Stepping into a Spar corner shop to buy a loaf of bread, there were piles of tomorrow morning’s papers on sale; Sunday newspapers at 9 pm on a Saturday, they would hardly have the late sports scores. There were days in London when a night out presented an opportunity to buy all the morning papers. It was an odd feeling, but reassuring; as though one had better mastery of the world by being ahead of what was going on.
Driving back through streets where people were heading out for the evening, from deep in the recesses of the mind came memories of buying Saturday evening papers that carried reports of all the days football matches. Were they pink or green, or some other colour? A voice from the past talks about buying something called the ‘Pink Un’ – was there really such a paper, or is the memory imagined?
Newspapers had always a feeling of security. They were tangible, solid; hard copies, in contemporary parlance. For a newspaper to be in one’s hands demanded a whole chain of human action and presence, ending in the location where one happened to be. There were the printers and distributors and sellers, and while the first two were anonymous and remote, the newspaper seller was very tangible flesh and blood. For three or four years when both children were day pupils at their secondary school, our morning paper came from a man who sold them at the traffic lights of a local road junction. If the lights were green and there was not time to stop, it was sufficient to slow down with the car window wound down and the paper would be tossed into the car as we passed the traffic island – he would be paid the next day.
Television and radio never had that feeling of interaction. Sometimes, when feeling lonely, the paper seller would be one of the few people who would be happy to chat. The conversation would not extend beyond the weather or some bland comment upon the lead story, but it was better than having no-one to whom to talk. Sometimes the paper sellers seemed characters of mystery: where did they live? What did they do with the rest of their time? Where did the man from the traffic lights go when he disappeared at 8.30 each morning.
The gradual decline of the newspapers brings with it the prospect of losing a point of human interaction. If the newspaper sellers all disappear and there are no longer piles of the morning editions on the floors of corner shops, a little bit of the jigsaw of daily life will be lost.
Electronic communication is wonderful. The ability to click a mouse and immediately access news stories from every imaginable angle brings a whole world of knowledge unattainable by turning the pages of the paper. But the international is impersonal and intangible. The process that led to having a newspaper in one’s hands gave that paper a sense of authority, a sense that it carried weight. The easy access to the Internet and the ability to post just about anything means the news online has not the same authority because it has not demanded the process of reporting and production that gives authority to newspapers. Opinion expressed online has not the authority of opinion expressed, and paid for, in hard copy.
When the day comes that the Spar shop has no papers for sale, something will have been lost.