Life Arts

Giving Up The Third Habit

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No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post. A copy of this was mailed as a letter to the editor Thursday morning.

My parents always subscribed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, so I grew up around newspapers; they were as regular a part of our household as our cats. As a kid I'd look at the Sunday comics, and later on, the 1980 Browns would prompt me to grab the newspaper every day.

I first started reading "real" news in 1984, when the front page of the second section had a columnist slot called "Focal Point." Mike Royko was featured three times a week, and when that year's Olympics rolled around he touched off a huge controversy with a series of columns about how he and his buddies decided which of the womens' teams to cheer for based on which ones had the nicest butts. (Memorable headline from a column he wrote at the conclusion: "The Bottom Line") When his column moved inside to the Op-Ed pages I moved with him. So yes, I first started going to the most high-minded section of the paper when my teen eyes were lured there by T&A.

In college I lived a few houses down from a convenience store, and it was my source for a newspaper in the morning, beer in the evening and cigarettes just about any time. I always thought the first of these would be a constant, though I've since given up the others. Instead it was interrupted by a couple of years in Tanzania, a wonderful time that unfortunately also required me to substitute my morning newspaper and coffee with short wave radio and indifferently brewed tea. When I got back to America I eagerly resumed my ritual and it has since been a fixture in my life. But it is with genuine sadness I now write that this habit will go the way of the latter two.

I think papers are best for analysis, investigative pieces and long-range, trend-related reporting. Basically anything that can't be summarized in two minutes gives newspapers an advantage over TV and online reporting (which may end up with its most popular use in the "email the headlines to my Blackberry" model). They seem to be going in the opposite direction though, trying to "prove" they can summarize news as quickly as their electronic competitors. To me, that's a losing game since newspapers will never be as immediate, and it's a shame that the industry seems to be so rattled by the "gee whiz" novelty of the Internet. A newspaper is an astonishing piece of technology and can deliver a certain kind of news very efficiently. Its basic form hasn't substantially changed for several centuries for good reason. There seems to be no confidence left in that fact.

Instead they have engaged in a race to the bottom. In the same week the LA Times announced its latest round of cuts, the PD gutted itself and called it a redesign. The result is almost literally unreadable. The sports pages seem least affected (make of that what you will) but there is now a single forum page. Competing for space on it are letters, editorial cartoons, editorials, charts, statistics, and syndicated writers. Even distinctive in-house voices like Elizabeth Sullivan's are increasingly banished to remote electronic outposts. The front section now has lots of little stories delivering little news. Business is a Potemkin section with a front page and nothing behind it, and Arts & Life is a reduced and chaotic mess. Start to finish, I now go through the paper in about fifteen minutes.

Over the weekend the public editor wrote "[n]ewspapers do not have the luxury of standing still...The challenging part of that responsibility is that it often runs headlong into a reality that every newspaper editor learns early in his or her career: Readers Hate Change." His slightly condescending tone seems to put those of us objecting to such wholesale diminishing of the paper with, say, the cranks who were pissed off when Marmaduke was dropped.

"Rightsizing" seems to be the trend, though, and what ails the PD is ailing most newspapers now. But clearly these new models are not designed with people like me in mind. I may well be a dying breed - someone who wants to sit down at a table and spend at least a half an hour every day reading articles (not summaries) and interested in hearing a variety of voices on lots of topics. Maybe the vast majority who plunk down money for a paper want it packaged to go, as convenient to hold and consume as an Egg McMuffin. If papers have no other choice, if they can no longer cater to my kind, I understand even if I'm not very happy about it. But they won't have me along for the ride anymore either.

Please cancel my subscription.

 

www.pruningshears.us

Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.

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