregate local news from foreign pieces.

On one page of an 1893 edition of the still-running South Wales Echo, there is a long report about an anarchist throwing a bomb at the French parliament. Such anarchists were the ISIS of the day and even readers in South Wales wanted to know what diabolical crimes they had committed. Next to that are stories on the local football results, the revolt by troops in Brazil, the Paris horse racing results, a man being arrested for smoking a cigar in a cemetery, what’s on at the local theatres and the price of potatoes. There is a piece on the trial of a pawnbroker’s assistant who had stolen gold rings for a woman, who then jilted him. He started sobbing in the courtroom. “For god’s sake, sentence me, sir,” he pleaded to the judge, who then sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour. “Thank God for that. Honesty is the best policy after this for me,” he said as he was led away.

Newspapers used to be an eclectic mishmash of stories that all cried out for attention, if only for a short moment. We imagine how the experience of scrolling through the disconnected mess on Facebook is something wholly modern but it’s actually like reading an old newspaper. And it’s great fun. At some point, the newspaper format became clearly divided between foreign and local, arts and sport, with each on its expected page. But perhaps a way to make newspapers more interesting is to mix it all up and have the eye jump from one topic to another instead of just predictably plodding through things.

Would I actually buy such a newspaper? Perhaps not, because I do like the internet. Perhaps, newspapers are doomed if they aren’t specialised like The Edge or if they cannot win a constant supply of scoops for a hungry audience, as The New York Times is doing. It will be interesting to see how the paper does after Trump has gone. But I do think that the way our interest jumps around the internet, which mimics the way old newspapers used to be formatted, might hold some answers. Maybe I’m just imagining things because I’ve been lost in a world of 100 years ago, and maybe that’s because I cannot bring myself to read about what’s happening now.

Reprinted with the kind permission of