Are newspapers losing their common touch?

This week my football team, Sunderland (currently second-bottom of the Premier League), beat the once-mighty Manchester United to secure a place in the League Cup final.

After a gripping evening watching the match on TV, I picked up the iPad to find out what was being said about our victory.

It struck me that something fundamental had changed (and not just from a football perspective).

A year or so ago I would have automatically turned to the online platforms of traditional media such as local newspapers and the BBC. On this occasion it was a new media upstart that commanded almost all my attention.

SB Nation is a network of fan-centric sports blogs run by Vox Media, which claims to be one of the fastest-growing online publishers, and I am a huge fan of its Roker Report blog, which follows the fortunes of Sunderland AFC.

This passage is from its match report of the game:

Often in the past we have disappointed in big games, that home FA Cup quarter-final against Everton being the prime example, but tonight we delivered. We wanted that more than the under fire Premier League champions, we fought for every ball, ran to the very end, never gave up and we got our reward, all while sticking to Gus Poyet’s [the manager’s] passing philosophy. We should all be proud of every single player in a Sunderland shirt tonight, no matter if they are your favourite or not, they delivered when it mattered and did what we want all Sunderland players to do in every game, they fought for the shirt, our shirt.

What is striking is the expression of emotion. This is no objective piece of reportage. It is informal, passionate, unashamedly biased, and it speaks to the reader as an equal, a fellow fan.

It begs a question. Is this the writing style newspapers should now be using to engage with the fractured, interest-oriented audiences of the web?

Some commentators think so.

Jon Evans, posting for techcrunch.com, notes that not so long ago most people did not write much, and even if they did, only relatively few people might have read the results. Consequently, most of the words people read were written by an elite group of authors and journalists, and almost exclusively in an anodyne style.

Now is the era of social media and people are both reading and writing more words than they ever have before, but only a small fraction are written in the traditional style.

But, says Evans, far from commanding the respect it once did, formal English is now seen as untrustworthy. The writer has hidden his or her personality behind the format, which sounds, “to the Reddit-reading masses: orthodox, lifeless, soulless, a parade of pale impersonal zombie words drained of blood by some linguistic vampire.”

The suggestion that newspaper journalists may be among those being left behind as writing styles change is ironic. Newspapers have, after all, been champions of the people’s prose since the legendary Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp invented the tabloid press in the 1930s.

Sadly, visionaries like him don’t come along too often.

Though possibly more often than cup finals for the Black Cats.

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About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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