NS Internet column
Written 27 May 1999 for the New Statesman
This has been a bad year to be in the blue fox business, according to the Jakobstads Tidning, which is my proof that there is no such thing as a boring local paper, providing it comes from a district far enough away. Jakobstad does not sound terribly interesting: it is a small town in Finland, in the coastal plain where they have spoken Swedish for thousands of years. If you had to live there, you would probably chew through your own leg to get free (or so I feel, having once lived in a small town in Sweden, and chewed through a marriage to escape from it). But when you don't feel trapped in them, these places are deeply charming and now that their newspapers are online it's possible to dip into the lives of innumerable strangers.
Most of the newspapers which make a splash on line are large and want to think themselves important. The Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, and the New York Times are the sorts of thing that we are meant to be reading online; and to some extent this is true. I only ever read the Sunday Times on screen, for example, because I know it will contain at most three things I want to read, and these are much easier to scan for online than on paper. Besides, it's tidier: all my electrons are automatically recycled when I'm through with them. I don't have to store them in a bin for a week till the council comes to collect them.
The admirable site of the American Journalism Review, at www.newslink.org, lists 4,925 papers online, and hardly any of them matter in the wider world. That's their charm. The diversity of the world is maintained less by ignorance than by self-centredness, which keeps things in their proper perspective; and there is nothing like the daily doings of a small-town newspaper to give you a really vivid sense of how very foreign foreign countries are. Often, these surprises are completely pleasurable. In Bozeman, Montana, the local paper solemnly reported the theft of six empty paint cans from a back porch. In Stockholm, Svenska Dagbladet once had as the lead story in its web edition at any rate the news that the mushroom crop was going to be phenomenal that autumn. It's nice to know that nothing more important was happening in the world that day.
But of course this is the great truth about journalism. Nothing more important is happening for most people than that the mushrooms are going to be abundant and tasty. It's at least as interesting as the result of any football match and a lot more important to readers, in the sense that they can act on the information, and go out and pick mushrooms, which seems saner than getting noisily drunk.
Staying in Finland, I have just found a leader discussing the new bylaws on public order in Helsinki. These forbid both noisy prostitution and beating your carpets on the balcony except at prescribed times. Silent or nearly silent prostitution remains legal in public and it is presumably illegal to beat your wife on the balcony at any time of day. The justification for both these prohibitions is that the respectable citizens of Helsinki have the right to silence. No British newspaper would bring you news like that. They're all much too serious. But it's only in the small gritty detail of municipal regulations that we can actually catch a glimpse into how the rest of the world really lives.
Often the web seems to be a homogenising medium almost as terrible as television. There seems to be no one there who does not want to be American and famous. So it's wonderful to discover all these quiet professionals toiling to show us that the world is stranger than we can imagine. It won't stop, either, because online databases are the perfect medium for classified advertising, and the smarter papers know that they must either lead their readers online, or be left, forlorn, behind. So just for once, globalisation will sustain a diversity of perspectives and make it possible for anyone to look through different telescopes.
That's how I found the reason for the glumness among fur farmers in Ostrobothnia: the collapse of the Russian economy has removed the market for their foxes. Now here is a wonderful perspective. A former superpower, still armed with nukes, sinks into bankruptcy and despair. It's one of the greatest and most important things to happen this century. But it's also a line of farmer's faces at an auction ring 600 miles away, faling silent because not even the mafia can afford fur coats this year.