“An obituary does not propose a solution.”*
The old version of the S.F. Examiner (the Hearst-owned, afternoon-only, subscription-only S.F. Examiner), did all the right things to try to hook me into a lifetime of print newspaper reading. It distributed the paper for free to my Catholic school, so that we could use it in lessons. It employed paperboys in my building, who gave us the paper for free (though one of the things that I loved most were the bags of rubberbands that they distributed to the carriers, perfect for making Chinese jump ropes). When those neighbors outgrew their job (or when the Examiner replaced paperboys with adult drivers who threw newspapers on porches in the middle of the night), one of many things that my grandmother did for me each day, was get me the newspaper. From about age 8 or 9 through the end of law school, I was a daily newspaper reader.
Similarly, in college, the N.Y. Times, with that great student-only discounted subscription rate, made up for the fact that the Washington Post did not have home delivery service in Baltimore. Someone always stole my paper, so I used to wake up at 7 a.m. (4 hours before my first class junior year) and pour over its pages each morning (this habit continued well into law school, I consider the decade between age 15 and 25, the decade of crossword-puzzle addiction).
Despite all of this effort, the print newspaper is very nearly dead to me. And not only me. One of my best friends from high school visited home last week and reported that his mom had put an end to their N.Y. Times Sunday subscription because she was tired of the guilt of it going unread. And it’s really not a surprise that this is the case; it’s just so much easier (unless one is caught in a waiting room without 3G service), to read news digitally. And yet, there are still things that are much better in print (i.e. the long-form journalism of the New Yorker, Harper’s, and certain books).
And all of this brings us to Richard Rodriguez’s essay, elegizing the concept of newspaper as a device of city invention and re-invention, in the current issue of one of those magazines that I still receive in print (a publication, which already has a foundation business model). The essay is as much a memorial to an older San Francisco, as it is to our on last daily, “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.” And he elegantly acknowledges that perhaps this is because our sense of place and space has already changed:
We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.
I don’t completely agree with this idea of disconnection; I’ve got a whole SF category on my newsreader. But I will admit that my sense of place is a little different (I’ve joked that I view Manhattan as a the “12th district” to SF, but that’s probably more a testament to cheap airfare and a network of friends there, than to the Internet). At the same time, I feel a sense of profound sadness when I walk past the newspaper men who set up tables to sell the Sunday Chronicle, and I’m not sure if this sadness stems from seeing a job that I know will disappear or from the loss of self that has no investment in the print edition of the Sunday paper. For all the grief that I give the Chronicle for being a crappy paper (and it has been a crappy paper for as long as I can remember), there is a human element that I will miss when it’s gone (in addition to the sad newspaper men, the voices of Michael Bauer and Jon Carroll.)
*Rodriguez’s essay is an obituary of sorts, and while this line focuses on the the decline obituary section, it’s an admission that Rodriguez does not offer any solutions. His focus on death notices forces me to ponder, however, how these will be distributed in the future (the Facebook memorial idea does not sit well with me). Or perhaps, as he notes, we are entertaining a post-funeral age:
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.