Saturday, January 17, 2009

In loving memory of newspapers

So the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — or as those of us who live hereabouts call it, the Red Star & Sickle — has filed for bankruptcy. The Tribune Company, parent to the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and a half-dozen others, is in bankruptcy. The Heart Corporation has put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the block and has said it will shut down the paper if a buyer is not found within 60 days. The New York Times is hemorrhaging money and had to sell its headquarters building to raise cash. Closer to home, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has downsized, in every sense of the word, and become a pale shadow of its once chubby and successful self. I used to have friends who worked for the P-Press. They're all gone now, either moved on to greener pastures or out of the news business entirely.

I'm going to miss newspapers when they're gone.

That's always been one of my little pleasures when I travel; to buy a copy of the local newspaper and see what issues the local folks care about. That pleasure has soured in recent years. It doesn't seem to matter where I go, now: I pick up a copy of the local paper, and it's all the same stuff. Some articles from the AP, maybe some articles from Reuters, a long left-leaning op-ed piece from the NY Times syndicate masquerading as in-depth analysis, and maybe a few syndicated columns from the Washington Post. Maybe, if I'm really lucky, they'll have one highly overheated and badly written op-ed piece by the publisher, a local old crank who spent too much time sniffing Linotype metal early in his career. But even those are becoming rare now.

Homogeneity bores and disappoints me. I don't buy the Rhinelander Daily News to read the same preprocessed pap I can get anywhere else. It's the idiosyncratic voices that interest me. I don't want us to become one seamless, regionless, borderless unified culture operating at the lowest common denominator: one nation under USA TODAY. I like the fact that Southerners think differently from Westerners; that Los Angelenos think differently from San Franciscans; that Boston, Newark, and New York may all be within spitting distance of each other physically but they're worlds apart psychologically. And the more they spit on each other, the better I, as a Northern Great Plains Midwesterner, feel. In fact, while you're at it, go hoch a big one on New York for me. Thanks.

Professional sports are a pale substitute. College sports are no different. The place you really used to see that rampant regional chauvinism was in the local papers. I liked the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, if only because it made the St. Paul Pioneer Press look good in comparison and gave me the opportunity every few weeks to tell one of their telemarketers, "I wouldn't subscribe to your paper if you paid me to take it! I wouldn't wrap dead fish in it!"

There, that's a question for you: in this brave new Internet age where everything is instantly online, what are you going to clean fish on? I tried gutting and scaling a northern pike on the Daily KOS. It just wasn't the same.

Me, I guess you could say I've got printer's ink in my blood. Probably measurable trace amounts of lead, antimony, and tin, too. When I went to college they actually still taught journalism majors how to run a Linotype machine and cast hot metal type, on the grounds that you were highly likely to run into an old Linotype machine sooner or later in your career and being able to operate the beast might mean the difference between getting or not getting a job. People had much more relaxed attitudes about lead exposure in those days.

But it goes back earlier than that. When I was a kid, my parents bought me a small toy letterpress somewhere. I used to have a wonderfully gloriously messy time, setting type, inking up the plates, and stamping out sheets of near-nonsense. Mark Twain claimed he could read backwards and in his early newspaper years actually composed his stories while setting them in type. If true, I remain in awe — but then again, Mr. Twain and The Truth were sometimes only nodding acquaintances. I do know that he lost a fortune investing in the automatic typesetting machine that was beaten in the marketplace by the Linotype, and that this bankruptcy completely changed the trajectory of his life and career and contributed greatly to the bitterness and cynicism of his later years. Why do writers so often succumb to the lure of imagining that they know something about business?

I don't know. But I do know that I'm prey to it, too.

Thinking back on it, I'm surprised to find just how strongly my life has been shaped by newspapers: not by what they printed so much as by the business itself. I work with kids now — graduates, actually, fresh out of college — who have never had a job before in their lives, except possibly for that boring summer they spent flipping hamburgers or delivering pizzas.

Me, I got my first job at age 13: a paper route. Except in those days, a paperboy (and they were all boys, then; no girls allowed) wasn't an employee; he was a self-employed entrepreneur. You bought your route — your territory, your franchise, if you will — from its previous owner. You bought your papers from the newspaper company, on credit. You picked them up at the substation, a plank-floored sheet-metal shack that was sweltering in the summer and heated in the winter by a cast-iron pot-belly stove; very Dickensian. If you were there early enough you helped unload the delivery truck, no doubt in violation of a vast bevy of OSHA and child-labor laws. There was virtue in being early; you got the freshest, cleanest copies. If you were late, you got the torn and dirty leftovers, or perhaps not enough copies to cover your route. If it was a thick edition, we hand-assembled the sub-sections in the shed before going off to deliver them. These plastic newspaper condoms that papers come in nowadays were a very late-arriving innovation. There were days in the summer months when I came home from delivering my route just black with smeared printer's ink from my shoulders to my fingertips. I remember the day the paper announced, with great hoopla, that they were switching to non-toxic soy-based inks. Non-toxic? Then what the Hell was that other stuff?

As I said, printer's ink in my blood.

I never really thought about it before, but I guess it's fair to say that most of my beliefs and attitudes about work were formed in my years as a paperboy. If you delivered good service, you gained customers and sometimes even performance bonuses. (A.k.a, tips.) If you delivered poor service, your customers might cancel their subscriptions, switch to buying from a box or newsstand, or worse, switch to the rival morning paper. You had payables and receivables: you had to pay the company every Saturday for the papers you'd taken that week, so you had to collect from your customers in cash, weekly, and whatever the difference between the two amounts was, that was your profit or loss.

I made enough profit to buy a small sailboat.

You learned to keep a cash reserve, in case collections fell short, because failing to pay the newspaper company in full and on-time could cost you your route. You learned to judge character, deciding which of your customers were worthwhile credit risks who could be trusted to pay-up next week if they were a little short and you let them slide this week, and which should be cut off as soon as they fell behind. You learned to recognize and seize opportunities; if there was a big headline that day you might take a few extra papers, and try to hawk them on a street corner. Eventually, you even learned when it was worthwhile taking the German Shepherd along with you as you collected your route. (And I'm sorry to say, even Back Then and Back There, sometimes it was.)

You invested in capital equipment: a used balloon-tired coaster-brake Schwinn with a luggage rack for ordinary days and a heavy-duty pushcart for Wednesdays and Sundays. You learned quickly that trying to carry two saddlebags full of newspapers would destroy any nice, lightweight, ten-speed bike. I've often said I owe all my mechanical abilities to having owned a succession of crappy British cars. I suspect now the more accurate truth is that it started with that Schwinn, and with having had to learn to respoke wheels and rebuild cranksets, bearing races, and Bendix brakes myself, because I couldn't afford to take it into the bike shop in the first place, and even if I could have afforded that, I couldn't afford to have it out of action for a week while it was in the shop.

The past is a different place. They do things differently there. I wouldn't want any of my kids to have a paper route now; there are too many sick freaks and predatory weirdos out there. I wouldn't want to invest in a newspaper company now, because in the long run, I don't think there's anything that can save the common metro daily newspaper. I can get all the national and international news I want faster and better over the Internet, and advertising — the real backbone and lifeblood of the daily newspaper — has moved to cheaper and more effective media and won't be coming back. The diversified media companies that own most newspapers, in their infinite arrogance and blindness, have gutted their local reporting coverage, and that's the one unique thing that a newspaper can offer.

The corollary of "All politics is local" is, "All news is local." I used to think of the St. Paul Pioneer Press as my local newspaper. Now "my" paper is the Oakdale & Lake Elmo Review, a weekly broadsheet and shopper. When I was an arrogant young reporter doing my internship and eager to become the next Woodward or Bernstein, I thought there was nothing in the world more boring than covering a City Council meeting, excepting perhaps a School Board meeting. Now, I realize that this is the news I really do care about, as in, "What are those morons doing with my tax money this time?"

But the Pioneer Press no longer covers where I live in any meaningful way, and the Star-Trib never has. If the Tariq al-Aziz mosque in Minneapolis was scribbled with racist graffiti today, it would be the lead story on the 6 o'clock news tonight and the front-page story tomorrow and for a week to follow. But when the Mormon temple six blocks from my house was fire-bombed — twice — neither the Press nor the Star-Trib printed a peep. I learned about it from my silly little local weekly broadsheet and shopper.

The major metro daily newspaper is dead. There's nothing that can be done to bring it back.

All the same, I'm going to miss newspapers when they're gone.