Is the divide between the British tabloid and the “serious”, “quality” press narrowing? If so, why?

Journalism has become a widespread, never ending industry which is always changing and improving; (we can partly thank technology for this). Published in a variety of ways, the media can always expect the world to be hungry for news; or should we really say entertainment. When it comes to newspapers, it may seem that comparing broadsheets to tabloids is like “comparing cartoon strips with essays on the globalisation of economic affairs”. (Connell, I. 1998, p12) However, studies have shown that the aesthetics and lexis of broadsheets have been ‘dumbed down’ to become more popular with the wider range of working class consumers. This has resulted in tabloidisation, transforming rational discourses into sensationalist discourses; also it seems that reporting discourse is altering into narrative discourse. The different ways in which the British tabloid and the ‘quality’ press are narrowing will be explored further as to why this is happening in our society.

Journalists concentrate on the type of reader they are aiming for, both socially and economically. It still seems that it is about how much money people earn in order to what newspaper they buy; but not as much as before. It is a fact that there has been a large recession in Britain and unemployment is rising, therefore the average working class is the main audience for the newspaper companies and advertisers to aim towards. “News becomes less concerned with the weighty matters of party politics, economic policy and foreign affairs –‘hard news’-…” (McNair, B. 2009, p68) and concentrates more on ‘soft news’, which includes news on celebrities, sports,  the ‘one to watch’ on television, drama about ‘real’ people living amongst the general public, more columnists and also lifestyle features. “In newspapers, there is a growing amount of procedural writing (how-to-do-it writing, for example, articles on how to get the best from particular products or services or on how to improve this or that aspect of our lives.)” (Connell, I, 1998, p13) When it comes to newspaper discourse, intensifying lexis is used to draw in the reader; “Related to the ‘narrativising’ of news discourse is the ‘conversationalising’ that has also apparently overhauled it. If it once mirrored and reproduced the impersonal and authoritative forms associated with the official discourses of government, law and public administration, it now seems to emulate popular oral idioms.” (Connell, I, 1998, p13) It seems like the articles have become more of a personalised narrative instead of the recommended use of objectivity. Bob Franklin argues “news media have increasingly become part of the entertainment industry instead of providing a forum for informed debate of key issues of public concern,” (Franklin, B. 1997, p4) in other words, this can be called ‘Infotainment.’ The public long for information when reading the news, but it only seems newsworthy if something dramatic or entertaining happened in that situation. An example of this is the NUS student march which occurred on the 10th November outside Houses of Parliament. If it was a peaceful, orderly march throughout, then it would appear more in the broadsheets as a political matter to discuss; however, because of most readers longing for infotainment, the public wouldn’t find it as interesting as to what drama actually happened on that day. It appears that the only way to be heard and make headlines nowadays is to cause dramatic scenes and to take risks; otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘entertaining enough’ to make headlines.  The news business has become extremely competitive, with tabloids attracting the readers with its sensationalism, resulting in broadsheets challenging themselves to do the same, as they cannot afford to be completely separate from the tabloidised genre. “Fundamentally, both use ‘tabloid’ journalism as a shorthand means to represent processes that are not only distinctive of, but also undermine the rationalist and enlightening potential that has long been so frustratingly attributed to news discourse.” (Connell, I. 1998, p14)  The editor of The Times explained that “quality newspapers must beware allowing dullness to masquerade as seriousness and must address modern readers in modern ways.” (Bromley, M. 1998, p29) This portrays that broadsheet editors are not ignoring the change in society and are taking action to keep attracting the modern reader; however, they will not entirely change the discourse and aesthetics to completely match the tabloid newspapers, as this would be unfair to the upper class businessmen who mainly purchase these newspapers for articles on politics, economics and foreign affairs. There is still a significant division between the two, but the pressure of tabloidisation will still remain. There may be more politics in qualities, and more human-interest topics in tabloids; however some political articles have been found in tabloids, as well as more personal columnists found in broadsheets. Although this is happening, the articles can still be portrayed to match the style of the certain paper. With the quality press and the increase of columns, the columns wouldn’t necessarily be on lifestyle or celebrity features; it could be a certain politician creating a personal section of the paper; for example the ‘Private Lives’ column in ‘The Guardian.’ There may be short, slang headlines, but that doesn’t have to mean that the discourse would be in the same tone. With the tabloids, foreign news can be displayed with more interesting, eye-catching images and can be put under the topic of human-interest and possibly aiming towards encouraging charity work.

Perhaps the ‘dumbing down’ of news could be journalists working harder to make difficult stories more understandable to read. There “has been the ‘colonisation’ of the public sphere by a more populist structure of news values and a more diverse mix of styles, appropriate to the diverse, fragmented, mixed-ability audience of our time.” (McNair, B. 2009, p72) There is much more journalism circulating in the public sphere than ever before, this should be a positive thing. Writing long-winded articles would be considered a waste of time, and would most probably not be read by the public because they may be looking for a variety of short articles and ‘quick reads’ to keep up with what’s going on around them. Steven Johnson states: “For decades we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ‘masses’ want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want.” (Johnson, S. 2005, p35) However, Roy Greenslade, tabloid editor, also argues that “The dumbing-down debate [is] underpinned by snobbery. Many critics hark back to a time when broadsheets sold only to an elite of which they were part. They are ignoring the demographic, social and cultural changes wrought as a result of growing affluence and greater educational attainments.” (McNair, B. 2009, p70-71) This may be a biased view because he is a tabloid editor, but this comment may be a convincing one because British culture is always changing therefore journalism would always be changing. “The public sphere, once a restricted journalism and commentary available mainly to white, male, educated elites, has expanded- thanks to the enhanced distributive capacity of new information technologies, the internet most dramatically – to the point of genuine mass accessibility.” (McNair, B. 2009, p71)

Quality papers have broadened the agenda and included more columnists and pictorial material, with more pages to fill and more competition, but it may not mean that the quality press has completely ‘dumbed down’, perhaps just keeping up with modern society.

The modern circulation of the press has a both homogenising and also a polarising effect. The broadsheets now impersonate the tabloids by using puns and slang for headlines and perhaps using less explanation in the articles by increasing the dramatic lexis; to receive a better shock factor from the readers and to make it less ‘dull’. There is also less investigative stories about international news and parliamentary matters. However, when it comes to polarisation of the tabloids and broadsheets, it does not mean they have completely separated; “there is talk of a ‘press spectrum,’ which carries with it the notion that a common thread connects the ends of the spectrum.” (Connell, I. 1998, p16) With the homogenising view, sensational journalism, which once seemed to be confined to the popular journalism, now spreads to all media. If tabloids wanted to be completely separate from broadsheets, then the stories about politics and current affairs would have been removed from the very start. The same applies to broadsheets with the addition of the tabloid style of sensationalism. “In market terms, ‘quality’ and ‘popular’ newspapers begin to overlap, and to compete directly in the ‘middle market’…Although this is often presented at a disjunction, it was more properly part of the continuing development of the press in the twentieth century.” (Bromley, M. 1998, p26-27)  Journalistic culture is a marketplace; there is news for everyone, but there is still a democratic inequality based on income. Quality titles gain a much larger percentage of their income from advertising. The broadsheets can still make their money through targeting rich people who will buy their goods, so if the tabloids continue to be more popular, the quality press will still gain profit through selling luxury products. Nevertheless, the quality press have been threatened by popular journalism for a long period of time. ‘The Daily Herald’ in the 1960’s, the radical press of its time, became ‘The Sun’; as it was the wrong sort of readership, economically unsustainable and the readership was old and unattractive. Now the Sun is a huge selling, hugely popular tabloid newspaper. Sensationalism may be just what most people need; there is no crime in bringing excitement and drama into every single article of every paper. The postwar editor of ‘The Mirror’ observed “Today the needs for sensational journalism are even more apparent. Every great problem facing us…will only be understood by the ordinary man, busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and hit often with the facts.” (Bromley, M, 1998, p30)

The journalists are just simply doing their jobs; still aiming to satisfy the specific target audience they are writing for. Nobody is forced to read or watch anything, there is news for everybody and it is up to the individual to choose which newspaper they wish to read. Tabloidisation is only occurring because the British society is constantly changing and the working class is the more popular culture. The broadsheets have not changed completely and have not ‘dumbed down’; they are just keeping up with the competition and simply aiming to attract more tabloid readers to stay on the same profit level. “In the 21st Century, it is clear that we inhabit a society composed of many ‘publics’, each with distinctive needs and demands in the cultural sphere, and with historically unprecedented access to a media system capable of satisfying those needs.” (McNair, B. 2009, p74)

Bibliography

  • Bromley, Michael, (1998) The ‘tabloiding’ of Britain: ‘Quality’ newspapers in the 1990’s from Stephenson, Hugh & Bromley, Michael, Sex, Lies and Democracy: The Press and the Public pp.25-38, Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Limited.
  •  Connell, Ian (1998) Mistaken Identities. Tabloid and Broadsheet News Discourse, Javnost/The Public 5(3)
  • Johnson, S. (2005) Everything Bad Is Good For You, London: Penguin
  • McNair, Brian
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