Sorry to return to India Knight so quickly – but in her most recent column for the Sunday Times, she used up about a tenth of her space praising a TV series on FX called True Blood. Now don’t get me wrong – True Blood is an excellent American import – but I don’t need the dear old sub-continent to tell me. She’s welcome to her pound-a-word fee, but I actually heard about it (and Entourage, which is even better) from a teenager a couple of weeks ago, and he heard about it on Facebook a couple of fortnights before that.
So why am I blogging about it? Because I see India’s little ‘nib’ as another nail in – my constant theme – the newspaper industry’s coffin. For some years, the papers have been saving money by filling their pages with comment, opinion and personal pieces by ‘star’ writers, at the expenses of features. (After all, one person at home on a keyboard costs less than researchers, photographers, and all the tortuous process of reporting.) However, as the great journalist CP Scott said in another context: ‘Facts are sacred, but comment is free.’ The papers are still paying their commentators to comment - and passing on that cost to the reader – when the latter can find equally well-written wisdom on the Net for no charge.
As it is, I perused Ms Knight’s pearls at www.the-times.co.uk. But forget the ‘official’ sites for the moment. There are now legions of literate, well-informed people online – with no expectation of gain – fulminating like Julie Burchill, or chronicling their personal chaos like William Leith. If I want an inside track on the social whirl, t5m’s Amanda Eliasch will have posted a report and pictures months before Tatler or Vanity Fair. If I want a book review, I can go to Amazon and see what real punters – as opposed to compromised critics – think. The same goes for music, film, restaurants, you name it.
So what should the papers do? Panic probably. They can’t launch sites that work on the same model as this one without competing against themselves. They can’t afford any more of those loss-leading gifts with which they formerly – and artificially – inflated their circulations. They can’t shut down the BBC. Already the Observer – Britain’s oldest national – looks set to close. The future is probably free sheets.