23 March 2015

This Victorian Novelist Knew About Buzzfeed, and It Was Everything

Conclusive evidence that '90s* kids knew all the best journalism hacks:

* 1890s

"Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. [ . . .] In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat, I should call it Chit-Chat!" . . . Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hotcakes, as they say in America. I know I am right, laugh as you will." [. . . ]

"Now do let me go on," implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. "That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this: – I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs. [. . . ] Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains, and on buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information – bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat." [ . . .] 

"It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item – we won't call it an article. For instance, you might display on a placard: 'What the Queen eats!' or, 'How Gladstone's collars are made!' – things of that kind." [ . . .]

". . . And then, you know . . . when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising. . . ."

from New Grub Street by George Gissing, pp 446 - 448 (with omissions) in my Modern Library edition.

Previously: Williams Wordsworth has looked into smartphones, and Captain Ahab has pondered the advantages and disadvantages of GPS.


John Marcher said...

Brilliant- and true!

But that last line is the best.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Instead of Gladstone we get Benedict Cumberbatch, but there's nothing new under the sun (not even that line about the sun). . . .

I do think Buzzfeed is often just brilliant. But it may help that I'm not their target demographic.