Richard Rodriguez on Newspapers Dying

harpersIt’s in the Nov 09 Harper’s (pictured, right). The pizzicato paragraph structure, the prose itself, the density of its Bay Area history. It’s incredible:

In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance has placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.

The essay’s relentlessly bleak, completely disinterested in pointing out what might come in place of the daily morning newspaper to act as an improvement on the earlier model. (Did folks fret this much when the evening newspaper died back in the middle of the last century? Has anyone missed it?) But I do appreciate Rodriguez’s linking the newspaper’s decline not to “The Internet” but rather to the decline of the importance of place in our lives. I appreciate it as a fresh contribution to an otherwise rank and bloated conversation.

“We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper,” he writes. I guess I agree with him, but I’m willing to let my future behavior be the real judge. When I lived in Pittsburgh for three years after graduating college—i.e., when I lived as a tax-paying citizen and not just some kid getting an easy degree—I read the Post-Gazette, in print, every day. Probably much of this had to do with the public-relations and entertainment-writing work I was paid for, but reading Rodriguez makes me think much of it came from the importance I felt being the citizen of a city I cared for (though not enough, I should admit, to stay). It was important that I know what the names of the PG’s art critics, book critics, even theatre critics were (though I’ve now forgotten each of them). It was important that I know the names of the men and women on the city politics beat. It was not important that I know the names of the sports reporters, but it was important that I read every single word of the woman paid each week to cover what must have been a boatload of senior-citizen outrage/befuddlement teeming through the city.

Then I left, and I moved to Lincoln, where there’s less than half the amount of people and less then one hundredth the amount of private money, requiring not even one woman to run the society column, much less the Pittsburgh two whose asses I was paid for two years to kiss. But I read the Journal Star whenever I could, which was often as the paper is made available to students on UNL’s campus. As I did in Pittsburgh, I felt sufficiently engaged in and proprietorial over the conversation taking place in public fora that I wrote letters to the editor, oh, every other month.

Then I stopped. About, say, two years ago I stopped. I stopped writing letters to the editor because I stopped reading the paper. Much of this has to do with the inanity of the conversation I saw taking place (the letter to the editor extolling the exciting debates going on in the book-review pages [er: the book-review column in the Sunday arts pages] written by one of the paper’s book reviewers wasn’t necessarily the proverbial nail on the coffin, but it didn’t make me eager to pause by the newspaper-dispensing machines as I passed them by on campus). But maybe something more significant’s at work. Even before I entered the PhD program four years ago, and my estimated Lincoln duration jumped from two years to seven, I knew that this city was going to be for me a stopping-off point. I knew I’d be a temporary Lincolnite.

I have two points I’m trying to make:

  1. Provided I can get a job I’ll be moving someplace new, and I’m ready to put down the roots I’ve held up (like a petticoat around my haunches while tromping through a puddle) these past few years. I want to be able to subscribe to a daily newspaper.
  2. Nothing in Rodriguez’s article indicates that what he prizes in newspapers can’t be replicated online. Why can’t community Web sites post obituaries, and why can’t they charge for it? We’ve already moved our classifieds online; why can’t Rodriguez, can’t all of us, “take from them a conception of the posture of downtown”? Maybe the best thing about his Harper’s article is that, by being smart enough to avoid lamentations on the disappearance of ink stains or that smell or the sound of it thudding on one’s porch, Rodriguez has painted a pretty clear picture of what Web sites can do to garner hits now that everyone’s always online (the scene of laptop zombies in a muted coffeehouse is perhaps R.R.’s essay’s bleakest): get local.

3 thoughts on “Richard Rodriguez on Newspapers Dying”

  1. The Barbara Cloud reference didn’t go unnoticed and is, of course, appreciated.

    I’d say, on the whole, the gains in speed and access, and the fact that I can now much more easily share the news (if you like, spread it), comment on it, respond to it, correct it, where necessary, etc., have mitigated the loss of the physical paper and, in many ways, brought me closer to the news, and thus the city.

    That said, I continue to look forward to–and, to some extent, rely on–the morning headlines, and I can’t imagine the bodegas, street corners, and subways without them.

  2. “That said, I continue to look forward to–and, to some extent, rely on–the morning headlines, and I can’t imagine the bodegas, street corners, and subways without them.”

    Right. You’re invested in the place you live, and the bodegas, street corners, and subways are a central part of that setting.

    I think as long as there’s public transportation used by at least half the population, there’ll be stuff to pick up and read.

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