Thinkers in online pop-culture tabloid reinterpretation shock
The ‘Philosophers’ Mail’, edited by Alain de Botton, re-examines some lowest common denominators
Philosophers’ Mail: “Rupert Murdoch avoids therapy; world unhappy”. Photograph: AP/Julie Jacobson
Philosophers’ Mail: “Francois Hollande – the difficulties of staying with one life partner.” Photograph: AP/Michel Euler
Philosophers’ Mail: “Kim Kardashian shines glamour on our large behinds”. Photograph: AP/Chris Pizzello
If it looks like a tabloid newspaper, reads like a tabloid and has an article about Kim Kardashian’s behind, then it probably is a tabloid. Sure enough, the Philosophers’ Mail – a new but fast-growing web-based news outlet – presses all the “celeb and sex” buttons.
There are pictures of Simon Cowell on holidays in Barbados, an interview with David Beckham, an article about Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their daughter Suri.
There’s a section devoted to shopping, a health story has breaking news: “Still no cure for death” and a shock/horror story: “Chef boils wife’s body, leaving only fragment of skull – and does us a great service in the process”.
Culture is catered for by a think piece entitled “Art says beefy thighs are OK”. There’s even what appears to be a gratuitous pop at immigrants headlined: “Why the defenders of immigration are so annoying”.
Look a bit more closely, though, and the stories bend out of tabloid shape: “The next Jagger will need to liberate us from a hang-up even more oppressive than sex once was: money”, “The doomed Malaysian flight 370 is none of your business” and the controversial “Feeling happy about a sunny day is stupid, absurd and simplistic”.
The Philosophers’ Mail is the Daily Mail as edited by Schopenhauer. Laid-out to look like the Mail online, both publications’ articles may treat some of the same subject matter (the Kardashians, etc) but the Philosophers’ Mail comes at the stories from an entirely different angle. Written and updated daily by a team of real-life philosophers led by Alain de Botton, it was set up earlier this year with the mission statement: “Media moguls aren’t philosophers; so it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls.”
“The most attractive, charming, sexy and compelling news outlets enjoy unparalleled influence over the minds of tens of millions of people,” says de Botton “but, unfortunately, they rarely put out content that might make the world a better place. At the same time, there are lots of serious, earnest, good people attempting to change things, but they put out publications that only reach tiny and already- convinced audiences”.
The Philosophers’ Mail is not the anti-Daily Mail. The medium is the message here: using the online Mail’s design and enticing headlines over stories that don’t drone on about the meaning of life but instead imbue pop-culture news items with traditional philosophical virtue.
The problem for de Botton is not that modern news talks too much about low subjects, it’s that it doesn’t know how to do anything serious with low subjects.
There are no online comments as the website notes that: “The ability to post comments at the end of online news stories has revealed something unusual about our fellow citizens: even though most of them seem really quite nice and very polite when we meet them . . . [when commenting online] they are very different: jealous, furious, vindictive, heartless, obsessive, unforgiving and a little short of insane”.
The Philosophers’ Mail also has a refreshing take on the interview process. They refuse to work through PR agencies and they never attend press conferences. In fact, they have never met any of the people they have interviewed.
As they explain: “We have a distinctive view of what is needed to properly get under the skin of a celebrity. Most news outlets try and get in the same room as the person, and then ask them questions, hoping thereby to work out who their subjects ‘really’ are.
“The journalist sits opposite the subject in a hotel suite and sees their questions ricochet off their armour. We prefer to go with the evidence that is already there. We pick subjects to interview from whom we think there is stuff to learn. We don’t think the people we feature are excellent in every respect. In fact, they are invariably a bit awful in some ways – but that does not make the virtues they do possess any less instructive”.
To be fair, this approach does have its merits, especially when the alternative can consist of being condescended to by a rock or film star in the Dorchester where you are only allowed to ask pre-approved, non-questions.
On the first day of the launch, the site had over three million hits and readership continues to grow. De Botton and his team are not just writing meaningful broadsheet-style stories under snappy tabloid style headlines. True, they will bait you in with a Kim Kardashian photo but for de Botton, “if sex is being used to sell an article on kindness, then it’s fine”.
A report about Simon Cowell on holidays in Barbados may not be of any interest to you. But the full Philosophers’ Mail headline on this story is “Simon Cowell, on holiday in Barbados, proves that suffering is part of the human condition”. A caption on the accompanying photograph reads: “The ennui aboard the jet-ski”. thephilosophersmail.com