A Nobel Prize is missing from my life

Dearest Diary,

In my previous life as literary editor this would have been just about the busiest day of the year. At 1 pm Swedish time on either the first or the second Thursday of October there is an important announcement from Stockholm. Today the Swedish Academy let the world know that this year’s Nobel Prize for literature goes to Mario Vargas Llosa.

So, I was promptly on my laptop watching a live stream from Svenska Akademien, out of habit I guess. As I found out the name, I instantly posted it on Facebook, just like so many people around the world who were tweeting the news at the exact same time. But then I started to feel an odd emptiness, like something essential was missing.

For the second year in a row, I am not in a newsroom when this happens. There is not even the merest hint of rushing-around-with-breaking-news in my Oxford study. I was just having a ginger biscuit with my cup of coffee, planning to go for a walk.

Normally I would start working on a big story about the winner, after agreeing with colleagues about calling publishers and bookshops and anyone who might know the author personally. As Vargas Llosa is Peruvian and world-famous, a Finnish newspaper wouldn’t stand a chance in getting a comment from the winner himself, but we would take his interview from the wires later on in the day.

I tried to fill the void by checking Finnish and British newspapers’ websites to read more about Vargas Llosa. To my disappointment, the British papers were being incredibly slow to even tell their readers the name of the winner, let alone write anything more about him – even though Vargas Llosa apparently lives mostly in London nowadays (well, according to Wikipedia anyway – none of the British papers have confirmed this yet).

Only the Guardian (and the BBC) had told the winner’s name within 20 minutes. Even after 40 minutes I couldn’t see any stories online, so I stopped looking and decided to unload my frustration here.

The Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat took the approach I would have expected from several other quality newspapers. HS was well prepared, and published the breaking news along with a comment from a critic in less than ten minutes.

Admittedly, the comment basically just said ‘not a bad choice’ and followed with general stuff about the Prize that was obviously written in advance. Still, it was something. I’m all for slow journalism, but I do think that a professional news operation also has to offer at least some background for its online readers pretty damn swiftly. After that the journalists can concentrate on their in-depth articles for the print edition. When it comes to immediate reactions, HS did well in comparison to British media.

As for my frustration, I think I’m cured now. I have no overwhelming desire to find out where the Nobelist’s London home is and jump on a train. Besides, the Academy’s Peter Englund said that Llosa is in New York at the moment.

Even if he was surprised at his doorstep, I doubt that he could be as delightfully nonchalant about it as Doris Lessing was in 2007. A group of journalists were waiting at the front of her London house and told her that she had won the Nobel as she stepped out of a cab. She’d been shopping for artichokes, as you can see from the Reuters video. Later on, she gave interviews sitting on the doorstep, legs wide open. “Either they were going to give it to me sometime before I popped off or not at all.” Got to love her attitude.

PS. I do think it was time for a Canadian woman. Well, maybe next year.


About Johanna Vehkoo

Journo, speaker, fact-checker. Formerly Visiting Scholar at Wilson Center, Washington DC, and Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University. Wrote a book about the future of quality journalism. Founder of award-winning startup Long Play. Blogs in both Finnish and English.
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