…more on the disappearance of newspapers

I walked out to fetch the morning paper this morning, and the news hit me before I had even slid the thin paper from its plastic sleeve, for the paper was so slight, surely the headline would say something more about the disappearance of newspapers. Almost. The headline in today’s Oregonian heralds the coming forced disappearance of the city’s elderly elms. But the paper continues to waste away, this morning much thinner than my MacBook Pro, possibly a record for the thinnest Oregonian newspaper ever.

Related: The amateur spirit in writingWhat we will miss when newspapers disappear

Yet More on the Disappearance of Newspapers; or, Welcome to Spring Training!

I went out this morning to snag The Oregonian from its usual pitch somewhere across the front drive area, but it was nowhere to be found. It was a lovely, solid gold morning. The car windows were a bit frozen still, but the blue and yellow sky was promising the answer e. e. cummings suggested the earth provides to the “how often” questions posed by the “prurient philosophers…,” “science prodded…,” and “religions…squeezing…”: “thou answerest them only with spring,” cummings said.

So I took his answer and coffee cup and sauntered off into the back yard to soak up some morning rays. The grape I had moved yesterday from the back fence to the old patio looks like it likes its new home – more sun!

After a few Thoreauvian moments spent contemplating the grape, the sun, the greens, blues, and yellows of the fine print spring morning, I went back inside to report to Susan the disappearance of the newspaper. She of course, in her offline logic, accused me of cancelling it. I did not cancel it. I like the newspaper.

Susan tried the phone to circulations or delivery or somebody, got busy signals, but then, looking out the nook window, exclaimed, “There’s our newspaper!” “Where?” “On the car window!”

“Wow, what a pitch,” I said, “and Spring Training is underway!”

Related:

What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Where Richard Rodgriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener

More evidence of the disappearance of newspapers: page 2 of the “a&e” section of last Friday’s Oregonian contains a small announcement: “Regal Cinemas discontinued its movie listings, which were advertising, from The Oregonian.” Regal has a full menu website with links to Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, 200k likes on facebook, 24k tweeters…; what does it need The Oregonian for? Now playing: “What we will miss when newspapers disappear.”

Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm

Thanks a compost heap to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (April, 2011) for re-infecting readers with a term we already could not forget – earworms. Earworms are snippets of jingles or songs that unwanted, uninvited, and unannounced crash the polite party of our otherwise peaceful thoughts. We now have a mutant version that has crawled through our ear producing an image of the brain as a worm farm, a compost bin of electric eels. Our previous version of the insidious virus was bad enough, a sponge soaking in brine. Our brain plays host like a seashore shell to homeless snails that worm their way in, and no Q-Tip can reach them.

It’s like the kid whose mom washes his mouth out with a washrag and a bar of soap, for she overheard him let slip with a playground ditty, a mouthworm, a dirty word, and she hopes to get to his brain by way of his mouth, but no amount of mouthwash can clean the miscreant tongue. Just so, Q-Tips cannot reach earworms.

The mutant earworm is a strain some think threatened by the current reading crisis, exemplified by the pending disappearance of newspapers. But its mutant capabilities seem to make full eradication unlikely. The very word “earworm” is a classic example. We now think of the brain as a mass of worms electronically touching ends, randomly sparking the dull slow mass to inexplicable thoughts, thoughts like thinking of the brain as a mass of worms…. The mutant earworm invades without benefit of the jingle or song. The word is enough, and it seems to infect readers more than non-readers.

Neurologists don’t know where earworms come from, and given the current health care crisis, cries for help are being ignored.

There are of course two kinds of earworms: the bad kind, and the good kind. They often travel in pairs, but it sometimes takes two or three good earworms to outwit the bad earworms. To outwit a bad earworm with a good earworm, it helps to have a ready list of songs you can stick in your ear, common earworm remedies, household cures. A few bars of any of the following should reduce your bad earworm to compost dust after a few bars:

  1. “Hear Comes the Night” (Bert Berns, 1964). Van Morrison with Them, 1965.
  2. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949). Hank Williams.
  3. “Walkin’ After Midnight” (Block & Hecht, 1957). Patsy Cline.
  4. “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (Handman & Turk, 1926). Elvis & other versions.
  5. “Skylark” (Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, 1941). Many versions, one of the best is K. D. Lang’s for the soundtrack to the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
  6. “Oh Lonesome Me” (Don Gibson & Chet Atkins, 1958). Johnny Cash 1961, Neil Young 1970.
  7. “All of Me” (Marks & Simons, 1931). Many versions.

Wall Street Journal Springs Honorifics from Sports – Cut in Pay?

Messres and Mesdames: Fans at Chicago Day at White Sox Park between ca. 1908 and ca. 1925.

Mr. Jason Gay, sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, has just announced that The Journal this week will begin dropping honorifics in its sports section pages.

This means that instead of “Mr. Piniella, after kicking his hat and dirt in the direction of the first base umpire, then pulled the first base bag from its mooring and tossed it down the right field line,” we’ll get “Piniella,” without the “Mr.,” and then the rest of it.

The timing of the WSJ decision seems right as we enter baseball spring training season, and we wonder if the WSJ editorial style change, yet another concussion to the prestige of sports, will change baseball’s position as the country’s number one sport honorific – its status as the national pastime.

We briefly entertained the idea of honorifics here at the Toads blog (Mr. Dylan; Mr. Shakespeare), to pick up the slack, but Mister isn’t much of an honorific after all if you consider that it originally was used as “A title of courtesy prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title” (OED). In other words, to designate the bleacher bums. “Hey, Mister, mind gettin’ your dog out of my beer?”

The word Mister used to refer to one’s occupation: Shortstop Mister. But that shouldn’t mean that we need to call Derek Mr. Jeter. In any case, only in some special cases is the use of Mr., or Mister, or Sir, an honorific, for Mr. adds distance and denies familiarity. More from the OED:

1722 H. Carey Hanging & Marriage 8 Squeak: Pray ye, Mr. Stubble, let me alone. Richard: Ay its Mister, is it?

1888 J. W. Burgon Lives Twelve Good Men I. 440 ‘Well, Mr. Burgon?’‥‘Mister at the end of 20 years!‥I wish you wouldn’t call me Mister’.

1993 S. McAughtry Touch & Go xxii. 174 Well, Mister Bighead, we’ve both been there, Bucksie and me both, so up yours.

We wondered too if WSJ writers get paid by the word, and, if so, if dropping honorifics means a cut in pay, yet another blow to this country’s number two waning national pastime, newspapers.

Photo “Messres and Mesdames,” at Library of Congress.

Hybrid Reading and “Sex and the vote”

Newspapers are dying, but as they slide into immateriality, they’re looking for ways to merge into Internet traffic. Regular columnists are forced to blog to establish stronger and closer connections with their audiences. No doubt many regular columnists are already longing for the days when they had the highway to themselves. Blogging, of course, invites comments, which multiply, and comments are easier to post than letters to the editor, which often go unpublished, while comments, rarely edited for clarity or decorum, bring the commenter instant gratification, however short-lived or inconsequential, yet columnists don’t seem to be completely ignoring them. Stanley Fish regularly gets hundreds of comments to each of his posts at the Times Opinionator, as does Nicholas Kristof. Print periodicals are also struggling, but we are beginning to see engaging hybrid forms, offering a kind of communication in the round for readers, with several noteworthy add-on benefits. These benefits go beyond simply allowing on-line access, or putting the print copy on an e-Reader. At the New Yorker, added value on-line features include interactive live chats with authors, videos, audios, podcasts, and slide shows (some of the on-line features do require a subscription).

The newspaper is a mosaic with boundaries, the Internet a mosaic without boundaries. As the newspaper continues to get watered down daily in new irrelevancies suggested by the instantaneous availability of information via the Internet, it continues to lose revenue from defecting advertisers and subscribers. Yet the hybrid forms suggested by the New Yorker have the potential to renew and revitalize public discourse. At the Oregonian, The Stump is essentially a group blog produced by the editorial board. The Stump is an on-line extension of the newspaper’s Op-Ed pages. We begin to see that the salvation of the newspaper may come from removing the mosaic’s traditional boundaries with a hybrid form that will include more interactive reading opportunities.

One of the difficulties of programming the hybrid link from newspaper to Internet is still the newspaper’s limited space. The Stump, for example, prints the beginnings of articles on the editorial page, but readers must go on-line if they want to read the whole article (where they can also comment). I didn’t know my “Sex and the vote” (Nov 4) piece had made it to The Stump until a friend emailed me saying he had enjoyed my little piece in the paper. I wasn’t sure if he had gone on-line to read the entire piece or not. Then again, how often do any of us read to the end of a piece? That’s part of the nature of the newspaper. The mosaic character and layout encourages it; the hybrid link, a link frozen in hard copy, continues the tradition.

John Cage and Attitudes Toward Reading Today

In John Cage’s A Year from Monday, a 1969 collection of his then New Lectures and Writings, we find a delightful, short piece titled “Seriously Comma,” and we are told the article was in answer to an inquiry regarding “attitudes toward Serial Music Today.” We find it difficult to pass on articles with the word “comma” in their title, seriously. In addition to our interest in commas, we are still concerned with the “reading crisis” topic The Coming of the Toads jumped on at the inception of the blog.

“Seriously Comma” is an arrangement of 18 paragraphs separated by irregular spacing and layout and given further unity using Cage’s rhetorical mode of varying type font. Each paragraph might be read as a different voice in a contrapuntal arrangement – the piece might also be seen as the mosaic layout of a newspaper page. The second paragraph, quoted in its entirety (italics Cage’s):

McLuhan insists on the newspaper front-page as the present existence type. Reading, we no longer read systematically (concluding each column, or even turning the page to conclude an article): we jump” (26).

McLuhan’s work sums the effects of technology on the human sensorium – technology changes us. For McLuhan, the great example was the printing press. For Nicholas Carr, it’s the personal computer. Carr believes that internet skimming is changing our brain for the worse; the idea is getting ink, but it’s still a hypothesis. Do we read differently on-line? Yes, but as Cage on McLuhan illustrates, our jumping around somewhat skittishly while reading predates the personal computer. Perhaps the mosaic of the newspaper prepared us in some way for the mosaic of television and computer screens. What will happen next? The disappearance of newspapers and our adaptive brain evolving to a new way of  reading:

“Invade areas where nothing’s definite (areas – micro and macro – adjacent the one we know in). It won’t sound like music – serial or electronic. It’ll sound like what we hear when we’re not hearing music, just hearing whatever wherever we happen to be. But to accomplish this our technological means must be constantly changing” (27).

We are all musicians whenever we make noise; what are we whenever and however we read?

“Dealing with language (while waiting for something else than syntax) as though it’s a sound-source that can be transformed into gibberish” (29).

What is “computer literacy,” and how does it differ from traditional reading? In the late 30s and early 40s, the WPA produced posters encouraging, among other activities and ideas of benefit to local communities, reading, traditional reading, the book you’ve always meant to read. We agree with Carr that traditional reading slows things down; why not kick back and enjoy a slow Spring with a book? When we make noise we make music; when we read, we make time.

The Sick Roses of Suburbia and the Epiphany of a Picture

I knew the Oregonian “Metro” columnist Steve Duin lives not in Portland but Lake Oswego, but was unaware the writer from this banana belt suburb, protected from Portland’s East Winds, would feel protected from precinct prowling. I enjoy his columns, something I’ll miss when newspapers disappear, for the daily columnist is today’s “…voice of the Bard!” as Blake said, “Who Present, Past, & Future, sees.” Alas, “The invisible worm That flies in the night…Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy….” Duin’s Epiphany-day article is about his epiphany-like experience being pulled over without probable cause in LO on Christmas night after getting a late call from his Christmas-cheery, twenty-something daughter, who needed a ride home. 

I lived for a time years ago in LO, and it didn’t take me long to achieve a speeding ticket (30 in a 25; my VDub bug so proud), for which I was sentenced by the infamous LO Cookie Judge, dispensing justice from behind a folding table in the LO fire station lunch room, to play guitar for several hours at the Oregon Rehabilitation Institute, a sentence I cheerfully complied with, brushing up on a few Bob Dylan songs, and enjoying a successful gig, even if the patients, my audience, did sportingly encourage me not to quit my day job.

I was reminded too, reading Duin, of the summer, student job I once had as an employee of the City of El Segundo, washing police cars. I arrived at the police station on Saturday mornings, grabbed the keys to a squad car, and drove it to the city yard (less than a mile), where there was a wash rack in the motor pool. The motor pool was managed by a few mechanics who sat around smoking and listening to country oldies on the radio while I washed the police cars. At the time, I wore long, curly-wild hair, and dressed without much prepense in beat clothes suggesting a mashed hippie-surfer profile. The double takes from the good ES citizens who happened to see me driving one of their city’s squad cars – he’s either under-cover or the revolution is afoot. Then one of the lieutenants grew uncomfortable with the arrangement that gave me such liberal access to station, keys, and street and issued a directive that henceforth if any cop wanted his car washed he had to drive it himself to the rack where I would be waiting with hose, soap, and rags.

We all have a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. We often dress our pictures up, while others dress them down. The Cookie Judge was costing LO money, sentencing the citizens of the poverty-sheltered suburb to bake cookies for old folks or otherwise share their talents with their less fortunate neighbors. The annoyance was the sentence, and the judge must have irked a few of the wrong LO pictures, who would have preferred simply paying a fine. Our pictures provoke a wide variety of responses, from the childish and churlish, to the paranoid and pathological. In the end, they are merely pictures, and pictures tell no stories: pictures are wordless and require interpretation, and interpretation requires imagination, and imagination needs experience to avoid becoming purely childish and churlish, and experience wants wisdom to avoid becoming paranoid and psychotic. Then the picture becomes epiphany.

(Quotes in para. 1 from “Introduction” and “The Sick Rose,” from William Blake’s Songs of Experience, 1789-1794)

Where Richard Rodriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener; or, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“I’d prefer not,” Bartleby tells his boss. Bartleby, a scrivener, has given up, no longer reads the newspaper, has no home and lives in the law offices of his employer, staring at the wall. A scrivener was a human copy machine, a viable trade before typewriters and carbon paper and then copy machines. What explains Bartleby’s behavior? Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, as have Richard Rodriquez and other commenters on the disappearance of newspapers.

In the November, 2009 Harpers, we find Richard Rodriguez bemoaning the demise of newspapers, a haunt frequented by journalists these days: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper…I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet.” But critics who can’t wait to get the newspapers off their front porch ask not the reasons for its disappearance, but “so what?,” to which Rodriguez responds, “So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies.” For Rodriguez, the loss of the newspaper is the loss of our city, of our very flesh and blood. “We will not read about newlyweds,” Rodriguez says: “We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’— Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). ”

Bingle responded in a letter Harpers printed in their January issue, just arrived, and it is of particular interest regarding the dialog lacking in newspapers which encourages some critics to prefer their on-line evolution. Unfortunately, while Bingle does establish some ethos as a published writer (and we suspect he must have mentioned his Chicago law degree, but Harpers may have edited his letter for space?), his letter reinforces Rodriguez’s point, if that point was to explain that the Amazon reviewers are generally writing opinion, not criticism, what they want in a book, not what they find, if anything, in a book. We do need professional critics, but if Rodriguez’s point is that the Amazon reviewers are in part the cause of the disappearance of newspapers, we fail to see how an army of Amazon reviewers, of amateur readers, is a bad thing. Nick Hornby has also famously attacked the Amazon reviewers. While we agree that Bingle’s review of Moby Dick is not helpful, we don’t see amateur reading and writing as a philistine front eating away at the borders of our print culture.

Meanwhile, Paul Starr, writing in The New Republic (March 4, 2009), also recognizes the demise of the newspaper as we’ve known it is inevitable, but Starr also points out that what we’ve known did have its flaws (monopolies, excessive operating profits not always reinvested in the public good, and declining readership beginning probably with the advent of television – the history of the Los Angeles Times is revealing on monopoly and biased reporting, and its story as a reincarnated, functional newspaper, is remarkable. Still, its history may reinforce Starr’s point that newspapers perform a public good, but not by definition; they perform a public good only if they are good newspapers. Hendrik Hertzberg, in an April 23, 2001 New Yorker review, remarks that “for eighty of its hundred and twenty years…the LA Times was venal, vicious, stupid, and dull”). Starr’s piece is less impressionistic than Rodriguez’s, and his hope has to do with the public good that newspapers provide, for “As imperfect as they have been, newspapers have been the leading institutions sustaining the values of professional journalism. A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised. And while the new digital environment is more open to ‘citizen journalism’ and the free expression of opinions, it is also more open to bias, and to journalism for hire. Online there are few clear markers to distinguish blogs and other sites that are being financed to promote a viewpoint from news sites operated independently on the basis of professional rules of reporting. So the danger is not just more corruption of government and business – it is also more corruption of journalism itself.”

At that point, of course, it’s no longer journalism, but propaganda, the reporter someone’s mouthpiece. Whatever might be said of the amateur reader and writer, presumably his ears and mouth are at least his own, and while he might listen to the weatherman, he prefers not to base his opinions solely on the predictions of professionals, for he knows the outdoors, and knows other things as well, knows that all the writing, good and bad, ends up in the recycle bin, most of it unread. But we’ll give Melville the last word here, from the end of “Bartleby”:

“Bartleby had been [prior to his scrivener job] a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office…Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

Note: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the Bringing It All Back Home album, 1965.

Double Shot, Hold the Book

The end of books is closer than we thought. A short article in today’s Christian Science Monitor discusses a private high school that has replaced the books in its library with a $12,000 espresso machine, three sports bar like TVs, Kindles with e-books, and laptops.

Apparently, the old, hard copy books were not being checked out and read, anyway. Though the article does not mention Google, we look forward to a riposte from Carr. He thinks Google’s giving us the jitters now; imagine adding a little espresso to the formula.

While we’re on the subject of books disappearing, another related piece in today’s mail threatens to amuse, from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, a review of cartoonist Bruce McCall’s new book, Fifty Things to do with a Book (Now that Reading is Dead).

And our brief survey and latest Reading Crisis entry would not be complete if we didn’t remind readers of our own past post, “What we will miss when newspapers disappear.”  

But doesn’t the espresso disturb their nap time?