March 17, 2011
Easy Reader publisher Kevin Cody's puzzled prognostication on the death of newspapers (EasyReaderNews.com, February 24) set me a-shivering. It was what the passage of Prohibition did to drinkers and what the smoking bans did to tobacco lovers: When the papers are no more, how can I live?
There's something about a newspaper, and it isn't just the news. It's the paper.
You can spread it or fold it. You can linger over it or glance at it. Turning its pages yields constant surprises. Reading a paper is a non-linear activity; looking across its broad pages, you see many things at once — headlines, photos, ads — some you follow, others you don't.
The comment of Will Rogers, the homespun pundit of the 1930's, that "All I know is just what I read in the papers," certainly applies to me. Much of what I've learned or been prompted to learn has come not from courses, journals, books, or on-line sources but from the newspapers, just as it did for generations before me.
Newspapers were their window to the world.
Uncle Frank, my mother's brother, a book-binder with a knack for picking stocks, retired at age 55 and for the next 30 years spent every afternoon reading the Los Angeles Times. He read it the way people commonly did it on buses and trains in pre- iPod/iPad days, folding it in half lengthwise, reading the left side of the front page, turning it over to the right side, then folding that side back to reveal page 2, and so on to the end. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by this method and begged him to teach me how to do it, but after several attempts when I turned his Times into a pile of random pages, he gave up. I eventually mastered the technique, but now seldom use it, preferring the compact New Yorker on the subway instead. (As proof that you can find absolutely everything on the internet, go to RealSimple.com and search for "How to Fold a Broadsheet Newspaper" for illustrated instructions. Real simple, they say.)
Uncle Frank's method was an early version of multi-tasking, in which he held several unfinished articles in his head at once, resuming them wherever they were continued inside. My father, a machinist with a post-Depression suspicion of stocks, had a different approach with the evening Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the people's paper, which he bought daily after work. Dad was an interactive reader, spreading the paper on the kitchen table and noisily turning the pages to find the continuation of a font-page story. He processed the essential facts, offering running commentary on international politics, labor relations, government boondoggles, or movieland scandals to anyone nearby, and failing that, to himself.
Neither of these men had a formal education, but both of them displayed an astounding command of ideas and issues, due almost exclusively to their lifelong love of the newspaper.
It's no wonder I got hooked on newspapers at an early age. First I cut out cartoons, then later amassed huge files of clippings ranging from hard news to human and natural oddities. In high school I helped to found and went on to edit a mimeographed alternative weekly to counter the glossy and vapid establishment organ produced by the journalism class. I wrote a column for the Bellflower Herald Enterprise, as local as local news got. When I went off to college on the East Coast, I had the Sunday L.A. Times mailed to me, my medication for homesickness. There hasn't been a day in the decades since when I've begun my morning without the paper, any paper, wherever I was, even in Poland or Italy, where all I could do was look at the photos and guess at the words.
Reading the newspaper is part of my life's ritual. On days when the New York Times doesn't come — delivery to the Bronx is spotty, and when it snows they don't even bother — I feel the ache of absence, the symptoms of withdrawal.
My approach to internet news is different. I use the Web in much the same way as I did the public library's reference room in bygone days — another identity problem, by the way — to search for information on specific topics. When I enter a news site, I rarely browse the home page; sitting at a computer screen is work, not leisure, and there's something about the screen itself that makes me vaguely anxious. I cannot linger; when I find what I want I print it out and read the hard copy.
This purpose-driven activity leaves me usually oblivious to the ads flashing and framing the screen, most of which I treat as so much annoying spam, as worthless as e-mails from the Nigerian lottery.
Cody's mystification about why the Easy Reader, like all papers, is losing advertising to the electronic media mystifies me too. I'm much more likely to be attracted to and act on an ad when I come upon it as I turn a page rather than having it in my face on a computer screen. Plus, you see so many more of them in hard copy.
But as surveys continue to show more and more people getting their news from the internet, the more I dread the death of my old friend, the newspaper. Only a retrieval of appreciation for its unique contribution to daily life will save it.
Last month I got three handwritten letters from people under 30. Maybe some revival is at hand.