The Watney's Party Seven was an icon of my adolescence. In the long, hot summer of 1976 just about every weekend meant an 18th birthday party .. parties meant beer .. and the Party Seven was everywhere.
For those to whom this is an alien concept, let me explain. The Party Seven was a metal can containing seven pints of fizzy beer. I'm guessing that the original idea was to fit a gallon of booze into a single can, but maybe it kept imploding, or it was the wrong dimensions for the shelves, or something, so they just went with seven. This was, after all, the era of the Austin Allegro and the square steering wheel.
It was impossible to open. The beer was vile. It marked the nadir of brewing technology, and the beginning of a backlash. I believe there are analogies with journalism today.
Brewing, like news, enjoyed a century or more of stability before disruptive technology broke up an established network of local and regional suppliers, most of whom were profitable because, if nothing else, they held a local near-monopoly of an essential product.
In the beer industry that disruption came from kegs. Instead of wooden barrels and limited shelf life, the metal keg allowed beer to be shipped hundreds of miles and it could be stored, if not indefinitely, at least for longer. Add some canny marketing and the local suppliers were elbowed aside by hordes thirsty for Younger's Tartan, Whitbread Trophy Bitter ("The pint that thinks it's a quart") and Watney's Red Barrel.
If you couldn't get to the pub, there was the Party Seven at home.
Amid all the excitement some drinkers remarked that the new fizzy brews didn't taste of very much, and, quietly at first, a Campaign for Real Ale started that nurtured and promoted the traditional qualities of beer making.
The Campaign gathered pace and ultimately led to the situation we have today. There are now many craft breweries providing an alternative to the mass market brands, and many of these are profitable. Old and new tech has established an equilibrium in the market, and as consumers we all benefit from the choice available.
So, the parallels for news. Let me rewind a bit.
News, like brewing, enjoyed a century or more of stability before
disruptive technology broke up an established network of local and
regional suppliers, most of whom were profitable because, if nothing
else, they held a local near-monopoly of an essential product.
The disruptive technology in this case was the Internet, and at first, just like the tidal wave of Skol, online news caused havoc to the business models of traditional local media. Starved of income, many regional titles went to the wall or became zombie versions of themselves.
Now, I believe, readers are beginning to notice that the news ... doesn't taste of very much. There's a limit to how many fizzy listicles we can swallow before we experience uncomfortable bloating, and our news lacks local distinctiveness, becoming increasingly bland and online-uniform.
Another problem has been the lack of innovation in print newsrooms. The bright young things have been working on ideas for the website rather than invigorating the legacy product, and any new investment is focused on the online and mobile strategies.
Print, after all, is dead. Worthington E reigns supreme. There are however ... anomolies.
Private Eye, the fortnightly satirical magazine with a sixties retro page layout and a perfunctory apology for a website has reached record circulation figures.
A different eye .. the i, all modishly lower case .. an innovative attempt at making print attractive to a younger demographic, is being sold off to Johnston Press as part of the restructuring that killed the Independent as a print title.
In Leeds, the patch I work in, both hyperlocal news websites like the West Leeds Dispatch or South Leeds Life and lifestyle-based online products like The City Talking have launched hard copy print editions (the latter with a deal to distribute it with the Yorkshire Evening Post) which are proving popular.
So I think the time is ripe for a Campaign for Real News to champion the case for local and regional newspapers of record to reinvent themselves and offer a satisfying product for a new generation. Put similar effort to that devoted to web innovation into changing the way the print product looks and feels.
The New Day could offer this at a national level - a new title from Johnston Press (again) that promises to do away with the sensationalism and (above all) party political point-scoring of other national print titles. It launches on Monday and I wish it well.
Keg beer is here to stay. If I go into the nearby student
bar there are four taps offering golden fizz chilled to extinction. Online news providers will continue to thrive. Someone wants to know This Simple Trick, and Won't Believe What Happens Next.
But I'd like to think analogue and digital products can exist side by side, like the lager taps and ale pumps in my favourite local, and that we can all benefit as news consumers as a result.