letter from the editor

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The Independent Online
A quiet word to those readers whose complaint about the new paper is that I am trying to ``pad it out'' with adverts. All editors dream of pages clear of advertising, but you, the reader, would be paying pounds 1 or pounds 1.50 for your paper if we didn't have the adverts.

We have an agreed news-to-advertisement ratio, which has not changed since we started. There is, however, a constant quiet struggle about the placing and shape of ads, and it is part of my job to resist the most disruptive ideas. Some US papers have page after page of supermarket ads with only the tiniest sliver of grey text at the top of them. In Britain, we have resisted that.

Another example: some companies would like to have ``watermark'' ads across news stories and, again, they have been repulsed. The line between carrying commercial space and allowing other organisations to sponsor news or views is a fine one - look at what is happening on commercial TV too - and constantly under threat of being trampled. But it is essential and, I promise, heavily policed.

A more substantial question, raised tangentially by some readers, is simply: ``what is news''? It might seem absurd for the editor of a newspaper to even raise this with readers, but there are good reasons for doing so. There has been what one might call ``the old news agenda'' for broadsheets, which was essentially politics-plus-politics and diplomacy-plus-diplomacy, with business and sports results on the back.

Even now, we are still a little old-fashioned in that way. But My Researches (I put them in capitals to make them seem more Impressive) suggest that very large numbers of people are increasingly turned off by that agenda. They are more interested in, for instance, science, health, the environment, culture, technology and the higher end of consumerism. I think they are at least partly right.

Power has shifted. The power to change our lives has migrated, at least a bit, from officialdom to company directors, inventors, pressure groups, doctors, marketing gurus and so on. The richer you are, the more true it is. For an average middle-class broadsheet reader in 1948 or 1958, longevity and earning-power were clearly related to what happened at Westminster: the NHS and various industrial deals were populist, bread-and-butter issues. Nowadays, personal health questions are as much about the latest information on diet, exercise, new therapies, stress, and environmental pollution.

Similarly, employability isn't settled by government departments but depends on company strategies, niches in markets, training (much of it private) and consumer trends.

Why, therefore, should it follow that stories about health, or the growth in supermarket banking, or air quality, are somehow considered ``soft'', while the latest analysis of a split in the Chinese Communist Party, or what one Tory MP told another in the lobby, is ``hard'', meaning serious and worthwhile. What is going on here?

I believe there is a new agenda which will partly replace the old one and which offers serious journalism the way forward. But what do you think? I've said before that I read all the letters back about these things. Quite a lot of readers' criticisms and suggestions about the new paper have been taken on board and will be adopted. But on this much bigger question, I'd very much like to hear your views.

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