Recently I went to buy the new biography of Jane Austen by Claire
Tomalin, prompted by the extensive reviews it had received in a range of
papers over the past month.
But I was thwarted. The book had not yet arrived in the shop. So I
trailed home empty-handed, after placing an order. This small incident,
which is replicated almost daily (a colleague takes reviews with him to
the shop, to prove the new book actually exists) confirmed what I know
is an underdebated consumer issue affecting all the media.
In the rush to be first, to scoop the opposition, and to serve up fresh
reviews and events, newspapers and magazines are far too often leaving
their readers trailing behind in frustration.
I attend press screenings, premieres, new magazine and book launches,
organised by conscientious and proactive PR people: most are highly
tuned to the very different lead times and needs of the various
I don’t think the blame of ’premature exposure’ lies with them. Nor is
it something which can be solved by imposing draconian deadlines. It
requires editors, and staff editing key review sections, to think more
carefully about the relevance of the service they are providing, and
whether they are connecting with the public, at the right time.
It is not the job of papers to actually sell books, or get people to try
out a new magazine or programme: publications are surely there to act as
guides and informers, to point readers to things they might enjoy or
But unless those readers actually have some idea of the products upon
which the articles are based, or have some realistic chance of getting
hold of them, much that is written simply goes over their heads.
Further, the point at which you enjoy an interview with, say, a TV
writer, is when you have had a chance to see his latest work. Far too
often there is a great flurry of editorial weeks before a new series -
profiles by the ton of Jimmy McGovern ahead of the first episode of The
Lakes - but then no substantial attention paid to either him or the
issues contained within it, when the viewers are actually watching and
talking about it.
The same happens with film releases: a cascade of editorial about the
director/star/ writer, long before it goes on general release.
I was amused to see the process starting last weekend for Channel 4’s
forthcoming classic, A Dance to the Music in Time. Suddenly a profile of
the author, Anthony Powell, popped up in the Observer, two weeks before
it starts, but three days after a press screening. The thinking is all
too obvious: got there first, done him. Newspapers and magazines need to
change their hidebound mindsets. Make their coverage more relevant and
timely. There are times in life when it is best to be last, not first.