Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The new-look Guardian

Well, it’s certainly a more convenient size, even if – thanks to still being folded in half on the shelves despite being half as big – it was rather hard to spot in the newsagent’s. I’m not a fan of the new title font, yet the body text seems somehow more readable – although that may just be a misconception based on the novelty rather than any alteration in point size, spacing etc.

They do, however, seem to end up with rather more hyphenations at the end of lines than before – and it’s good to see a missing full-stop (and distinct lack of paragraph breaks) in the second article on the front page – the Grauniad’s reputation for attentive subs and proof-readers seems to be continuing unabated. Is it thanks to the size of the columns? They seem a tad wider than before – again though, that could merely be the novelty. And there are far fewer glaring errors of formatting with this relaunch than there were on the first days of the tabloid Indy and Times.

Inside, and page 2 shows how modern and up-to-the-minute this relaunch is going to be: a section devoted to online articles (including a blog) about the 9/11 anniversary, a run-down of popular pages on the Guardian’s website, a big advert for BT Broadband and a chunky Sudoku puzzle. Turn the page again, however, and it’s like a mini-Telegraph – a big picture of Prince Charles looking dapper on page 4 and an attractive female model showing a fair bit of pert bosom on page 5. It’s also round about now that the impact of the much-hyped “colour on every page” kicks in – breasts in colour always seem to have more appeal, I find…

But this may be coincidence. Page 6 shows little has changed as Mark Lawson romps ahead with one of those typically under-researched articles which he does so well, the first sentence of which unnecessarily evokes Orwell in a typically cliched piece on passport facial recognition technology which somehow gets him onto discussing Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. Unlike the Torygraph, however, the Guardian has managed to avoid big pouting pictures of the two Hollywood hotties (although there is a big close-up on Marilyn Monroe’s mouth – does that count?)

So far, so predictable – appeals to a wider, younger, hipper, more lecherous audience in a bid to boost circulation. Thanks in part to the page size, the articles also seem shorter and so more accessible – but there are also lots of 1-200 word mini pieces on lesser stories, an improvement on the old single sentence news summaries the broadsheet version seemed to use merely a space-filler. Minor stories thus appear to be getting more prominence, which I always reckon is a good thing.

But of the genuine news stories in the first 10 pages or so, there seems little logic – a full page on goings on at the Tate on page 9? Shouldn’t that be the Arts section and further to the back? Alleged war criminals failing to be arrested would be international, surely? Pieces on Rupert Murdoch’s plans to dominate the internet and the EU’s bid to break Sky’s monopoly on Premier League matches would surely both be better suited to the Media section, especially as this is a Monday and they’re written in a fairly easy, number-light style, yet they come under “Financial”. Lawson’s piece would be better suited to the old G2, while I can’t envisage any circumstances in the old Guardian where an interview with Prince Charles on lightweight Sunday evening Christian show Songs of Praise would merit any coverage whatsoever – let alone half a page on page 4.

It would seem Simon Hoggart’s page 11 review of Andrew Marr’s new Sunday morning politics show could be describing the Guardian’s revamp: “full of stuff, for no apparent reason” – after all, what’s the point in the double page, full-colour photograph of soldiers dealing with the current riots in Belfast which greets us on the centre pages? It’s not that compelling or powerful an image, there’s no indication of where in the paper the related story can be found, and it must have cost a packet.

The most confusing, though, is the extended Comment & Analysis pages. Does anyone really care about newspaper comment sections any more? I’m doubtless preaching to the converted here as you’re reading a blog, but the interweb generally provides far better comment via innumerable blogs than any of the national newspapers do these days. Roy Hattersley’s pointless nonsense about atheism is irrelvant and ill-argued, Madeline Bunting slagging off the “liberal” idea of civilisations clashes and the current level of debate on the situation without once mentioning Edward Said shows little more than a 6th form level of understanding, Jackie Ashley crops up with one of those perennial “where for Labour after Blair?” pieces which could have been written at any point in the last five years and so on. The only one moderately worth reading is Chris Patten on why Ken Clarke is the Tories’ best hope for the future. Yet, including the page full of Leader articles, there are now four whole pages of opinion – five if you include Lawson’s piece earlier on. These writers get paid more than any others, yet generally have far less of interest to say – do we really need this much space devoted to them?

It seems odd that the Guardian, despite generally being the most web-savvy British newspaper (and having a claim to having the best web presence of any paper full stop), has failed to notice the gradual death of in-depth print comment. Why read the likes of Bunting and Ashley when there are so many far more interesting, far more readable writers online?

Unless this is the start of their attempt to revitalise the old art of opinion piece writing in the British press, that is. Over the last couple of years the Guardian’s Comment pages have increasingly become filled with mindless pap, an illogical mix of opinion ranging from near apologists for terror to hard right Tories, the increasingly barking Polly Toynbee to any number of people you’ve never heard of blathering on about why they’re so much cleverer than everyone else. Much as some of us Britbloggers have been trying to do at The Sharpener, is the Guardian making a conscious effort to provide a genuine range of perspectives on its comment pages? That could be properly worthwhile – but they need to make more of an effort to get the balance right. Three pages of comment – left, right and centre – could be a truly interesting approach. At the moment, though, it still seems like we’ll have the odd token Tory and little more.

In short, it’s hard to tell what the plan is for this new Guardian – the news section is too confusing, the comment section too big. Maybe they’ll sort it out and these are just teething troubles, it’s hard to tell. But considering how long they’ve been planning this you’d think they’d have done something both more logical and more radical with the content. The only startling thing I’ve found is the apparent complete lack of a sport section – although that may simply be the copy I picked up, as there’s also no G2.

The major trouble is that newspapers as a whole are having a tough time – why bother with the morning paper, based on the news as it stood twelve hours before, when you can nip online and get the lastest, most up to date info with a couple of clicks of the mouse? Why hope that the Guardian’s four/five pages of comment has something interesting and worthwhile when you can hop on Bloglines or some RSS aggregator and skim hundreds of blogs in a matter of minutes, arranged by politics, interest or whatever?

To survive in the face of 24 hour news channels and the umpteen thousand alternate sources of news and opinion the internet provides, the old style news providers vitally need to do something radical to maintain an audience. Simply changing the size of your paper and fiddling with the font is not enough. You need to convince people that it’s worth parting with 60p to buy the damn thing rather than simply go on the interweb. As of yet, I remain unconvinced. (But then I would say that – I’m a blogger; if I only read one newspaper I’d be screwed, and if I bought hard copies of everything I look at I’d be broke…)

The Guardian is a good paper with – outside the comment pages – largely high standards of writing and fact-checking. It has always been more readable and reliable than it’s main rival, the Independent, but the two have also usually been looking towards subtly different readerships (Guardian – relatively intellectual lefties who largely know what they’re talking about; Indy – 6th formers and social workers).

This re-vamp, however, seems almost wholly cosmetic, and aimed less at a constructive effort to build a wider readership through better content than a destructive attempt to cull the Indy’s tabloid sized advantage, leeching back their centre-left readers to the only other serious centre-left paper – and so wiping out the already under-performing opposition. Cosmetic changes are all very well and good, but is the Guardian doing it to make itself better or merely more accessible? They are not the same thing – and nor is actively trying to steal another paper’s readership the same as building a wider, more loyal base. Because all the Indy will then have to do is start a desperate price war, and both publications will likely end up bankrupt. Which would hardly be a good thing for the future of British public debate.

Update: Ah – sports section mystery solved. It would appear that they’ve had shipping problems. Another chap in the office didn’t have a Media section in with his, but did get Sport and G2, while I had Media by not G2 or Sport. After a quick glance, I don’t think much of the new, A4 G2. But then again, I never did think much of the G2 – too much Tim Dowling, too little of any actual interest or entertainment value…