Whither Bridget Jones? Britain's 'Independent' Newspaper Goes Digital Helen Fielding's memorable comic creation started as a series of columns in the Independent some 20 years ago; as the paper goes digital-only, Fielding says the next Bridget could come from a blog.
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Whither Bridget Jones? Britain's 'Independent' Newspaper Goes Digital

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Whither Bridget Jones? Britain's 'Independent' Newspaper Goes Digital

Whither Bridget Jones? Britain's 'Independent' Newspaper Goes Digital

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On Saturday, Britain's Independent newspaper is going to stop printing physical copies, and the paper's going online only. You might not be familiar with the Independent, but if it weren't for that paper, the world might never have gotten to meet Bridget Jones. That character, immortalized on film by Renee Zellweger, was born out of a series of columns that the author Helen Fielding wrote in the Independent in the 1990s. And Helen Fielding joined us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif.

Thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

HELEN FIELDING: Oh, it's a pleasure.

GREENE: So for our American listeners, tell them a bit about the Independent and, you know, how it might be different from other papers in the U.K.

FIELDING: Well, when I started working on it, I was pretty shambolic. I was a bit like Bridget Jones actually, and it was the cool place to work. It was an interesting time in English newspapers because in the late '80s, they crushed the print unions. And so everything was changing. A lot of newspapers were owned by big groups of owners. And the Independent was really cool. It was - it genuinely independent...

GREENE: ...It was independent.

FIELDING: Yes, hence the name. And it was in the east of London, and lots of really interesting writers... It was a sort of place where - I remember, I once wrote a 6,000-word article about whether the countryside - where I just literally wandered around Britain asking people where the countryside was headed.

GREENE: Oh, I love that.

FIELDING: So it allowed you to go on and on about things.

GREENE: I remember working at a newspaper in the United States. My editor would've literally run away if I suggested writing 6,000 words ever. (Laughter).

FIELDING: Exactly. Now it's 30 seconds, and you're done. But that was the sort of place it was - very liberal, very in depth.

GREENE: So you said liberal. Is it sort of a left-leaning newspaper? Because I know newspapers are sort of in different spots on the political spectrum in Britain.

FIELDING: Well, it depends on what you compare it with, really, in England. But, no, it was very much, yeah, liberal, free-thinking. Yeah, you would say it was left-leaning, I think. But, I have to stress that I was a very sort of - we used to have the deep end and the shallow end of the newspaper. And I was definitely in the shallow end. So I was writing sort of book reviews and lighter pieces.

GREENE: Well, the book reviews can get pretty serious sometimes. And...

FIELDING: Not mine.

GREENE: Not yours, OK. Well, talk me through how you brought Bridget Jones to us through this newspaper.

FIELDING: OK, so I'd been playing with this character for a while. I'd written a pilot for the BBC called "Thirties Panic," where I had this heroine. And the basic joke was she says, I'm not going to sleep with him. Cut to the next scene; she is in bed with him. It's a sort of - that kind of joke. And I'd been trying to get someone to let me write this character on a newspaper. But I was pretty junior, and no one took any notice. The British newspapers were, and still are, full of columns where people just sort of go on and on about things, just ordinary things in their lives. And people kept asking me to write a column about being a single girl in London. And I'm quite private, so I was - would always say, no, no; that's too exposing and embarrassing. But then I said, no, I'll make up this character. And so I just started Bridget Jones quite casually. I was pretty short on money. I needed to pay the mortgage. And I didn't tell anyone else I was writing it because all the people sitting about me were writing about New Labour and politics and really serious things. And I was writing about why it takes three hours between waking up in the morning and leaving the house. So nobody except really a couple of people on the paper knew that it was me at all. And I assumed it would be stopped after six weeks for being too silly. But they started getting letters. And it just sort of grew from there.

GREENE: Well, the fact that a column in a printed newspaper was the place that launched Bridget Jones, such a beloved character for so many people, I just think about 2016 now. This newspaper is no longer going to exist in print. It's only going to be online. Would the situation be the same in 2016 if you were thinking about sort of where you could begin a column like this?

FIELDING: No, it would be a blog now. It sounds a bit pretentious, but I think creativity's very much like a stream. It finds its path. The thing with Bridget Jones was a lot of people wrote similar things very soon afterwards. I was in there first just because it was instant in a newspaper. And I think there's still a way to do that. It's all about voice. And now if you had something to write about in a particular voice, you'd create your own blog or YouTube channel or something. And people would pick it up, as indeed happens all the time.

GREENE: A lot of people in journalism, even if they believe in sort of the stream of creativity finding its way, think about no longer having that printed paper to hold in your hands. I mean, do you feel like something is lost in this moment?

FIELDING: Yeah, well, I still always get the newspapers delivered. And I love reading the newspapers - the actual physical newspapers, you know, with a coffee. It's like books. I don't think it matters which medium you use, but I think what does matter is that in the days of newspapers, you sort of had to read the article all the way through - sort of. And it was full of opinion - and, certainly on the Independent, really quite seasoned, clever people, people who'd worked in the Middle East for 30 years, people who'd worked in politics for 40 years, you know, sitting on that desk, these guys smoking cigarettes who really knew and understood a lot. And they would really give thoughtful, in-depth analysis. And stories would be well-written and quite long, whereas now, everything's a soundbite. And the news outlets sort of get crazes on stories, you know? Suddenly there are sharks everywhere. Or it's wet; it's see through, and without it we die - water. And that, you know, all about that all day, but you don't get the sense of balance and all the things that are going on in the world and a sense of understanding of those things. And I think that's the danger with the soundbite culture. And that's the sadness, that these print papers, which you would sit down with for a long time and read and think about, are fading out. But there we are. That's - life moves on, doesn't it?

GREENE: I guess so. Helen Fielding nice talking to you. Thank you so much.

FIELDING: Thank you.

GREENE: Helen Fielding was a columnist for the Independent newspaper, which is closing its print production on Saturday. And as you can hear, Fielding is worried about the media today, the soundbite culture. But I am a lot less this week because I'm spending time with quite an inspiring group at Youth Radio. Journalists as young as 14 years-old produce stories. You're hearing some this week. They produce music, and you've been hearing it throughout the show. As Helen Fielding said, even in this crowded media landscape, creativity does find its path.

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