Monday, May 11, 2009

Requiem for the News

I've never been a devoted newspaper reader. This, I suppose, is yet another aspect of my black-sheepness; my parents and, to my knowledge, both my siblings set aside time to read their local papers thoroughly. My brother used to decorate the walls of our bedroom with pages from "The Peach," the sports section of the Des Moines Sunday Register, printed on peach-colored paper. Only in Iowa (and perhaps Georgia) could peach be considered a manly color.

Anyway, despite my ambivalence about newspapers, I have followed with sadness the steady decline of the industry. Two major Chicago newspapers have struggled publicly to maintain viability in recent years, and it seems that every day another newspaper nationwide announces its imminent collapse. Those of us in the book industry worry that we might be next to fall, although again, that hasn't elicited in me enough motivation to do my part to save the papers--by reading them habitually in the manner of my forebears.

Most people blame the Internet for the decline of the newspaper, but it surely traces back further, to the advent of twenty-four-hour cable news and even before that to network news programs; all those talking heads with moving lips and nicely-groomed hair offer a picture of greater vitality than a static artifact such as a newspaper, with its cheap, throwaway paper and its transferable ink, can suggest.

Holdouts for the newspaper lament the ephemeral nature of the news as presented online; it's too easy and tempting to click away from issues that require more attention than the average contemporary reader can muster. I'll be honest: that very problem as much as anything kept me from reading newspapers as a kid. "Continued on page x" is fine and good if space constraints demand that I turn the page, but six or seven stories per page, all instructing me to continue on a different page, left me wondering every time why I should bother with this perpetual information juggling act. It strikes me that in this regard newspapers are quite a lot like Internet news: when every headline demands a commitment that draws you away from the rest, you pick and choose and prioritize until you tire of picking and choosing and prioritizing. Then you give up and play solitaire.

One of the things I do respect about newspapers that is yet to be resolved online is the way they function as a gathering ground. Globally minded people gravitate toward one or more of several newspapers, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, and such people can be legitimately identified as a kind of community of readers. They resemble one another. Meanwhile, local papers such as the Chicago Sun Times or the Des Moines Register function as a meeting place for locals; they reinforce a regional identity that already exists. The first dynamic has some traction online--Salon and the Huffington Post come to mind--but the second may well be lost to the ages. And I suppose I can understand why that would cause some people some sorrow.

Desmond Tutu makes a parenthetical observation about newspapers in his book No Future Without Forgiveness that reveals some of the tribalizing power of this industry in decline.

Sometimes I would spread out the newspaper I had come to buy for my dad on the pavement and kneel to read it. I cannot recall one single time when anyone walked over those pages. Now that is ssomething when you think that frequently whites in such towns [in Apartheid-era South Africa] often did not want blacks even to walk on the sidewalk.


The culture of newspaper-reading, it seems, in its heyday had enough power to at least temporarily subvert the culture of segregation that once so centrally identified South Africa. Any culture that can pull that off ought to be proud of its history, even as it frets over its future.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I was in Wisconsin for Memorial Day weekend, sitting by a campfire, reading your blog on my handheld Treo... and the stars seemed so close I was concerned they were gonna fall on me. But my Treo wouldn't let me comment cuz of your fuzzy spam-proofer text. So what's below is dated, but still perhaps relevant.

**Hearing you mention DesMoines and talk about journalism makes me recall a good book I read last year: The Life and Tiimes of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Des Moines native Bill Bryson. It's mostly about growing up there in the 50s, when newspapers and the Cold War and so many other cultural issues were simpler and more stark (and thru Bill's eyes, funnier).

As for Tutu... he's one of the few religious figures I've ever seen put Jon Stewart back on his heels, somewhat in awe of Tutu's deep compassion and joy during an interview.
The Sunday papers have their place still (for awhile, at least in terms of depth or information density), but the drama of real interviews and news programs with moving pictures is always going to offer something newsprint can't.