Rob Brown

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Britain's 150,000 newspaper delivery boys and girls could soon be consigned to the history books alongside child chimney sweeps, if a private members bill being promoted by Chris Pond MP makes it on to the statute book. But newspaper groups and newsagents need not panic just yet...

What has long been a vital - and cheap - human link in the newspaper distribution chain still has its staunch defenders. Announcing the Government's review of child employment legislation shortly before Christmas, the junior health minister Paul Boateng acknowledged that many people, including some parliamentarians, were first imbued with the Protestant work ethic while doing paper rounds.

As a journalist whose first taste of this grubby trade was braving several Scottish winters to ensure that my neighbours never missed an issue of the Sunday Post I have decidedly mixed views on the matter. While not wanting to deprive any one of their pocket money, I do fear that newspaper deliverers are going to be in need of some protection in the years ahead, especially those whose paper rounds are located in the better heeled parts of Britain's traditional broadsheet territory.

Let's face it, the quality press is increasingly becoming the quantity press. The heavies are getting heavier and heavier as they seek to boost their circulations by spawning more and more supplements.

It's not just the paper boys I feel sorry for, but broadsheet editors, who are no longer expected to be just the conductor of an orchestra but to compose, day after day, several different symphonies whilst tone-deaf advertising and marketing executives over their shoulders.

The multi-section strategy was pioneered more than a decade ago by the Sunday Times and is now being pursued with equal vigour by it's daily sister title. The Times recently started to offer ten sections on Saturdays for a mere 20p. Many of its weary readers must by now be asking aloud: "Should I give my life to The Times?"

That was a headline on a provocative essay which the critic Seymour Krim contribute din 1988 to The Nation magazine. Krim was referring to the New York Times, which has always been a real lap-crusher, it's Sunday edition weighing in at over 3lbs. Indeed, it was the Sunday edition of the New York Times which inspired Andrew Neil to multi-sectionalise the London Sunday Times.

This seems a good point to puncture one of the great media myths of our age, namely the common misperception that, by transforming the Sunday Times into a quantity paper, Neil massively boosted its popularity. Not true. The Sunday Times was actually selling fewer copies at the end of his editorship than it was when he assumed that office.

What is true is that the Sunday Times became massively more profitable during Neil's stewardship. The move to Wapping totally transformed the economics of newspaper publishing, making it possible to print fatter papers at a far lower cost.

But don't be fooled. The Sunday Times isn't the Sunday papers, as its recurring TV commercials boast. It is less and less of a newspaper. Certainly you'll find no more hard news in it today than it offered during Harry Evans' glorious editorship.

Since he succeeded Andrew Neil, John Witherow has poured even more resources into what his own staff contemptuously call "the shallow end" of the paper. But it's paid commercial dividends: the Sunday Times' circulation has gone up under him. Such is its dominance of the Sunday broadsheet market that Rupert Murdoch has ordered that resources should now be diverted to the Saturday edition of The Times. Like its Sunday stablemate, The Thunderer's chief mission nowadays isn't to make its readers better-informed citizens but to ensure that they are comprehensively bombarded consumers. Every corner of their lives is to be colonised as a marketing outpost. This syndrome is spreading way beyond Wapping. Manic materialism is what characterises virtually every new section spawned by the broadsheets in recent years.

The fastest growing tribe in what we still quaintly call Fleet Street consists of personal finance correspondents, who are in great demand to fill the space between the lucrative ads flooding in from banks, building societies and insurance brokers. Consumer journalism is now being just as eagerly prioritised by the liberal press, whose features pages are also becoming frothier by the day. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, has stated publicly that he wants his paper to be perceived as "hip and metropolitan". Undoubtedly he has done much to glamorise the Grauniad.

Rusbridger's main operating constraint is that nothing must be done to alienate social workers in Scunthorpe or teachers on Tyneside. Public sector recruitment ads may not be hip, or even metropolitan, but they are what pay his star writers' handsome salaries.

This financial fact of life, even more than its progressive overseers on the Scott Trust will ensure that The Guardian never becomes anywhere near as grossly materialistic and shameless consumerist as the Sunday Times.

You think I'm being a little too hard on the pride of Wapping? Alright, I'll grant you, its feature writers still serve up some schmaltz and sentimentality. And its glossy colour mag has been known to shine a torch on the dark underbelly of the new Britain forced by its heroine, Baroness Thatcher, and now being joyfully rebranded by Tony Blair.

On those few occasions when it isn't appealing crudely to its readers' gimme glands, London's Sunday Times is rather a lot like the New York Times, a title critically analysed at some length in the latest edition of Vanity Fair. James Wolcott's scorching conclusion: "It's the cash cow that cares. Moo."