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What, really, is the ‘news’, and other media truths

Published : Feb 13, 2019, 3:09 am IST
Updated : Feb 13, 2019, 3:09 am IST

To elaborate, war breaking out somewhere is news because the normal baseline is peace.

A disease becoming endemic is news because health in general is considered the norm.
 A disease becoming endemic is news because health in general is considered the norm.

Even after several years of working in the print media, and despite my interest in languages and etymology, it had never occurred to me to research the origins of the term “news”. For that, it took Terry Pratchett, amongst the authors whose work I consider absolutely in a class of their own, to explain — in his book The Truth, the 25th instalment of his remarkable Discworld series, he explains that “news” comes from “what’s new”, versus the “olds”. In other words, there is the baseline normal — the “olds”. When that is upset, when something new happens, that becomes the “news”, as in the plural of “new”.

The Truth concerns the evolution of the Discworld’s first newspaper, lead type, hot metal typesetting and all; it resonated especially deeply with me given my profession. (Incidentally, the masthead of the first edition that is published of the paper ends up being misprinted to read ‘The Truth Shall Make You Fret’ rather that ‘Shall Make You Free’, as was intended by the editor — which is not that far from … well, the truth.) Looking for corroboration on Pratchett’s take on where the word ‘news’ comes from, I was pleased to find that he was right.

To elaborate, war breaking out somewhere is news because the normal baseline is peace. A disease becoming endemic is news because health in general is considered the norm. People would do well to keep this in mind when criticising the news media for only ever bringing bad news. If things are swimming along as they should be, then there is little news to be found there.

On the other hand, when the baseline is negative, positive outcomes or occurrences become news — Armistice Day or the exit of a dictator or ground-breaking research in medical science. One of the most inspired headlines I can quote is from this newspaper many years ago when the inestimable Mahir Ali was asked to write a yearender concerning Thailand — a country rather given to military coups. The headline read: “No Coup this Year”.

Today, the publishing industry mostly uses computers that obviate the need for much of what the erstwhile form of the field entailed. Newsmen today tend no longer to have ink-stained fingers, and newsrooms echo with hushed tones instead of the clacking typewriters of yore; in the world of the Internet and emails many don’t even remember how to operate a fax machine (though several newsrooms still have them) or that the news ticker used to involve actual paper. But strong resonances of the world now mainly vanished remain in the language and terminology of the field of computers themselves.

The term ‘copy and paste’ comes, for example, from the time in publishing — particularly newspapers — when the act involved actual scissors and glue, when the job was done manually. The top story in a newspaper is still called the “lede”, spelt so to differentiate it from “lead” (the metal), that was used in the typesetting process (and in some cases around the world, continues to be).

In the world of mobile technology and smartphones, many new entrants to the field do not have the latent knowledge that reporters used to have to witness/investigate whatever their brief was, and then rush back to the office in order to actually file the story — whose office was closer made a difference, and it was something of a race. (But, more and less, everyone was in the same boat.)

Much has been written and recorded about newspapers in general and the environments they suffer/enjoy in different countries. But I recently chanced upon a book that delighted me when I first read it, when it was published in 1999. Titled Secrets of the Press, and edited by Stephen Glover — one of the three founders of London’s Independent — it comprises essays on their field by an array of top British journalists. The subjects taken up range from nostalgia for the old world of journalism that used to dominate the legendary Fleet Street in central London (the bulk of the industry is now at the much more distant Canary Wharf, thanks in no small part to Rupert Murdoch, as pointed out by Francis Wheen), to musings on the realities of editorship of a large print publication (there is every danger of becoming an egomaniac, says Henry Porter), to the dangers of women allowing themselves of being relegated to the margins by writing ‘as a female’ (Zoe Heller).

Taken together, it is a veritable ode to the news media that will make the pulse beat faster of anyone in the profession that has truly fallen in love with it.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: armistice day, terry pratchett