Andreas Whittam Smith: My 'core and satellite' approach to newspapers

You can ignore 'Ostrich Head's Freak Show Carnival' - just use the search facility
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The Independent Online

Since I have had broadband access to the internet, I have changed the way I learn what is going on in the world. New research published last week showed I was far from alone in altering my media diet. In particular, I have sharply reduced the amount of time I spend watching TV news and TV discussion programmes.

How satisfying it once was to watch ITV's News at Ten. How well informed I felt with Alastair Burnet, Sandy Gall, Selina Scott and Anna Ford recounting the day's events. But now, unless a news story is as significant as, say, the bombs on London's underground and bus system in July 2005, I spend more time watching TV weather than TV news.

In the research commissioned by Ofcom, people across the world were asked whether, since they had broadband, they watched more or less television. In all the countries studied, at least a third of consumers with broadband at home reported watching less TV. Reasons why this has happened were provided by answers to a further series of questions: have you ever watched or downloaded any of the following via your PC - TV clips or whole programmes, videos made by other people, news clips? In the United Kingdom, some 34 per cent of the respondents had downloaded TV clips or whole programmes, the same proportion had watched video clips made by other people, and 38 per cent had downloaded news clips.

In my own case, it is the last two categories that have attracted me. Of course watching video clips made by other people takes me to a web site such as YouTube with its morass of teenage video-making. But you can ignore "Ostrich Head's Freak Show Carnival" and similar stuff. Just use the search facility and see whether any amateur video of people of interest to you has been posted.

During Ségòlene Royal's battle to secure the Socialist nomination for France's presidential election, for instance, I was able to watch video of her at a private meeting with her advisors. She was complaining about French teachers using the time they should have spent preparing lessons in order to earn extra money by giving private tuition. She would never have said this publicly. For teachers are among her natural supporters. But somebody in the room had surreptitiously used a mobile phone to capture the exchange. As a result, I was able to see through the minders and PR executives who surround any leading political figure and glimpse, for a few minutes, the real Ségòlene. One minute of that is worth 10 minutes of conventional TV news coverage.

Not that conventional TV news doesn't have its uses, but I am more likely to find what I am looking for by using the internet. During the final few days of the recent Congressional elections in the United States, for instance, where religion was an important factor, I was struck by the news briefly reported here of allegations of relations with a male prostitute made against one of the leaders of the evangelical Christians, Ted Haggard. I turned first to the New York Times website, where I found references to a local TV station in Denver that had spoken with Mr Haggard. I want straight to the TV site and downloaded news footage of Mr Haggard's original denial, of his subsequent retractions and then of his lengthy confession read out to thousands of church members.

This was raw coverage, as much the real thing as the secret filming of Ségòlene Royal. As a matter of fact, I believed Pastor Haggard's claims of innocence because of the way he came across in his first interview. Thus I had felt, albeit in an attenuated form, his power as a preacher. I should say, also, that his apology and explanation given to his tearful congregation was as well done as one could imagine. In this way, the internet enables one to observe the valuable rule familiar to students of history - whenever possible, go to the original source.

Ofcom also asked its questions in relation to newspapers: "since you've had broadband, do you read national newspapers off line more or less?" Some may be surprised to find that newspapers were not as badly affected as television. Whereas 33 per cent of respondents had watched less television, the comparable proportion for spending less time reading newspapers was 27 per cent.

Personally, I haven't reduced the time I give to newspapers, but then I wouldn't. But I supplement this reading by using the internet to access foreign papers. As soon as the Middle East flares up, I regularly download the excellent Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz. Now the cricket with Australia is more interesting, I check the local newspapers for their opinion of England's efforts. Most days I glance at The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times for news, for film reviews, for book reviews, for anything.

What I have developed in my news gathering without noticing is a "core and satellite" approach. My core news source in The Independent, and alongside it I place The Guardian, Daily Mail, The Financial Times and Telegraph. These I consult every day. Everything else is satellite, and this applies as much to standard British TV news as it does to the video clips I track down and to foreign newspapers online. The good point about newspapers in this context is, I think, that unlike TV news, they are broad enough in their coverage to act as a core source for people with wide interests.