Britain to America: More is Better

By Harry Shearer

LONDON--I've been spending two and a half weeks in search of the British summer.  Like American culture, it's elusive at best.  And, despite the cross-Atlantic jokes, the two countries have so much in common.  The UK is following America down a second consecutive warpath (although the "P-word" has not yet been used as Britain's opposition parties react to 8 military deaths in one day in Afghanistan, no one has yet called Gordon Brown "Barack Obama's poodle).  British troops are regularly alleged to have inadequate equipment, to have a few bad apples roughing up the locals, to be in need of an exit plan.  It all sounds so Yank.


Then there are the differences.  The one that's particularly attracted my notice is the difference between the British and American newspaper industries--namely, the Brits still have one.   In the last month, the biggest UK news story--a rolling expose of the expenses run up by Members of Parliament but paid for by taxpayers--flew off the front pages of the nation's only remaining daily broadsheet, The Telegraph.  This past week, another major story--about the alleged rampant use of wiretapping to listen in on the messages and conversations of political and media celebs--was hurled by one newspaper, The Guardian, at the top management of another, the News of the World.  In other words, an old-fashioned newspaper war.

We all know how bad things are for American newspapers--the closing down of dailies in Denver and Seattle, the thinning (both in page width and page number) of the proud East Coast monarchs, the constant near-death experiences of the Tribune properties.  Look at any big-city daily on a Saturday, and you'd think the world had run out of news, or the forests of Canada had run out of trees.

In London, the Saturday editions plop on your porch with the weight of a white paper on Afghanistan, except that they're full of color magazines and free offers.  You think: Did I drink too much Friday night and sleep all through Saturday?  They look like American Sunday papers, fat and overstuffed, even with news.  Then Sunday comes around, and it all happens again, more heft, more color magazines, more scary stories saved up for brunchtime.

The UK newspapers have maintained a quaint tradition of competition between the daily and Sunday editions of the same nameplates, under the same owners.  

I asked a British friend about this phenomenon, of the lack of death rattles from (what used to be) Fleet Street, and he said, calmly, "I guess we're still a nation of newspaper readers."  In fairness, the UK has no Drudge or Huffpo, no scrappy news aggregator drawing all the hits.  If you're online in Britain, you get your news from the papers' (or the BBC's or SKy News') websites.  

But one can't help comparing the plenitude of stuff--gossip, ads, supplements, offers, even news--delivered all through the weekend, by both the classy titles and the downmarket tabloids.  Comparing them to the wan offerings on Saturdays in the states, one has to wonder if our British cousins are teaching Americans an ironic lesson: when it comes to newspapers, more is better.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/07/britain-to-america-more-is-better/21216/