Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 15:46 UK

The death of the newspaper diary?

By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

The Times has dropped its diary column, People, to make way for more news coverage - making it the only quality daily paper without one. Is this the beginning of the end for newspaper diarists?

Newspaper diary columns
Daily Mail: Ephraim Hardcastle
Daily Express: Hickey
Daily Telegraph: Mandrake
Guardian: Hugh Muir
Independent: Pandora
Daily Mirror: 3am (showbiz only)
Sun: bizarre (showbiz only)

Once, diary columns were an essential ingredient in the recipe of a well-rounded newspaper, reporting the comings and goings of establishment figures while pricking the egos of the powerful.

Such columns became fixtures in the 1940s and 50s. But it was the Daily Mail that led the way, in the 1930s, with a diary written under the pseudonym William Hickey - a byline that lives on today in the Daily Express. The newspaper diary typically concerned itself with the lives of the aristocracy, and had an air of deference.

It wasn't until the 1960s that diarists started to go anywhere remotely dangerous, says Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London.

"That's when social deference crumbled away. Jokes had more bite, they were satirical and a bit more bitchy. That's when Private Eye came along too."

The first murmurings of the Profumo Affair - in which a cabinet minister quit in 1963 over national security matters - were in the diary columns. After all, Secretary of State for War John Profumo's lapse in judgement revolved around his relationship with a call girl.

Christine Keeler, who was at the heart of the Profumo affair
First inklings of the Profumo scandal came in diary columns

But today, it can be increasingly hard to differentiate between an old-style diary column and its more scurrilous relation - the gossip column.

Some commentators believe this is because newspapers have become more informal generally, and a tale that might once have made a diary entry is considered news.

"Diary columns are a completely outmoded thing. Once upon a time they were a way of bringing something light and fluffy to the papers," says Giles Coren, who spent 18 months writing People for the Times.

"But now so much of the papers are full of gossip that they're totally pointless. There was a time when an airhead socialite like Paris Hilton was big news for a diary column, but now she's all over the papers anyway."

Expensive luxury

So, is diary journalism a thing of the past? On Friday, the Times published its final People column - dropped, reports say, because the editor feels the light-hearted column no longer chimes with the current news agenda.

Giles Coren
Now so much of the papers are full of gossip that diary columns are totally pointless
Giles Coren, former People columnist

The Observer has already done away with its Pendennis column. Around the same time, the Sunday Telegraph's Mandrake team were asked to put some of their scoops into the daily pages.

"These are serious times for serious people. Diaries took a real hit after 9/11 and have never really recovered," says Hugo Rifkind of the Times, another former People writer.

On his watch, People broke the story that Tony Blair would convert to Catholicism, and that German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was being lined up for a job at Gazprom.

"The [diary columns] that still work are the ones that pretend to be diaries but are actually full of jokes, or full of observations, or just an excuse to run a picture of a sexy posh girl every day," he says.

People gossiping
Gossip is now seen as news, cutting the need for exclusive diary sections

Some argue the demise of diary columns reflect the decline of newspapers as a whole. Then there is the competition from online rivals that specialise in showbiz gossip, such as Popbitch, TMZ and Perez Hilton.

For these reasons, Professor Brock believes the diary column has passed its sell-by date.

A diary can be expensive to run too. Although often fronted by one person, they can be backed up by a whole team of reporters and pay well for freelance tip-offs. So the diary column has become an obvious place to cut costs.

Has the life of the professional gossip-monger changed? Is it still a whirl of parties and wicked whispers with glamorous interviewees?

"No. I don't miss it at all," says Rifkind. "Celebrities either ignore you - which is humiliating - or are desperate to speak to you, which is embarrassing. I tended not to go to many parties, because I always reckoned that if you can't look somebody in the eye and be rude about them, you just shouldn't look them in the eye."

But he is among those who believe diary columns will live on.

"One day the world will be a happy, rich, flippant place again. They'll be back."

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