July 16, 2009
Who Shot the Paperboy?
Two of my childhood boyfriends were paperboys and their routes were something we ‘shared.’
I even covered for them on occasion and as I went past someone’s house on my bike and threw the paper onto their front porch, my mind would conjure up a picture of the family living behind the doors and windows in front of me, some I knew and some I didn’t.
Sometimes they’d come out before I’d dart off, pick up the paper, give me a smile and a wave and yell thanks.
I dreamt about newspapers last night and again early this morning during a half-awake moment before the alarm went off. Perhaps it was a left over from the Guardian podcast this week in London, where we once again discussed the transition from print to all things digital.
It was my favorite paper when I lived here 20 years ago. Even though I wasn’t the typical Guardian demographic, I was a hell of a lot closer to it than any other paper at the time, and there were tons to choose from: the FT, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, The Independent, the London Times, the Daily Mail. I read them all…..every day.
It was essential to understand the London media scene, as my thesis, my degree and my entry into advertising all depended on it. That’s how it started anyway. Over time, I began to think of my newspapers in the same way smokers thought of their pack of cigarettes. It was daily routine and without them, the day wouldn’t flow with ease.
I became addicted to those papers. They became a part of my identity, they shaped who I evolved into, as well as my political views. They set a standard for the quality of writing, the art of reason and thinking, and everything that goes into a well-crafted story.
I used to sit in coffee bars and watch people waltz past me with newspapers under their arms. If someone didn’t have one, I found myself guessing which one they would read by the way they dressed, the way they walked and the accent they carried.
It wasn’t hard to do you see, because London’s class system was much more defined than anywhere else I had set foot on the planet at that stage of my life, with the exception of perhaps India.
When I lived in the Surrey burbs and commuted to London by train, I’d play mind games with people.
Sometimes I’d be in cropped jeans and a loose faded jean jacket and sometimes I’d be in a mini-skirt, leather jacket and boots, nearly always black.
I always wore a side pony tail every day and carried a rustic shoulder bag, not unlike the kind we all carried in my Johannesburg high school.
Once we left the platform and settled down into our commuter train seats, the papers came out. It’s almost as if you could count the seconds on your watch before you’d hear the crinkling sound of the papers unfold and everyone would sync up as if in A Chorus Line.
I always used to think it was British conservatism -- Brits using their morning paper as an easy way to avoid conversation. The pinstripe suits read the FT, the less expensive suits read the Daily Mail, the ‘real’ suburbia guys read the Daily Telegraph and so on. Women in their twenties either had the Guardian or the London Times and as always, I had them all.
I’d often start with the FT, particularly when I wore scruffy jeans. It was as if the more conservative British men on my carriage could ‘feel’ that I was reading their paper even though they were hiding behind it and couldn’t see me. On more than one occasion, I’d see their paper slowly move down and their eyes would peer above it, glasses tilted, and they’d quietly glare as if in disbelief.
“How could she be reading the FT and not the X?” Whatever label they had for me back then, it most definitely was not a FT reader. It was something you just knew and felt – and behavior patterns always followed and because they did, you could easily decipher who read what and quite often, also where they grew up and went to school.
Forward wind the clock. Paris, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg again, Nairobi and Amsterdam all followed London and yet, my obsession with newspapers didn’t. Sure, I’d pick one up for a summary of world news, but it was no longer part of my daily ritual, my personality or my path to knowledge and enlightenment in the way it was in London. And, because it wasn’t, I forgot about newspapers, at least for awhile.
It wasn’t until I returned to the states – Boston, New York, San Francisco and even my old home town, where I felt the ‘void.’ I used to love leafing through the Sunday New York Times, but it wasn’t the same as my morning ritual of discovery in London, which after ploughing through each newspaper every day, I had a sense of what was going on in everyone’s head I might encounter that day.
I read all the papers everyone read - the blue collar worker, the housewife in the burbs, the stock market analyst, the advertising exec, the man who made my chicken curry lunch and the woman who cut my hair. It brought me closer to understanding them and connecting to them in a way that was richer and deeper.
The void was more than a cultural shift – it was the fact that I missed the quality of the writing, the global perspective and the art of it all. We didn’t relish it the same way the Brits did. We didn’t bathe in the words. We didn’t have the hunger for it, for if we did, our biggest cities would have had as many papers as London had if not more.
Forward wind the clock again. I grieved the loss of my newspaper culture years before the digital age really hit. Whatever newspapers came my way never quite filled the void, and they never had enough depth to hold my interest regularly.
Then the digital age hit. RSS came along. Blogging came along. Comment threads came along. MySpace, Facebook and YouTube came along. Then we had a few years of blog posts, panel discussions and debates about the death of newspapers and it hasn’t ended. Layoffs continue, revenue models change and old school publishers are wondering what they’ll do next.
FriendFeed and Twitter edged their way in and suddenly the whole world is writing and thinking in 140 characters, about the size of a newspaper headline.
I love stream of consciousness writing and so many of my pieces are long….they keep flowing until the stream ends. Blogging is perfect for this; newspapers are not. It was and still is a perfect medium for me. But Twitter? For someone who loves to write and write and write, how could I possibly move my world into 140 characters?
It was the descriptions people used to describe themselves that drew me in; why one chose to list golf and another guy who looked just like him from the same town chose to only list professional adjectives for his keywords and description.
Why did the housewife from Toledo, Ohio use the background she did and tweet about politics and not religion? Why did Joe call himself a renegade and Susie a delicious artist? I was drawn and sucked into the vortex and there was no return.
I think about things in 140 characters now, how it could be a great headline rather than simply what I’m writing at any given time. It’s not easy to create something witty, interesting, compelling and intelligent in a blink-of-an-eye sentence, so the brain must be cranked up which is one of the things I love about Twitter.
Forward wind the clock again. It is 2009, I’m in London and the death of newspapers and the saga about the future of news continues. It continues because we’re so emotional about newspapers – they’re historical and they’re a part of our own personal stories. They are the result of our evolvement from countries that ran themselves behind closed doors to the era of ‘freedom of the press.’
It’s also all the things we associate with newspapers, not unlike the kinds of things we associate with religion if you dig deep enough.
Said American jurist Felix Frankfurter who was born in 1882 – “freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of (achieving) a free society.”
And Thomas Jefferson, who was born in 1801, said, “the press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral and social being.”
Newspapers became our first source for everything that these statements stood for. We looked to them for guidance and learned to trust some of them and not others.
When I read every London newspaper on my morning commute every day, I’d lean back and relax behind the fold just like every one else around me – I behind my personal, comfortable fold, they behind theirs. My friend. My habit. My news source. My expression.
It’s one of the reasons I like NetVibes so much. I can customize and personalize it using my own colors, my own categories and sections. Instead of reading content through a geeky-looking aggregator, I can view my news on a ‘newspaper-looking’ screen, separated by boxes just like sections on a printed page. It comes to me rather than me having to go to it and I can flip through tabs like flipping through pages.
Viewing news this way is not quite the same however, although it has become my friend, my habit, my ‘screen’ for my news sources and one expression of many. That’s the difference – it’s the one expression of many.
After I leave NetVibes, I’m on Facebook, email, FriendFeed, Twitter itself for search, EasyTweets to tweet, YouTube to browse, Google for research, StumbleUpon to discover….and it doesn’t end. I can’t imagine my ‘working life’ without any of them, however I can imagine my personal life without this much complexity. I yearn for it. Simplicity leads to productivity does it not? I’m a subscriber to that philosophy - sign me up.
Austrian journalist, critic and playwright Karl Kraus, who was born in 1874, said, “the mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.” I’d love to hear what Karl would have to say about attention span and the impact that hundreds of thousands of news sources are having not just on our brain but to our personalities 135 years later.
This past week, I saw a play in London’s West End that is roughly six years old. A small English village’s quirky idea went global, not through the web, but through newspapers, radio and television. The play could have been set in the 60s and yet, it was the way their ‘story’ spread less than a decade ago.
I walked out of the theatre and as if on auto pilot, on the same path I took to the Leicester Square tube station twenty years ago, I headed towards the entrance. Déjà vu. I hear it as if it’s the familiar humming motor I woke up to every morning on the upstate New York lake where I grew up.
Evening Standard, Evening Standard, Evening Standard, a man shouts. I had walked past the same corner a few nights earlier and the night before that. He was dishing the evening paper out then too and I took notice then too, but tonight was different.
The podcast. The play. The déjà vu from yesterday, the cultural impasse, the digital inclusion conversation at Intel earlier in the week, seeing The Reader on the flight over, the flashbacks to all the British commuters so many moons ago hiding behind their familiar comfortable newspapers that shaped if not defined who they were.
All of it came pouring through me like an emotional, surreal sandstorm that slowly dissolved and then transformed to flowing water.
It was as if the water was cleansing the memories of yesterday, as if to say, “your newspapers were like a collection of beautiful poetry read to you by an articulate and romantic ex-lover, something to be cherished, adored and never forgotten.
Like all cherished gold medallions from your past, relish them and let them go as well as all the emotional connections that go along with them.”
It’s no wonder we’re fleeing to social communities. It’s no wonder Facebook and Twitter have exploded. Papers were our communities – we read from the same source, a common mother’s womb that we as a community trusted, loved and understood.
Our local newspaper was something we ‘shared’ and now, we’re scrambling to find out what our peers find interesting, what they read and are thinking about. We’re finding that not only is one peer reading and viewing 20-30 sources, but another peer is tapping into 20-30 different ones.
We want the overlap in the middle, the places we can hang out together online with the majority of our friends and feel connected again, like my grandfather did at his barber shop, my mother did on the front porch with her friends and I did on my train.
The memories, thoughts and emotional connections to those thoughts came upon me like an avalanche, a flood of consciousness that I hoped would settle so I could make sense of it all.
And then I suddenly stopped before I walked down the stairs to the underground and looked back at the man, who couldn’t have been more than 25, with his pile of Evening Standards in his arms.
He caught my eye and came walking toward me while continuing to shout Evening Standard, Evening Standard, Evening …..” No thanks, I said under my breadth before he finished his third recital. “It’s free,” he said even louder.
Of course it’s free I thought and now we can’t even give our newspapers away. We have come to expect ‘free.’
I took one and shoved it under my arm and before I made my way through the ticket stall, I unfolded it and saw the 50p price tag on the top. And then, “a woman’s quest for the perfect bottom – pages 25 & 26” to my right and smack in the center, Bright City Star in Death Plunge (32 characters) followed by its subhead: “Days before 25th birthday, broker fearing for his job steps off rooftop restaurant holding champagne class.” (160 characters)
We’ve not only all become authors, but we’ve all become photographers, videographers, headline and copywriters. It was the colorful photo that drew me in and I wanted the full news story and whatever in-length article that was inside, including the feature on a woman’s quest for the perfect bottom.
And yet our attention spans are decreasing all the time. Perhaps as our brain’s chemistry and personalities change as a result of our new world where we live in headlines and newspaper captions only, we’ll start to emotionally be okay with letting old news go, including newspapers and everything that was connected to them.
While we’re already creating our own content, and the world has changed because of it, it’s clear that not everyone has accepted at an emotional level the historical transition into the world of always on and always digital.
We’ll become more open to the evolving digital book that may never have an end, the blog post with 130,000 comments or reading a thread of hashtags around a particular person or topic, rather than an article or Hollywood movie on them.
Everyone will have a floodgate open however at some point or several. Once emotional ‘acceptance’ and ‘approval’ catches up with trends and behavior on the web, then we’ll not just be producing content but as a global society, we’ll actually be congruent with creating our own online newspapers, our own movies, our own photo galleries, our own podcasts and ultimately our own individualized histories.
And yes, we will have lived through a magical revolution and it won’t just be a media one.
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I used to be a paperboy in the UK! I'm not sure if the paperboy was shot (there actually was a very tragic case) but that the paperboy grew up.
You have captured the UK newspaper culture very well. The newspaper you carried with you definately said something about you, and it was used as a badge to show your pride in your class and your politics. The Daily Mirror for example was proudly working class and on the left. The Sun was working class and to the right. And then you had all the layered social strata represented by the rest of the newspapers.
The Guardian emerged as the symbol of “the chattering classes” the left leaning middle-class urbanistas.
I still love reading all the UK newspapers. When I arrived in the US in 1984 there wasn’t much to choose from with most cities down to just one newspaper. That meant that the reporting had to appear to be “objective” which made it dull and it felt fake. The roiling boiling hustle and bustle of journalism in the UK was, and is, much more fun and engaging. I’d take any UK newspaper over a US equivalent (maybe the wrong word since there isn’t an equivalent.)
Posted by: Tom Foremski | Jul 16, 2009 7:57:02 AM
Nice writing Renee. You've summed up our affection for newspapers nicely. However you overlooked the real reason why the Brit would never part with the daily paper... with what would we carry our fish and chips?!
Do you think the popularity of the UK newspaper is connected to our use of public transport? All your pictures are on trains/buses or outside a station. Would you get a bus in the Valley? Would you have copies of all the local press?
Before moving to Bristol to setup www.thisispearl.com ,like the majority of workers, I caught the train/tube/bus to work. Now I can walk to work I don't read the paper... and oh how I miss it! I feel cut off and ignorant about details of national / global events.
As you say "It’s not easy to create something witty, interesting, compelling and intelligent in a blink-of-an-eye sentence, so the brain must be cranked up which is one of the things I love about Twitter."
Twitter is genius. It is changing how we do things (@Pearlsoftware) but Twitter does not give the same satisfaction as a publication with strong Editorial integrity, neither does the Bloggosphere.
It's different. I need both.
See you in the Valley - I'll bring you a Metro.
Posted by: Andrew Mulvenna | Jul 16, 2009 11:47:24 AM
Thanks for your comments, touching to read both - from two Brits to a yank.
Tom hit it spot on about the segmentation of each paper - it's one of the things I miss most about living in Europe.
I do think some of the popularity stems from urban commuting/public transport and spending so much time underground....that said, you don't see the same kind of newspaper culture in New York - we simply don't have the diversity of writing or segmentation that you do in London.
I took the photos in the tube and on commuter rail. No buses. And no, I would not get a bus in the Valley, although I tried it once in LA and the person I was chatting to on the phone when I mentioned it nearly had a heart attack - dumbfounded I'd even consider it.
I need both too Andrew and yes, please ping me on your way over. Brits always welcome in my hood :-)
Posted by: Renee Blodgett | Jul 17, 2009 11:01:08 AM
This is a beautiful essay. And you illustrate a few things that I think most people don't usually understand about newspapers. And these things point to the reason why newspapers, will be around for a long, long time. And that includes in their print form.
Too often, we boil a newspaper down to the idea that it's just about journalism. In fact, at their peak, a printed newspaper provided about 50 different services to readers, one of which was journalism. Taken together, these things created not just a product, but also an experience. This is where the emotional component kicks in.
It's similar to the way that Starbucks succeeded originally not just by providing high-quality coffee, but they also coupled that with the cafe experience. The product plus the experience was something that helped people initially develop a passion and emotional attachment in Starbucks' early days (and something they've lost, but that's another tale).
People are not, in fact, abandoning printed newspapers to the degree that people often think. Last year, worldwide, circulation of printed newspapers increased.
It's in the U.S. and parts of Western Europe where the problem lays for printed newspapers. But even when the Seattle P-I closed earlier this year, 98 percent of its subscribers immediately signed up for the Seattle Times in print. Passion for print remains deep. I feel this any time we make a slight change to the Mercury News and it prompts a flood of e-mails from readers.
The way you live your life points to the mindset a newsroom needs to adopt to thrive. It needs to become multi-platform. And it needs to shape each platform to the way people embracing that platform want to consume news and information.
You wrote above, "We’ve not only all become authors, but we’ve all become photographers, videographers, headline and copywriters." But that's not really true, and I'm sure you weren't being literal. In fact, consumers continue to exist along a wide spectrum of behaviors, from passionate participants to casual commenters to passive consumers.
The tricky thing is that when it comes to the "people formerly known as the audience," well, many of them actually still want to just be the audience. They do, in fact, want a gatekeeper, and sensemaker, when it comes to their news. They don't to have to sift, collect, aggregate, and evaluate because it's psychologically draining. They don't want to work to consume their news. Twitter, as a news source, is fine for some, but not for most. They want to be passive receptors. And for these people, print remains a powerful product.
The problem is the newsrooms have been trying to reshape their print product to resemble what people want online: Shorter stories, told quickly. So they've moved away from longer storytelling, vibrant writing, and investigative pieces. These are the things that print readers treasure, but are finding less of each year.
At the same time, newsrooms have failed to deliver an online storytelling culture that fits the way people want to consume and participate with news and information on the Web. (And are probably heading toward making the same mistakes on mobile.)
All is not lost, however. Circling back to your post, you again hit on a powerful notion, and one I talk about constantly as I try to re-frame the discussion about the future of news. Pull back the lens, and let's move away from a discussion about journalism. Let's ask: What is a newspaper?
At their peak, a newspaper did two things: They created community (as you mention above). And their business was providing the local marketplace for goods and services (the classifieds). The reason they are in trouble today is because they have lost on both of these fronts. Classifieds have evaporated. And as the audience has splintered, the newspaper no longer serves as community hub, creating a shared base of knowledge and conversation.
In both cases, the opportunity remains. The question we, at newspapers, need to ask is NOT: How do we reinvent journalism? Opportunity abounds here. More people read my journalism than ever.
The real questions are: How do create local community on the Web (because geography does still matter)? And how do we reinvent the local marketplace?
Solve those two challenges, and the business will begin to grow in a manner that will support smart, multi-platform newsrooms. These newsrooms won't be dominant, as they were in the past. They'll exist as part of local news ecosystem.
But create community, help people succeed in business, and you'll find a way back to re-igniting the passion for your newsroom.
Posted by: Chris OBrien | Jul 31, 2009 11:32:50 PM
So I was inspired to write a blog post of my own, but I thought I'd summarize the main thrust of my ramblings here. From this excellent piece and the astute comments here, I would conclude that the way news is reported is an expression of identity, and by extension, the newspaper you carry (the cigarette you smoke) is a public declaration of that identity. ("I read the Washington Post. I read the New York Times. I read the New Yorker.") These statements say something about you. When you remove the physicality of that expression of identity, the individual is left denuded of the "community clothing"--the thing that says, "I rage against the machine" or "I comply with consumer capitalism" or whatever.
Which leads me to say what I (and many others) have been saying for a little while now, which is that we all need to recognize that in this "marketplace of ideas" (free speech, free expression, news reporting, punditry) we're figuring out what the "clothing" is that will *sell* to suit the identities of its readers. Which "community/ies" will pay to support the expression of their identity? And what's the right price? Obviously, for different communities those "products" will be delivered in different ways.
I don't disagree with anybody's comments about the evolving habits of readers, peoples, democracies and societies. While I'm not sure whether print will (in the long run) be one of the many platforms, I do think text will and that it will serve the news model most effectively as a complement to the other recordable and archivable communication tools (audio and video) and distribution platforms that the people have increased and easy access to.
Perhaps all these thoughts lead me to inquire what role will traditional print media play in bridging the news literacy and digital divides that exist in order to attract "new audiences" to the marketplace of ideas?
Posted by: Cynthia Thomet | Aug 1, 2009 2:10:03 PM
Thanks for this! Your newspaper nostalgia reminded me of a free video at archive.org and my own paper route. I tried to write a longer post here, but it was rejected (too long? too many links?)... so I tossed it on my own blog after adding a bit more to it.
Posted by: Bob Stepno | Aug 1, 2009 2:46:38 PM