The obituaries have been ready for years. The recent declining health and time in hospital should have inspired all news organisations to dust down their specials and bring them up to date. So how did the press fare in its biggest test of the digital age? Could newspapers react as quickly as broadcasters to produce wall-to- wall web coverage while preparing a print edition?
Margaret Thatcher died on a Monday morning in the middle of the schools' Easter holidays and with Parliament in recess – the very time that top political writers and newspaper executives are away with their families. With papers at their thinnest on Mondays and Tuesdays, staffing lower down the food chain is at its leanest. So there will have been a scurry of phone calls to muster troops for the challenge ahead.
Everyone had naturally planned to cover all bases: the basic timeline from grocer's daughter to tearful downfall; the political legacy, the creation/destruction of Britain; the impact on business, the arts, industry etc. All interspersed with the quotes, from St Francis of Assisi to Kipling; We have become a grandmother; Rejoice, There is no such thing as society, The lady's not for turning and other ill-advised utterances.
All of this was pretty swiftly posted online, along with the straight story and the stream of tributes. But it was Twitter that was the most important factor in winning readers yesterday afternoon – as Martin Belham predicted long ago with this spot-on pie chart. No newspaper can expect people, however loyal, to be using their website as their sole source on a story like this, especially if it is hiding its light under a paywall. This wasn't a breaking or running story in the old-fashioned sense – a woman is dead, the great and not-so-good are busy spouting out their tributes and that's about it on the news front. Everything else is history, background, ramifications. You have to be tweeting to bring the readers in. And this is where the Twitter experts, whether professional hacks or citizen journalists, win.
Nick Cohen was quick to give his Observer column on bankers a topical spin with a tweet 'one legacy of Thatcher…', even though the copy didn't mention her. Sunny Hundai tweeted a link to his piece from December 2011 on privatising Thatcher's funeral. Seumas Milne of the Guardian pointed Twitter to an article from January last year.
John Rentoul proved a masterly tweeter linking not simply to the Independent, but to Left Foot Forward – five progressive things by Thatcher's governments and a further six (less interesting) from Stumbling and Mumbling.
There's no dodging the fact that many had been looking forward to this day for a long time. The website isthatcherdeadyet? had a huge black underscored YES with the subhead 'The lady's not for returning' and a growing tally of Facebook likes. It asked people to say how they planned to celebrate and pointed to sites detailing parties.
But when you clicked on these links, there seemed to be fewer than you'd expect in the mood for grave-dancing. Indeed, even for those who were celebrating there was more hilarity over the hashtag #nowthatchersdead than about the death itself. Cher found herself trending as thousands read it as now-that-chers-dead.
The link to Glenn Greenwald's piece for the Guardian about 'misapplied death etiquette' was retweeted over and over, mostly on the basis of his comparison with the Right's reaction to the death of Hugo Chavez, but it was largely irrelevant. The really vicious personal 'rot in hell' venom was limited, and the commentators, Right as well as Left, barred no holds as they examined the nature of her politics and influence for good or ill. Even the most Thatcherite media conceded that she'd made some dreadful mistakes and split the country.
Even so, the Mail and Express both puffed and blew indignance at the wicked trolls who were despoiling their heroine's memory. But they had limited examples – and they were so similar with their references to the George Galloway, Elvis Costello and the campaign to get Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to number one that they must have regurgitated the same agency copy. Forgiveable on a day like yesterday.
So was there anything unexpected in this outpouring? Yes.
- The joy of learning from the Bury Free Press that Mrs Thatcher visited Bury St Edmunds in 1987 and that Norman and Margaret Tebbit still live in the town; and the worries at the Stroud Herald Journal that Ed Miliband might not after all visit on Wednesday;
- The imagination of Rotor & Wing in celebrating Thatcher's importance to the world of helicopters – they were used in the Falklands;
- Shirley Williams's disclosure that it wasn't Thatcher,Thatcher Milk Snatcher who stopped little bottles of warm sour milk being forced down primary schoolchildren's throats. She was the fall-girl for Chancellor Anthony Barber. An interesting admission, given that Williams was a Labour MP at the time.
- The fact that as a junior research scientist for Joe Lyons in the early 50s, Thatcher was one of the team that created Mr Whippy ice cream.
And we journalists all owe her a debt of gratitude, since it was the youthful Margaret Thatcher who introduced the private member's bill that led to reporters – and the public – being allowed into council meetings. She advanced the bill in her maiden speech. Talk about starting as you mean to go on.
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