20 January 2010

The end of newspapers?

Marc Reigel wrote from Ohio about a book he enjoyed recently. It's not one many people are likely to have seen, but you can probably find it if you look at the bottom of this entry.
I recently read Late Edition, by Bob Greene, who hails from Columbus, Ohio. I enjoyed the book for a variety of reasons:
  1. It's about the decline and almost sure demise of the printed newspaper as a part of American life, and therefore it's a commentary on the gains and losses of "progress";

  2. my dad ran a small town newspaper from 1956 to 1974, and those times provided a "micro-scale" example of the things Greene identifies in his experience as a reporter for the long-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal;

  3. and finally, I really enjoyed Greene's journalistic style–perhaps because of my experiences as a newspaper man's son, but just as likely because of my twenty years as an English teacher, pleading with adolescents to "write in active voice!"

So, I wrote an email to Bob Greene, since, SURPRISE!, his email address appears on the book jacket! I'll include it here to illustrate how I felt about the book and why I'm recommending it to the readers of ReadingBlog:
Hi, Bob–Thanks for recommending that I read your latest book, Final Edition, a while back. I just finished it yesterday, on a plane flying back from frigid Tampa (where the golf vacation was frozen out but the computer worked just fine).

As I might have told you in previous correspondence, my dad was the publisher of a small-town newspaper in Minnesota from 1956 to 1974. I witnessed first-hand the Frankenstein-ian changes you describe in Final Edition, from the elimination of the linotype operators (my dad employed a blind man to do that job for the once-a-week Photo News in Owatonna, MN) to the "cold-type" process that preceded computerization–costing the blind man his job. Then on to the reduction in advertising revenue (I clearly recall eating at local restaurants on " due bills"). Then on to the nationalization of the news sources (the competitor, The Daily People's Press, soon carried national columnists--perhaps even your columns appeared there). Then on to oblivion: after he sold the paper in 1974, the new owner turned the Photo News into a weekly "flyer" devoted to advertising only, no photos, no news . . . . it lasted a year.

So, as I read the book, I felt like I was the cognizenti: smelling the hot lead of the linotype, seeing the paste-pots, feeling the smoothness of the high-quality newsprint (after all, my dad's paper WAS the Photo News), tasting the sandwiches brought back to the city desk by a copy boy . . . .

Somewhere around 1960-61, I worked episodically and not particularly dexterously as a paper-assembler on Wednesday nights. My job was to lay the first page on the conveyor belt so the rest of the "assemblers"–all girls, and all with much faster fingers than mine–could place successive pages on the soon-to-be-folded paper.

My "work" there was, I now realize, my dad's attempt to give me, literally "hands-on" experience in the production of the paper. I would have been better off if he would have let me write a few words, I think! After all, I ended up teaching high school English for twenty years before I made up my current job as a consultant to school districts, parts of which include writing grants, reports, and improvement plans.

I wanted to share a little of "my story" with you, since I so resonated to the anecdotes, personalities, and events you describe in Final Edition. They took place across the country, in thousands of newspapers, big and small, large circulations of 100,000 or a million, and the 5,000 papers my dad's little enterprise produced one-a-week in rural Minnesota.

Something has been lost in translation, I think, to introduce a movie metaphor, with the inevitable demise of the "real" newspaper–the one you could hold, feel, read, think about, shuffle, use to start a fire or wrap a fish.

Thank you, Bob, for writing an appropriate epitaph for the enterprise . . . .

Marc Reigel
Grandview, Ohio

And then, Mr. Greene wrote back to me:
In writing Late Edition, I tried to tell the story the way I did for this reason: I hoped that, by telling the story of that one mezzanine newsroom, I could come close to getting down on paper what it is we all may be losing as the inevitable changes in the newspaper world, and in America, take place. What you said in your letter-- especially those great stories you told about the Photo News, and your experiences there-- tells me that you understand all of this very well.

I'm honored. If you think any of your friends might like the story in the pages of Late Edition, I'd be very grateful if you would recommend it to them. I'd like for this book to reach the people who will appreciate it the most, and you may know who some of those people are. I hope the sound of all that laughter and good times in the long-ago city room will reach them.

Thank you again for your thoughtfulness, and your kind words. It means a lot to me.

Bob Greene

I thought this interchange illustrated something about writing, too.

Perhaps writing promotes making connections between writer and reader on a deeper, more personal level than, say, speaker and listener. Writing can be viewed on the reader's time; speaking needs to be heard on the speaker's time. You know, now that we are clearly, if not officially, well past "middle age"–oh, all right, I suppose 65 can be the new 45, at least for an evening–I find that reading trumps listening on issues I want to explore more fully.

So, I'm recommending Late Edition for readers who might resonate to that concept. A reader can read the book as though he or she might read a newspaper–if there were any newspapers left to read; and, yes, the style is journalistic: crisp sentences, sharp words, few adjectives, active voice.

Perhaps something has, indeed, been lost in translation with the loss of a bit of Americana: the daily, if not twice-a-day, newspaper.

Thanks for sponsoring this forum for sharing ideas about books, for so long and so well, Ken. As Bob Greene says, "It means a lot to me."

Here at the ReadingBlog, we'll remain a venue for reading and asynchronous written discussion -- even on the Internets (as long as it doesn't get as expensive as mailing costs did for the actual newsletter. You're welcome and thanks for all the good words, Marc.

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