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David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

David Hepworth

Posted on: 27 November 2016

Trump-obsessed Media is Heading for a Major Sugar Crash

“Novelty on a daily basis.”
I don’t recall an American election remotely like it. On one side, Hillary Clinton, potentially the first woman president and yet also not the main story at all, which is something you would never have predicted. The other candidate, Donald Trump, is such a grotesque; invented by TV and perfectly attuned to its hunger for sensation, no matter how idiotic, that he’s provided the news media with the thing they crave more than anything else, which is novelty on a daily basis. You no longer control the news agenda by holding back until you’ve got something worthwhile to say. You control it by carpet bombing the space with information, opinion and tittle tattle. And how they’ve all lapped it up.

All those commentators and comics behind those desks on late night TV might purport to be finding the whole thing just too serious to joke about but they still seem to find from somewhere the energy to make one last joke and you can see in their eyes that they’re actually loving the vulgarity and enormity of the whole thing. This applies equally to both sides. These days, political commentary is like shooting fish in a barrel. You no longer have to make any interesting observations. You just have to reassure people which side you’re on. Presenters just have to point out that since the following was said by the enemy, that all they have to do is repeat it very slowly while rolling their eyes with disbelief. By the time they’re halfway through, everybody out in the digital bleachers is whooping and slapping their thighs in approval.

By the time you read this, one half of Americans will have woken up with the president they least wanted and the other half will have woken up with the president they had least objection to. Neither outcome is ideal. One wise old head advised early in the campaign that the best way to win this one was to withdraw from sight, thereby ensuring that your opponent attracted all the ire. That’s what happens in a campaign where the negatives far outweigh the positives. But the media, which has been gorging on the cheap sweets provided by this campaign for months now, is going to have to find a way to face the future beyond the election while suffering under the weight of the mother and father of all sugar crashes.

“These days, political commentary is like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Can’t live without it

Of all the social media platforms, Twitter is the one I find myself using most. I use it both as a reader, if that’s the right word, and as a contributor, if that’s the other right one. This isn’t just because I’ve got the traditional journalist’s fatal weakness for gossip, although I have. It’s also because, for me, Twitter is the first port of call for news of any kind.

My Twitter timeline, so haphazardly arrived at, is the filter through which I see the world. It’s made up of old mates, colleagues and former colleagues, assorted wiseacres and a bunch of people who I have decided are experts in their particular field. In the sense that news seems to reach me at approximately the speed I want it to, this seems to work far more efficaciously than anything arrived at in a more scientific manner, which is amazing in itself.

Futurologists of the past used to promise us that we would soon have a way of making sure that the news we wanted to know would come our way and the rest would be excluded. The difference was that they thought it would be done by algorithms when in the event, what made it happen was our own capricious preferences. The device that has sorted out our world and our needs for information about it most successfully is this thing with the trivial name which works because it appeals most strongly to our most trivial side. And now this service appears to be facing an existential crisis. Efforts to sell Twitter for the premium its profile seems to demand have so far failed. The failure of all the mighty brains to find a way that it can make money or, at the very least, not lose quite as much money, seems like a key moment for the internet. It’s one of those moments when its seemingly inevitable progress no longer seems so inevitable. You can imagine the world getting by without Vine, the gimmicky motion picture app that Twitter launched to counter Snapchat, which has just shuffled off its mortal coil, but it has now reached the point where a lot of the media simply couldn’t function without the 140 character friend that is Twitter. You wonder if it’s one of the few things that could work behind some kind of paywall.

This may seem anti-social, which may seem anti-social media, but we may be reaching a point where some forms of social media are more must-have than like-to-have. It wouldn’t bother me if Facebook went away tomorrow. I could live without Instagram, thought I know others who would have more trouble, and there are platforms I have never used and don’t have any intention of using, but Twitter is what I would call a professional necessity. I use it far more than I use BBC television.

Paper tigers?

The Sun’s circulation has halved since 1992.
I’m in no position to argue the relative merits of IPSO against Impress. You only have to look around you on the train or try to hack your way through the cheap confectionery to try to locate the news run at WH Smith to realise that newspapers are not what they were and that for everybody under the age of forty, they barely exist at all. There are only two groups for whom they still loom large. One, not surprisingly, is made up of the people who earn their livelihood from them. The other group is more surprising. The amount of time and effort the great and good are prepared to put into trying to come up with a way of regulating a national press who seem less and less formidable with each passing set of ABC figures, continues to amaze.

For these people, the malign power of the press is something that’s in their bloodstream. They will never believe that it’s in any way diminished, no matter how much evidence surrounds them. I suspect that the portion of this nation who are familiar with the clubs of St James and the bars of Westminster will still suspect that it was the Sun wot won it even when every bit of evidence tells us that they don’t reach anything like the masses they did in the past and that the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote demonstrate that fear, resentment and suspicion arise from the gut and the wage packet rather than the editorial pages of papers less and less people read.

Newspapers are not what they were and for everybody under the age of forty, they barely exist at all.

Available in all good libraries…

My wife bought me a membership of the London Library for my birthday. This London institution, which recently celebrated one hundred and seventy-five years of existence, is housed in an iron building in St James’s Square. It has to be iron to be able to support the staggering number of volumes in its stacks. Next time you’re walking past, just look up and think to yourself, “there are one million books in there”. What’s even more surprising is that they keep no less than eight hundred and fifty magazines and periodicals. Obviously, this list doesn’t include Heat or Motor Cycle News but it does encompass the Journal of Glass Studies, Coat of Arms, Ethics and, my favourite, Arms and Armour. I’m startled and amazed that titles like these still flourish. It all makes work for some magazine professionals to do. Long may they prosper.

About David Hepworth
(Details last updated: 22 September 2017)

David Hepworth has worked in consumer magazines for over thirty years. As editorial director of Emap Consumer Magazines, he was involved with titles such as Smash Hits, Heat, Q, Mojo, FHM and Empire. He is a director of Mixmag Media, writes and broadcasts on media issues and is the author of the books, ‘1971: Never A Dull Moment’ and ‘Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars’.

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