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Interesting vs Important

Journalists and editors should opt for the former rather than the latter, suggests Reg Rumney.

In his column for The Media Online, Rumney recounts his days at the Weekly Mail in the 1990s and tells of the big question they grappled with then. I think it’s one that is not being grappled with sufficiently these days in SA, and which makes me turn to online media such as the Guardian and New York Times, rather than our own local media.

‘We had loyal readers, but the circulation wasn’t growing, and there was an air of stagnation about the newspaper, despite some sterling efforts, especially in arts coverage. The formula that had worked so well during apartheid for the alternative press was stale. Our pages often looked grim and glum and boring, though the spirit of the newspaper, the general behaviour of the journalists, inspired by the arrival of democracy, was anything but.

A representative of the Guardian, which had invested money in the newspaper, summed it up when referring to the photographs we routinely ran. He used to use his wife as a way of expressing criticism indirectly. I thought it very British. “My wife has commented,” he said, “after reading the Weekly Mail, that one’s chances of one’s picture being run in the paper are considerably enhanced if one is dead, preferably dismembered.

The newspaper had been created to bring important news to people, specifically bad news. It was news that the country was burning and that grave injustices were being done daily to defenceless people. But once that was over, how do you make “important news” interesting. David Beresford, the Guardian‘s local correspondent, had his offices at the Weekly Mail. His contribution to this debate was down-to-earth and perceptive, I thought. The Guardian had gone through a similar process of self-questioning. Journalists at this redoubtable newspaper had concluded that they should focus on what was interesting not what was important. The target market of the Guardian was intelligent, thoughtful people, so what was interesting to them was likely to be important a lot of the time.’

Hear, hear.

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