It was a little depressing. Standing there in a bookstore at LaGuardia, my eyes fell on the latest issue of Harper’s: “Twilight of the American Newspaper.”
I picked it up, depressed that I was going to buy it and read about the demise of a great period of our history. But the thought of not reading it depressed me, too (“I gots to know”).
Publishing has been a great American endeavor from our beginnings. And Richard Rodriguez’s essay for Harper’s, primarily about the death of the San Francisco Chronicle, is riveting and historically rich. The paper was started by two brothers in the mid-19th century – they’d borrowed a $20 gold piece – and recently the Hearst Corporation reported that this California property is losing one million dollars each week.
At one point in the essay, Rodriguez points out a macabre irony: the paper recently ran an item about a young woman who was texting on her phone; this was a person who personified the new technology, and one can presume she wouldn’t read a newspaper if her life depended on it. Well … she walked out into traffic and was run over. (Are dying newspapers in fact angry, paranormal entities?)
This whole subject is running a parallel path with book publishing, as we contemplate the demise of print forms. Yet Rodriguez concludes with perhaps a wink, and we sense that there is something in us that needs printed words on a page (or in many years past, figures pressed into soft clay).
He proposes that people really want what newspapers offer, such as obituaries.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is that in a bygone era – like 10 years ago and beyond – people appreciated literary efforts and read them voraciously in the newspapers.
Now, as Rodriguez so eloquently put it, “We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott.”
For my own experience, I am already mourning the day when I will no longer be able to read Paul Greenberg’s columns and instead will be forced to read a propaganda piece from Yahoo! News on my iPhone (while a plastic chrysalis hangs from the doorknob of my Best Western room in Chicago).
But it simply is a matter of what you like: expanding, exploding technology or routine. Imagine living from, say, 1860 to 1940. For many decades, you’d read a newspaper every evening; routine. You would experience the presidential election of 1912 from the safe confines of Butte, Mont. The Chicago World’s Fair would never be anything but dispatches that you’d read on a dusty store porch in a little Georgia town.
Now of course, we touch a screen and see folks in Red Square or Paris or Anchorage … doing what they do in real time. In color. Audio.
So what is my point? Only this: The San Francisco Chronicle might pass away, but we will have print newspapers for a long time. Oh, they might be small, one-page things given away, as the Chronicle originally was. Some will surely survive in a substantial way.
And then the new technology, the new chronicles of our lives, deaths and everything in between will appear out of thin air as we sit on subways or wait in doctor’s offices. We will unroll them from things that look like pens. Or they will be on rapidly obsolete phones.
I never got to work on one of the storied old dailies. But I am grateful that I began just as manual and electric typewriters were passing from the scene. I walked the bridge from the old technology to the new. It is why I enjoy the craft of writing from my trusty Mac. All the while my 1912 typewriter sits nearby, co-existing with the things that replaced it.
Twilight can be scary. Or not. Because it always cycles into daylight.