Sunday, March 15, 2009

Newspapers Go Extinct: Less Left

Yes, I'm still in mourning mode for my dear father-in-law, but there's only so much crying one can do. Tears are partly a function of memory and observation, and partly a function of sympathy. When I'm with people who are lachrymose--whether overhearing a heart-felt thank you, witnessing the love in a wedding ceremony, or even just watching someone I care for tearful in a personal, momentary clutch, I choke up.

Alone, I have fewer cues to cry.

And so I'm relieved to be invited to a friend's birthday party, and even to read the newspaper.

There are far too many articles here in Seattle, and even in national publications, about the closure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which began publication in 1863 as the Seattle Gazette. It's set to go online-only, probably in the next few days. The Sunday paper in the Emerald City has long been a cooperative effort of the town's major daily, The Seattle Times, and the P-I, so today's op-ed page was a death-watch. Several letters scorned the way-left stance of the P-I; more lamented the loss of a second print voice.

Dinosaur that I am, I was actually witness to the closing of another city's second-tier newspaper two decades ago. I'd worked for a couple years as a features reporter for the LA Times, then wrote a book, and then got a job at Los Angeles' other daily, the Herald Examiner, writing editorials. My boss was Tom Plate, now a national columnist, and I was one of three staffers charged with coming up with positions the paper would represent as its own.

Working in the grand structure that housed the Her-Ex was a kick; its sweeping double stairway and colorful copula topping the edifice (below) viewable from two freeways made it a landmark much in the same way the P-I's globe (photo above by Josh Trujillo, Seattle P-I) is a symbol of Seattle. In the newsroom, however, I remember many times shuddering when I saw rats scurrying across the floor.

I didn't last too long in that job, feeling claustrophobic and cooped up sitting inside all day, drinking far too much of their triple-loaded coffee. I much preferred chasing down stories, or free-lancing, because my time was my own.

But it hardly mattered, because a few years after my departure, the once-venerable Hearst paper--pardon the pun--folded. Its readership had declined as The Times' had grown--nobody wanted an afternoon paper anymore, and it was tough to see what the Her-Ex offered that The Times didn't. As a kid in LA, the Times had a conservative editorial position, the Her-Ex more liberal. But then they, like most papers across the country, both slid to the left, shadowing each other.

Did the Internet murder the Los Angeles Herald Examiner? Impossible, there was none. The paper had never recovered from a huge, decade-long labor strike that ended in 1977, during which time The Times comandeered the city; the Her-Ex then hobbled along and sputtered out in 1989. But I think that just as important in that collapse was an ingredient feeding the implosion of papers across the country--lack of balance in viewpoint. I am not sure about the Rocky Mountain News, but I know the San Francisco Chronicle is staunchly liberal. And of course here in Seattle, both the Times and the P-I share a perch on the left.

When we first moved here to Seattle, we subscribed to the P-I, because it was the only morning paper. The Times published too late to set the day and its events. When The Times switched to morning, in direct competition to the P-I, I compared the two, turning pages of each paper side-by-side, looking at the coverage, the depth, the writing, the perspective, even the layout. We switched immediately to The Times--it was clearly superior to the P-I.

I guess I'm saying a few things here. First off, all of the biggest papers nationally echo each others' views of news, editorial orientations, and types of articles they choose to feature. I noticed, for example, that our Seattle Times regularly offers admiring coverage for local authors--if they're gardeners, novelists or intellectuals on the left. But not a word about local authors' new more conservative releases (I'm thinking of five local authors now), even when titles reach NY Times best-seller status, and motivate 500 fans to stand in line at a local book-signing on a rainy night.

To be sure, the availability of the news on the Internet has severely harmed published newspapers. Anything major and breaking sends me to the Web. I want the transcript of a major presidential speech instantly; I want to compare the coverage of six or seven outlets within minutes. Like other news-centric folk, I'm poor on patience.

But my third point is that there's something worthwhile and unique about a physical newspaper. I love the feature stories, and the accompanying photos, and I like to think about the placement of articles in relation to what's also deemed important for the day. I like to skim headlines and choose what to peruse in depth, and I like sitting outside in the sunshine, when it's available, in brightness that would obscure my laptop's monitor, with a cup of coffee and biscotti. Sometimes I clip articles, and often artful photos that convey color, design and feeling. Just to scotch-tape them up in my world awhile.

If newsprint disappears, will I take the time to click on each page of the Style section? Will I follow links through all the local news? Will I ignore useful ads that I would have leafed through if stuffed in my morning bundle?

That, for me, would be the loss, because with my impatience, the answers to the above questions would be no. I'll check out the major stories and skip the rest in favor of checking my email, narrowing my world, restricting the breadth of my awareness, especially on local and human-interest levels.

But I do think it's too late. We've moved on to an economic and psychological scenario where high-speed connections have formed entitlements to events and even others' thoughts, instantly. In a way, that's great, because the amount of information available in that split-second is vast (if not accurate) and anyone with a computer can now collect opinions and viewpoints from varied sources rather than a single powerful printed editorial page.

Today we've had snow, pelting rain and hail, and now the wind is howling but the sun has broken through. Quick, time to grab my Style Section and biscotti and head outside.

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