It’s been quite a year for big news (and that is understating it somewhat). Take Brexit and the election of soon-to-be President Trump. Whatever your views, both events are the sort of news that makes the world feel like it’s shifted on its axis, and, in periods of change, we crave information. We want to understand, be informed, and feel in control — it’s just human nature.
In times like this, newspapers come into their own. In our daily lives we are confronted with so many facts, views, and updates. We receive notifications on our phones and a constant stream of shareable information on social media from news brands, broadcasters, and individual journalists.
This isn’t bad, of course. As a fully digitised Millennial, I’m the first to feel disconcertingly cut-off from reality when my phone malfunctions or my 4G fails.
Yet when the world is in flux, print newspapers give us a chance to take stock. Speaking at Shift North last year, Geordie Greig, the editor of The Mail on Sunday, said that newspapers provide “a way to digest and enjoy and view news that is somehow magical.”
First of all, there are the front pages. Newspapers’ front pages capture and express a moment in a way that no other media can. They make a statement and provide a snapshot of what follows on the inside pages. When big news breaks, people want to see what the newspapers lead with because there will be one (maybe more) that perfectly distils how each of us is feeling at that moment.
People tweet them, compile galleries, and discuss them on the morning news because they both set the daily news agenda and provide an enduring impression of our time.
As the BBC’s Nick Sutton, said about his daily tweets of the next day’s front pages: “An evening out and a delay to the front pages leads to messages about my well-being … When I went away on holiday I received despairing messages as people couldn’t live without their ‘tomorrow’s papers today’ fix.” Such is the appetite for newspapers’ leading stories.
Of course, producing impactful covers is just one element of newspapers’ role. IPA TouchPoints data tells us that on the days they read them, people spend 69 minutes on average with a newspaper. This gives time for news and opinion to be absorbed, digested, and weighed upon, and for insight to be gained.
With BuzzFeed’s recent revelation that top fake U.S. election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined, it’s even more important that newspapers research, verify, and inform.
Besides the fact newspapers are held to strict standards of accuracy, they also “have the space and the tonal variety” to make sense of our complex and shifting world. “You can’t convey the drama, absurdity, and tragedy [of politics] in the way that you can in print,” explained The Independent’s Steve Richards at Shift North 2015.
The fact that the latest ABC data shows the total print circulation increased month-on-month in October (along with a 20% year-on-year rise in online traffic), is surely testament to the fact that people crave informed and detailed information in uncertain times.
“The media still mediates” and “in our political, chaotic world we depend on the mediators,” explained Richards, speaking in the wake of the UK’s general election, before Brexit revealed us to be a nation divided and well before Trump’s victory became a feasible reality. The world is undoubtedly more politically chaotic this side of 2016, and the mediators are more important than ever.