Friday, May 08, 2009

News To You?

IF YOU'RE READING THIS, chances are like me you're part of the problem.

In case you hadn't heard, the U.S. Senate has been holding hearings into the dismal state of the newspaper industry. No pun intended, but there hasn't been any good news to report on the industry this entire decade, with the latest publications either extinct or on the brink including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. The industry continues to bleed readers and jobs, with a record 6,000 newsroom jobs lost in 2008 alone.

Can't argue too much with John Kerry when he says: "America's newspapers are struggling to survive and while there will be serious consequences in terms of the lives and financial security of the employees involved, including hundreds at the Globe, there will also be serious consequences for our democracy where diversity of opinion and strong debate are paramount." Which is Kerry's typically long-winded way of saying what Joe Pulitzer said much more succinctly: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.” That's probably why Joe was Joe and John never became president.

Andrew Malcolm of the L.A. Times' Top of the Ticket blog finds something hypocritical and at the same time humorous about Kerry blaming print media's demise on the advent of online journalism:

"First, 70 million is way too many bloggers. It's chaos out here. Everybody posting at once. So much to read. Who's got time to scroll Favorites lists with 70 million urls? If the feds can cull banks and car companies, Kerry should whack the politics blogs way back to maybe eight. Ten max. We've got a list.

Second, because everyone knows they're becoming increasingly important as the true lifeblood of democracy, political bloggers should be paid a whole lot more money, at least as much as a senator. Actually, more maybe. It would help stimulate the economy.

T-shirts, jeans and diet Coke should be legitimized as blogging business expenses."
But seriously. A report on the opening day of hearings yesterday on NPR featured some clips of testimony, and a few things caught my ear, or at least made it from the radio to my auditory canal and the relevant parts of my cerebral cortex:

One witness said the decline of newspapers was a simple matter of the parasite (digital media) killing the host (print media). Another speaker predicted a weakened press would make it a "great time to be a corrupt politician" with no one left to report the corruption. Who knows what becomes of the Watergate style of in-depth political coverage?

By the way, Kerry's hometown paper, the Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times, got a reprieve late last week from its parent company to stave off its imminent demise, but for how long is anyone's guess.

The struggling Times itself is raising prices again: the daily paper will now be $2.00, and a copy of the hefty Sunday Times will now cost you the sizable sum of $5.00. Ironically, I bought the Times today for the first time in a long, long while, maybe a year; I had a bunch of extra quarters left over from the laundry and used 6 of them to cover the $1.50, but once the price climbs to 2 dollars, there's no way I'm plunking down that much for a daily newspaper, I don't care if I'm written about in its pages or my face is splashed across the cover. Well, maybe then...

Anyway, while scanning some old clips last week, I remembered how at one point in my young life I wanted nothing more than to be the next Jimmy Breslin. Yet even when I was majoring in print journalism over 20 years ago, it seemed to be a dying world. For instance, my intro to news writing class at Hunter College had exactly 4 students in it, but we soldiered on while the broadcast classes were packed, writing for the student newspaper The Envoy and hoping to intern somewhere decent. I ended up with a one-year internship at the Queens Tribune, a local weekly based in Flushing, where I got about 40 bylines.

Next I toiled joylessly, Bartleby-like, for an incredibly obscure science/future studies magazine, lasting just over a year in the cramped, disheveled office on Madison Avenue. My title sounded better than it was, Managing Editor; in reality it was a two-man operation, with me writing almost every word of each 32-page monthly issue and then, together with the Publisher, this being the 1980s, doing the layout with an X-Acto knife, a ruler and a jar of rubber cement.

I began applying to publications ranging from the Washington Post NY Bureau to the Irish Echo, getting interviews but not job offers. Then, two days after quitting the singularly inconsequential Futurific magazine, I landed a job at the Wall Street Transcript, a weekly financial paper. As fate would have it, I would remain there for over 15 years despite having absolutely zero interest in the stock market. Just your average Horatio Alger story, slowly working his way from an 8-dollar-an-hour transcription job up to copy editor and finally production manager.

For purposes of this blog post if not for a future time capsule,
I wish I had saved at least one copy of an old Transcript issue from back when it published in a tabloid size even bigger than the old New York Times unfolded used to be. At last check the Transcript was still going, mostly as an online product, and by the time I was unceremoniously downsized off the island in 2005, we were down to fewer than 500 copies published a week unless it was a special conference issue.

When I started there in '87, our editorial department had about 5 or 6 copy editors working in a tiny office at 99 Wall, while in a room down the hall a row of proofreaders dutifully squinted at copy across their ancient wooden table -- the true galley slaves of the publishing world. Not sure if it qualifies as a lagging or leading indicator, but by the time I left the Wall Street Transcript over 15 years later, we were down to 3 copy editors and 1 proofreader.

At the Tribune office, tucked inside a shopping center off Kissena Blvd., the reporters would sit around in the morning reading the dailies -- Times, News, Post, Newsday -- and bouncing story ideas off each other. I picked a good time to work there: the astonishing Donald Manes corruption case was unfolding that year -- from the bizarre January night when the Queens borough president first attempted suicide to the March morning when he was found dead on his kitchen floor from self-inflicted knife wounds.

Every afternoon an elderly guy dressed in a suit would arrive at the office. Arthur, who had long retired from one of the big papers, lived in the area and volunteered to write the Police Blotter column for the Tribune. He was much older than us, had to be in his late 70s, and he kept to himself, working his phone and jotting notes in a yellow legal pad as we all worked around him.

It was obviously a case of old Arthur having newspaper ink in his blood, and he just had to be around the click and clatter of a newsroom, even a small community weekly like the Tribune.

When the last American newspaper publishes its final edition -- one writer cites 2043 as the year the printing press comes to a stop -- the culture will have irreversibly changed in more than a few big ways and in all kinds of small ones...

I remember in the '70s, much to my father's consternation, my brother the Dallas Cowboys fanatic just had to get the Dallas Times-Herald delivered 7 days a week to our apartment in Queens so he could keep up with the latest news about his favorite team. The Times-Herald is long gone, having merged years ago into the Morning News, which itself is reported to be on the brink.

Up until about 10 years ago, though it somehow seems much longer now, you could purchase almost any newspaper from any major city around the world at Hotaling's, a Times Square newsstand where in the late '80s I would buy the San Francisco Examiner to read Hunter Thompson's columns as well as Zippy the Pinhead. I even bought an English language version of Pravda there at the height of Perestroika to see for myself what this crazy Glasnost was all about! Hotaling's managed to stay afloat until 1999, when it became one of the earliest victims to succumb to the onrushing online news consumption tidal wave.

What kind of world will it be when small towns and big cities alike no longer offer kids the economic rite of passage that the paper route represented -- for literally millions of Americans their first foray into the working world.

I can recall turning 13 years old and applying for my working papers just so I could get a Long Island Press route. As it turned out, I wasn't cut out for a paper route, at least not the one I shared with my friend Chrys Nicholas.

Our route included The Mets, a block-long apartment complex where we had a bunch of customers. We would climb the stairs delivering papers floor to floor at one building, then walk across the roof and work our way down the next one, and so on until we had finished the block. Well, every afternoon found us fighting on the rooftop, coming to blows over who would get which apartment and who would collect from which subscriber -- all the usual business decisions that lead to arguments and, in our case, punches and fisticuffs.

Me and Chrys usually got along everywhere else, so we gave up the paper route shortly after we got it. It's not like we were ever gonna get rich anyway -- not the way old Mr. Kaye, a notorious cheapskate, ran the Press operation out of a dingy storefront on Steinway Street, gypping us and every other kid with a paper route out of a penny or two every time seemingly we turned around. Even then, I knew there was something not quite kosher about the newspaper business.


jimithegreek said...

Everybody BUY a newspaper!!

Anonymous said...

that's pretty much how I remembered it. Except I kept the route, added a second and brought home $54 before tips. I later added a helper in the form of maria Qu---. Those rooftops and her enterouge of 2 ( a huge, huge 2, anotomically mature way beyond her years) spilling out of her tanktop that she thoughtfully wore for me, made my daily unjournalistic explorations of her so easy. Those "2 perks" made that paper route a landmark on my road to sexual maturity. Thanks for quiting Warden, and opening the door for Maria to begin her entrepenuerial career.

The Warden said...

Is this really Chrys?