If a newspaper falls in a city that you don’t actually live in, does it make a sound? And is it a loud whump, like a redwood hitting the earth, or the shuffling sigh of a small pile of documents swept off a desk into the recycling bin?
Major dailies are closing across the United States. My local paper (in a university town, yet) has laid off its science reporter among other long-servers. The local ad-funded weekly, for which I review books, is feeling a little edgy. Deep thinkers are proposing entirely new business models, like endowment-funded journalism, something our Russell has occasionally championed on a smaller scale. Meanwhile Time and the New York Times concede that paper news may have had its day. It’s beginning to feel like the end of an era.
Amongst all of this, Clay Shirky’s provocatively matter-of-fact piece on how newspapers got it wrong makes for intriguing and very timely reading. Shirky details the paradigm shift we're in the middle of: it's as big and as messy as the one that gave us newspapers in the first place. This is useful to know, although not necessarily comforting. As Terry Pratchett put it in his definitively comic version of how the printing press turned lead into gold: “The truth shall make ye fret.”
Shirky offers one note of solace: the market for good journalism per se hasn’t gone away, it's just changed. Empirically, we know that's true. In my town, for example, the New Haven Independent – a purely online news source set up by a former editor of the New Haven Advocate -- is thriving, and I really dig its gutsy, grassroots reporting and its gossipy comments section. I can see the same thing working in some neighbourhoods in New Zealand -- although it’s not much use for those who don’t have computers at home. Which is a fair number of people, most of them already disenfranchised in various ways. Which is troublesome.
Still, I freely admit I let my last real newspaper subscription lapse years ago, when I realized I was really only enjoying Thursday (lifestyle supplements!) and Saturday (hardest crossword of the week). These days, I get virtually all of my news virtually, from the NHI to the NYT to Stuff and the Herald and a few other places I’d be embarrassed to name. Even if I could source all of that material on paper and in real time, I couldn’t afford to pay for such a catholic news habit.
Yes, I’m part of the steamroller, not the road. And aren’t we all? Hands up who bought an actual newspaper this week?
But what is lost when we no longer get our hands inky, rustling through the pages in search of things-that-are-new? I grew up reading daily newspapers. One of my earliest memories is of running into the house with the evening paper, knowing from the giant letters on the front page that something enormous had happened. I was able to read the words but unable to fathom the curious syntax of newspaper headlines. In my memory the letters are, inexplicably, red; they announced the death of Norman Kirk.
Most mornings and some evenings there was a newspaper spread open on the lid of the chest freezer for perusal by any member of the household -- after the alpha male had had first dibs, of course. Even now, when I visit Mum and Dad, part of the fun is sending the boys out to the letterbox first thing to get the paper; the other part is intercepting it before they can ask too many questions about whichever shock doom horror scenario the Herald has chosen to lead with. (Over here, the closest they get to that is the weekly thud of the New Yorker in the mailbox, and trying to fathom its cartoons, most of them about sex and banking.)
For a couple of years, my brother and I had a paper run, delivering the Auckland Star (R.I.P) in exchange for a paltry few dollars a week. It was child labour, but it kept us fit and busy and paid for our comics (more piles of paper, although never recycled). We met a few bad dogs, and lots of neighbours, some of whom we came to know well. Long after he gave up his paper run, Greg used to visit a sweet elderly blind Frenchman and his bedridden wife - he'd hobble to the door to collect the paper, she'd read it to him, and the little chat with the paperboy was the highlight of their day.
As well as the daily papers, there was (and still is) the doughty weekly Courier with its more granular local news, in which you might recognize someone from your own neighbourhood. Indeed, if you excelled academically, you might even get profiled yourself, with accompanying photo. Whakama!
When I headed to Japan in the early 1990s, the internet in its infancy, I looked forward to an occasional envelope from home with news clippings in it, to be eagerly shared with other antipodeans, much as our great-grandparents had passed around letters from the old country. I got my first computer and my first modem, was one of a few hundred subscribers to one of Tokyo’s first ISPs, but there was no news online; I spent a small fortune on English language newspapers to glut my news-hunger, and, as my Japanese got better, the odd Japanese newspaper to fill in the gaps.
Somewhere along the line, on the recommendation of a very smart and cool friend, I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly. I grew incredibly fond of its onion-skin pages, despite two galling discoveries: a) the revelation that there was so much going on in the world that I didn’t know about or understand; and b) the amazingly sexist ratio on its culture pages, where weeks would go by without a review of anything written or produced by a woman. Still, it was full of golden stuff, including the “Letter from...” feature. I remember vividly one “Letter from Ouagadougou,” a plaintive piece by some fellow seconded to Burkina Faso, about his yearning for letters and news from home. I cut out and carried it around with me for years.
Newspapers were a crucial part of how I oriented myself when travelling. I bought papers in the languages of countries I visited, just to see what they looked like. If I spoke the language, I puzzled my way through, just to find out the issues of the day and how they were being discussed. When I first made it to the UK, I bought an armful of Sunday papers and gorged myself sick; it was almost more culturally exciting than seeing the British Museum. Keep your bog man, give me the theatre pages and Dulcie Domum's Bad Housekeeping for afters!
I moved to the United States on a Saturday afternoon, and the next morning, I walked down the hill and bought myself a bagel with lox and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, both of them more massive than I had dreamed possible. It took me an hour to work my way through the bagel; the newspaper lasted all week and, at only a couple of bucks, was by far the better bargain, as well as tastier and better for me.
Oh, it’s all fruitless nostalgia, eh? I can already hear a chorus of “don’t weep for the buggy-whip manufacturers.” (By the way, what did happen to those guys? I like to think they retooled their clientele rather than their product, in sort of a Kinky Boots scenario -- perhaps Emma’s corsetière might look into it? Or perhaps they mothballed their machinery in hopes of an eventual return to the days when all the best families had their own phaeton, and anyone else could whistle up a horse-and-buggy as needed... I live in hope.)
But it's hard not to lament the impending loss of the material culture of the newspaper, its many physical manifestations and afterlives. What will we trip over on street corners, if not newspaper-boxes? What will kids do for exercise and pocket money without paper rounds? (Does anyone let their child do paper rounds any more?). With what will we line the budgie’s cage, wrap fish and chips, do papier-mâché on wet weekends? What will we clip out and put in our scrapbooks, if we still keep scrapbooks?
And it’s not just that. There’s also the role an actual, physical newspaper plays in one’s public identity. Online, we can rustle the pages of any old rag in pursuit of village gossip from villages other than our own. I’m free to browse the horrible (and horribly addictive) Daily Mail, for example, although I wouldn’t hand over good money for it, nor be caught reading it in person. Whereas in person, the newspaper you hold in your hands, regardless of how erudite or crappy its content, is a momentary badge of membership in some club bigger than you.
Benedict Anderson has written eloquently about the role of the newspaper in constructing in what he called the “imagined community” of any given nation. (That’s what I love about academia – you send someone out in search of, say, anthropological analysis of a military coup in Indonesia, and he comes back with a profoundly influential new theory of nationalism).
In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983;1991), Anderson describes the newspaper as essentially fictive, its key “literary convention” the random assemblage of data on its pages, which is held together by two key elements. The first is the mere (but crucial) fact of “calendrical coincidence”: what all of a given newspaper’s stories have in common is the date at the top of the page. This creates the “steady onward clocking of homogeneous, empty time,” within which “'the world' ambles sturdily ahead.”
In this sense, the newspaper is a serialized novel; Anderson gives the example of Mali as covered by the NY Times - subject to a small blizzard of coverage during a famine, then all but invisible. But even when it's gone from the pages, it doesn't cease to exist. “The novelistic format of the newspaper," writes Anderson, "assures [readers] that somewhere out there the ‘character’ Mali moves along quietly, awaiting its next appearance in the plot.”
The second element that, as it were, glues the newspaper together is its readership. A “one-day best-seller” designed to be obsolete by bedtime, the newspaper is defined by its ritual consumption in time and space by otherwise unconnected people. This “mass ceremony” is “performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull,” writes Anderson:
Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. … At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbership, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.
With the loss of the paper paper, we lose that visible connection. Does it matter? I dunno. We’ve retained other engines of national consciousness noted by Anderson; singing in unison, whether at church or at the rugby or WIUO gigs; and nationhood is still busily fetishized and enumerated via maps, museums, and the census, not to mention tiki T-shirts and pounamu pendants and paua earrings and you name it. And did newspapers ever really work the way Anderson suggests they did?
We’re definitely turning a page, though, and I have no idea what’s on the other side of it, apart from Ent-like forests of pinus radiata waving their evergreen limbs in joy. The news will keep coming, the truth shall make you fret, but no trees will be harmed and it won't make your hands all inky. Is that good news? Or no news at all?