A Ritual of Pleasure

Newspapers make a last stand?
April 20th, 2009

Every morning before dawn, while the rest of the house was still sleeping, my Grandfather would get up and retrieve the newspaper from the front yard. A grade-school kid on his bike working long before school started would have delivered it in the wee hours. My Grandfather would then sit at the kitchen table, his reading lamp an island of light in the still-dark morning, with his prized paper and a cup of steaming coffee. He’d read the news and finish his quiet, private time by completing the crossword puzzle before heading off to work.

This was not only a ritual he enjoyed for himself but was also important preparation for communal activity – the discussions with both co-workers and customers that would follow as his day unfolded were often centered around the items featured in the newspaper that day. Certainly the delivery of news changed over the course of his lifetime, as fist radio and then TV offered alternative delivery systems, but the trusted and sacred printed newspaper was irreplaceable. Profound. All-important. One of life’s pleasures.

By contrast, I don’t remember ever having seen one of my sons read a newspaper. I’m sure they must have done so at some point, but the ritual my Grandfather enjoyed is certainly not there for them – actually, it’s not there for me either, although I very much enjoy reading “the papers.” When I’m in an airport I often purchase multiple newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Herald Tribune, the Times of London, and I relish reading the varied perspectives on a single story that are offered. But I must admit, it’s not a regular practice for me. Where I live, the local paper is truly worthless, and other papers that can be delivered come a day late, so while I might on occasion pick up a USA Today, even that habit has fallen off now that I do my crosswords on my iPhone.

The generation that my sons belong to has no connection to – or patience for –  the tactile sensuality of wrestling with an impossible-to-fold newspaper or the aggravation of dealing with the mess and smell of fresh newspaper ink all over their hands after reading said rag. Maybe they are missing out on something, maybe not.

Like many people, I scan the news on the web – but rarely click through to read the entire story. Skimming the news that way I often feel like I’ve just gulped down a fast food lunch: not quite as hungry as I was, but feeling slightly nauseous and aware that I’ve just done something that probably wasn’t very good for me.

Over the years, I’ve mostly worked as a designer of Internet sites and magazines – but I did put in a stint or two designing for newspapers, including a spot as a designer for the New York Times. There was something wonderful about telling my boss that I had to make a run to the “morgue” (where newspapers used to keep a huge library of photos for use in future stories. I imagine it’s all digitally stored these days). The curmudgeonly reporters at their desks in the bullpen (usually smoking, sometimes with a bottle of booze sitting in open view on their desk), the immediacy of it all, the sense that the work we were all doing was very important…it was heady stuff indeed.

And now it looks like that is all about to be gone with the wind. All things must pass, and newspapers seem to be on their proverbial last legs.

Its hard to argue with the fact that everything is moving much faster now and that last night’s news won’t do when you can get minute-by-minute updates from any number of sources. Some also argue that “real journalism” (whatever that means) is alive and well on the web. Ad revenue has tanked and the audience is literally dying off. It looks like it might be curtains for the crucial and romantic role that newspapers and the people who produce them have played in our collective past.

But I wouldn’t count them out just yet. Right now some very smart people are thinking hard about ways to morph the traditional newspaper into something that resonates with today’s lifestyle. Didn’t George Jetson push a button every morning and have his newspaper spit out from a machine in his kitchen? Maybe that’s not quite where we are going, but something like it may yet happen. There’s just something very satisfying about holding an entire well written and designed daily publication in your hands and perusing it at your own pace. I for one will miss that experience if it disappears completely.

Maybe the George Jetson model is not so far off. Maybe a new model of delivery with a customized Robert Raines content is the answer. Not some diluted and random mix of travel, sports, weather etc. that I pick from a pre-selected list of options, but a truly personalized publication that my chosen “newspaper” pushes to me based on my interests. Maybe it will come to me on some yet unimagined device (Spindle, anyone?), maybe it will still be on some type of paper, or a digital screen; maybe it will float in the air before me. Perhaps it will even spew out at the touch of a button, next to the one for “crushed ice” on my fridge…

I have a large collection of yellowing newspapers in my closet – “NIXON RESIGNS”, “THE SHUTTLE EXPLODES”, 9/11, “OBAMA!!!!!” etc. They go back decades. I think I’ll go take them out and handle them for a while. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany.