Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

* * *

In the air, these lines, from The New Yorker:

“The company (AOL) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty five dollars a month to get online and check their email.” (Annals of Communication, by Ken Auletta, Jan. 24, 2011, p. 32.)

So here we have a major American communications company afloat only through the ignorance or laziness of the public.

Sounds about right.  But eighty percent of its profits from people who don’t realize they don’t need the service?

Let us call to mind a former Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford that he does not need.”

No, wait. That quotation has been doctored. But I can hardly be blamed. Via email just before Christmas, I received an urgent communication from the online store at Walden Pond that I could still order in time for holiday shipping.

I surveyed the merchandise and felt rich, indeed. I could afford to let it alone.

* * *

I should not be too hard on AOL. I work for a company whose flagship paper, USA Today, derived half its daily circulation as of April 2009 from major hotel chains. I don’t know which is more discomforting — depending for survival on the oblivious inertia of the American consumer, or on an item he steps over on his way to a continental breakfast.

* * *

A final stop, from wandering thoughts to cogent. Robert Lowell. Out of a group titled Mexico. Let’s let him tie things together:

4.

South of Boston, south of Washington,
south of any bearing . . . I walked the glazed moonlight:
dew on the grass and nobody about,
drawn on by my unlimited desire,
like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring. . .  .
We moved far, bill and cow, could one imagine
cattle obliviously pairing six long days:
up road and down, then up again passing the same
brick garden wall, stiff spines of hay stuck in my hide;
and always in full sight of everyone,
from the full sun to silhouetting sunset,
pinned by undimming lights of hurried cars. . . .
You’re gone; I am learning to live in history.
What is history? What you cannot touch.

After the flood

Floods come in different depths and types. This one came from the water heater.

The water rose maybe an inch, then receded into the carpet.

My office was the least-damaged of the basement rooms. Still, today my job on the first day of vacation was to empty it, which meant the evacuation of hundreds of books from their shelves to uncertain stacks in the hallway.

I wasn’t going to write anything on vacation, then I walked down tonight and saw them standing against the wall, waiting as if in a bus station or airport terminal.

What happens when you have to move your books is that you run into people you did not expect to run into. Paul Guest, a poet who is paralyzed, sits in my hands. I haven’t seen him in ages. But here he is with a long, lightning-rod of a sentence that halts the cleanup effort, at the beginning of a poem titled, “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation.”

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch’s brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.

But I can’t go to page seven. I am amazed at how many of my notebooks stop when they are three-quarters full. What does that say about me? And then here’s Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days & Collect,” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” and what business do they have writing better in their notebooks than most people do for show?

Whitman was a newspaperman first. So was Hemingway. That he went undamaged by the waters should be understood. And on another shelf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Somewhere on my desk is a newspaper lead he wrote for El Ecspectador, a Colombian newspaper, in a series about a disease-ridden part of the country. Yes, here it is, “Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'”

That’s a lead.

My daughter, Katie, just the other night was looking at my high school yearbook and saying, “You look funny.” I pick it up now and flip over a few pages to my friend Bill Nelson, who is battling cancer in brain and lungs and God knows where else. Doctors told him his chances were less than ten percent a couple of weeks ago. Try anyway, he told them. He wants to live. I look at his picture and pray for him.

We all look so small in our little yearbook photos. I felt so small then. So many big rooms.

Now, in this small office, I do not feel small. I like little rooms. What does that mean?

I think of New York City hotel rooms, the tiny ones. The Mansfield Hotel, that’s the last one I stayed in. A beautiful place. It was a couple of doors down from the original New Yorker offices, and I liked to think about E.B. White and Co. walking down the sidewalk to work.

In the 1950s, an impeccably dressed man named Maz von Gurach lived in the hotel. Some people think he was the model for Jay Gatsby, used by the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also a painter visited there named John Butler Yeats, whose son, William Butler, was just about to start cranking out some of his best poetry in Ireland.

Yeats (W.B.) is here too, but I’ll be damned if I can find him.

The goal on vacation is not to think much about sports, and certainly not to write about them. But every Monday night at 8 o’clock or so, I go on a local radio sports talk program. Tonight we talked about Tiger Woods. Just a day ago, as a sports columnist, I wrote about Tiger, and said that he needs to adjust his game to his age, to evolve the way the great ones do, whatever that means (and only the great ones really can understand it). But tonight as I talked about him, not so much as a sports columnist but as a guy surrounded by all these impatient books, I felt a voice inside me saying, “Just leave him alone. Let him figure it out.”

Those voices don’t talk too loudly when deadline is approaching and you need a topic. The one thing that pops into my head as I hang up the phone and go back to cleaning the office is that the new home he’s building in Florida is 9,700 square feet. Who needs that much space? His kids could visit and need two days to find him. That’d be my advice to Tiger. Get yourself a smaller room.

The news on the radio says that BP has capped its gushing undersea oil well, but that now the fear is that oil could begin to seep up through the ocean floor. Which sounds about right. There’s always something else. I’ll probably pull up this carpet to find mold. And even once the mold is scrubbed, something will emerge. I’m pretty sure the water heater’s leaking again.

Paul Guest has written a great opening line in his poem, “Audio Commentary Track 2.” It begins: “As you can already see, everything is f- -ked.”

He may know something. His shelf was awfully close to the carpet.

The world’s laziest blogger

So that you will hear me
my words
sometimes grow thin
as the tracks of gulls

on the beaches

— Pablo Neruda

I am the world’s laziest blogger. It’s verifiable. Blogging, through a subtle evolutionary process, has become part of my job. I was, as far as anyone can tell, the first newspaper reporter in Kentucky to establish a regular blog. At the very least, I was one of the first, and certainly the first at The Courier-Journal. It was an experimental thing at the time.

I sounded unsure of its purpose or execution even then. Read for yourself by clicking here, my first-ever blog post, from August 31, 2005.

The other day, when someone asked why I didn’t spend more time on my newspaper sports blog, before I could stop myself, I answered: “Well, nobody really pays me to do it. And nobody is paying to read it. So I don’t see where it’s serving much of a purpose.”

That’s not a satisfactory answer, of course. And not altogether accurate. It’s true, newspaper writers, while asked to churn out as much copy as ever, for the most part have not seen a salary increase despite the increased demands of adding a blog to the job description. And it’s also true that most web-based publications struggle to turn any kind of meaningful profit.

I’m thinking of the great Samuel Johnson, who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

I suppose the very blog you’re reading, then, should be titled, “Musings of a blockhead.” Unless anyone wants to send me a few bucks on PayPal.

I only bring all this up because I got a note from a well-meaning adviser the other day suggesting that I should break my thoughts up into shorter segments on the sports blog, in order to bring people back to the site more often. Instead of a series of long thoughts, to offer short, quick-hit thoughts and move on.

They copied this information:

F for fast. That’s how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school.

In our new eyetracking study, we recorded how 232 users looked at thousands of Web pages. We found that users’ main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

The handout went on to state that users (not “readers,” mind you) won’t read your post in a word-by-word manner. I liked this piece of advice: “The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.”

By the third paragraph, forget it. Which means that you’ve probably long since stopped reading this. One study suggests that users spend 4.4 seconds per every 100 words on a web page. I suppose, then, that my time is up.

Which is fine, but brings me back to my original point. If nobody is going to read it, why waste time writing it? Why not write something that someone will read, in whatever format it will be read?

Last summer, several of us sat down with the interns at our newspaper and learned that not one subscribed to an actual newspaper, and really, none even got their news from newspaper web sites. They read it on their phones.

I called up one of my columns on my phone the other day, and even I grew weary of trying to read it on such a small screen, in the midst of whatever else I was doing.

And it occurred to me that maybe, where an economy of words with a concentration of meaning is concerned, poetry may be just the answer. Who knows?

We’re in the midst of a kind of reorganization of news writing, in which both consumers and publishers have to decide just what exactly the words are worth.

If it’s all the same to everybody, I think I’ll wait until that decision is made before I start limiting myself to 100-word thoughts and bullet-point brainstorms.

The world's laziest blogger

So that you will hear me
my words
sometimes grow thin
as the tracks of gulls

on the beaches

— Pablo Neruda

I am the world’s laziest blogger. It’s verifiable. Blogging, through a subtle evolutionary process, has become part of my job. I was, as far as anyone can tell, the first newspaper reporter in Kentucky to establish a regular blog. At the very least, I was one of the first, and certainly the first at The Courier-Journal. It was an experimental thing at the time.

I sounded unsure of its purpose or execution even then. Read for yourself by clicking here, my first-ever blog post, from August 31, 2005.

The other day, when someone asked why I didn’t spend more time on my newspaper sports blog, before I could stop myself, I answered: “Well, nobody really pays me to do it. And nobody is paying to read it. So I don’t see where it’s serving much of a purpose.”

That’s not a satisfactory answer, of course. And not altogether accurate. It’s true, newspaper writers, while asked to churn out as much copy as ever, for the most part have not seen a salary increase despite the increased demands of adding a blog to the job description. And it’s also true that most web-based publications struggle to turn any kind of meaningful profit.

I’m thinking of the great Samuel Johnson, who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

I suppose the very blog you’re reading, then, should be titled, “Musings of a blockhead.” Unless anyone wants to send me a few bucks on PayPal.

I only bring all this up because I got a note from a well-meaning adviser the other day suggesting that I should break my thoughts up into shorter segments on the sports blog, in order to bring people back to the site more often. Instead of a series of long thoughts, to offer short, quick-hit thoughts and move on.

They copied this information:

F for fast. That’s how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school.

In our new eyetracking study, we recorded how 232 users looked at thousands of Web pages. We found that users’ main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

The handout went on to state that users (not “readers,” mind you) won’t read your post in a word-by-word manner. I liked this piece of advice: “The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.”

By the third paragraph, forget it. Which means that you’ve probably long since stopped reading this. One study suggests that users spend 4.4 seconds per every 100 words on a web page. I suppose, then, that my time is up.

Which is fine, but brings me back to my original point. If nobody is going to read it, why waste time writing it? Why not write something that someone will read, in whatever format it will be read?

Last summer, several of us sat down with the interns at our newspaper and learned that not one subscribed to an actual newspaper, and really, none even got their news from newspaper web sites. They read it on their phones.

I called up one of my columns on my phone the other day, and even I grew weary of trying to read it on such a small screen, in the midst of whatever else I was doing.

And it occurred to me that maybe, where an economy of words with a concentration of meaning is concerned, poetry may be just the answer. Who knows?

We’re in the midst of a kind of reorganization of news writing, in which both consumers and publishers have to decide just what exactly the words are worth.

If it’s all the same to everybody, I think I’ll wait until that decision is made before I start limiting myself to 100-word thoughts and bullet-point brainstorms.

Thoughts on town hall tumult

I’ve watched emotions run high throughout the current health care debate. I’ve seen the town hall histrionics, listened to the talk radio tantrums and read the message board manifestos.

And through it, I’ve heard concern from various quarters that we’re degenerating as a society, that we’ve lost the ability to have a civil discussion.

But in trying to see this through some kind of historical lens, it has come to me that we Americans have never been much for civil discussions.

What was the Boston Massacre but mob provocation followed by sensationalist spin by the media — in this case a pamphlet by Sam Adams and a perhaps less-than-faithful to reality etching by Paul Revere?

This nation was born of headstrong, rowdy partisans who were moved more by passion than persuasion.

It has always been so with the American populace. And the American media? It enjoyed, perhaps, an honorable age through much of the 1900s, but on the whole it has enjoyed stirring public sentiment as much as sifting it.

What I worry about now isn’t that people are shouting at town halls, or that our elected leaders are at each other’s throats. This is how things have always been.

And while I worry at the alarming lack of education that can prompt a woman to, with a straight face, call her Jewish congressman a supporter of “Nazi” policies or permit people to make claims for the Constitution that no reading of the document could support, these things, too, are not unheard of. We haven’t had chain emails void of any veracity throughout our history, but we have managed to weather waves of ignorance well enough.

We’ve also weathered hardball politics and legislators who feed us only the statistics and spin that supports their positions. This, I’m sure, has been the case since our founding.

But what worries me most now is that debates have become an all-or-nothing battle, with every proposal cast as a referendum on the party in power’s future.

This is a path to poor government.

Instead of a clash of ideals, we’re left simply with a clash.

The beauty of this nation’s founding was in its ability to create law and institutions out of disparate interests who then were able to walk away feeling they had won something. From its founding, this nation has been split along lines of individual freedom versus government influence.

But while our generation continues that fight, as all American generations have before, we are adding less and less to the argument.

Where are the thinkers who bring polished proposals to the public? Where are the leaders who stake themselves in front of these ideas and argue them forcefully, laying a foundation for what these debates mean to the nation? And, when the public speaks, where are leaders who are able to pivot and reconstruct proposals that satisfy the majority rather than displease the whole?

In fact, to take the current health care debate as an example, there is no face on the current proposed legislation. It is pinned to the president, and he is advocating it, but he did not craft it. It is a massive, complicated piece of legislation that even legislators can’t fully explain to a public that misunderstands its very nature in the first place.

And in opposition stands a party that acknowledges a serious problem, but offers no alternative, so that instead of a clash of ideas or values, we have half the nation waiting in ambush, ready to destroy the proposal with no ready remedy of its own, nor any foundation of ideas to offer the debate.

Joseph Ellis, Pultizer Prize-winning historian, described the political atmosphere in the early years of this nation as one of “urgency and innovation.” Today we seem to have all urgency, but little innovation. Granted, our current leaders must build on a groundwork, often flawed, that they inherited. That, however, speaks to a need for creativity all the more. But we are seeing it less.

So we’re left not just with a shouting match, but a match comprised more of empty insults and misinformed mayhem than any kind of exchange of ideas.

All of this is fine for town halls, which have always been a messy undertaking. But in the halls of Congress, it leads to bad legislation from which — in stark contrast to the founding principles of our nation — everyone walks away feeling that something has been lost, rather than won.

Talking straight about the state of journalism

David Simon was a newspaperman at The Baltimore Sun before moving, as he said, “to the fleshpots of Hollywood,” where he wrote the NBC series “Homicide” based on one of his books and, later, created, wrote and produced the hit HBO series “The Wire.”

He acknowledges that he doesn’t feel like the best person to speak for the rank and file editors and reporters of America’s beleagured newspapers. As one of them, after reading Simon’s prepared remarks for a May 6 Senate committee hearing on the future of journalism, I’d like to let him know he can speak for me anytime.

I won’t reprint his comments in full here. You can read them by pulling up the PDF file at this link. But I do want to provide some excerpts. They’re worth reading. More than once. All of the following words are Simon’s:

—–

What I say will likely conflict with what representatives of the newspaper industry will claim for themselves. And I can imagine little agreement with those who speak for the new media. From the captains of the newspaper industry, you will hear a certain martyrology — a claim that they were heroically serving democracy to their utmost only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology and the arrival of all things web-based. From those speaking on behalf of new media, weblogs and that which goes twitter, you will be treated to assurances that American journalism has a perfectly fine future online, and that a great democratization in newsgathering is taking place.

In my city, there is a technical term we often administer when claims are plainly contradicted by facts on the ground. We note that the claimant is, for lack of a better term, full of it. Though in Baltimore, of course, we are explicit with our nouns.

High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin — namely newspapers themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

It is nice to get stuff for free, of course. And it is nice that more people can have their say in the new media. And while some of our internet commentary is — as with any unchallenged and unedited intellectual effort — rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it is also quite good, even original.

Understand here that I am not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not — in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

. . .  I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom they are lying or from whom they are withholding information. . . . Indeed, the very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.

. . . When newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, their industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered by Wall Street money. We know now — because bankruptcy has opened the books — that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. In the years before the internet deluge, the men and women who might have made The Sun a more essential vehicle for news and commentary — something so strong it might have charged for its product online — they were being ushered out the door so that Wall Street could command short-term profits in the extreme.

Such short-sighted arrogance rivals that of Detroit in the 1970s, when automakers — confident that American consumers were mere captives — offered up Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins without the slightest worry that mediocrity would be challenged by better-made cars from Germany or Japan.

In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.

National Buy a Newspaper Day

Today was National Buy a Newspaper Day and, like most days, I bought several. I don’t expect much of a spike in readership, but it’s a nice idea.

Now, if somebody were to come up with National Buy a Newspaper Ad Day, we might be onto something.

Anyway, given that the day is what it is, I’d like to share a short glimpse of the part newspapers played in the formative years of this country. They weren’t like the papers of today. Most were  fiercely partisan. But they were also indispensable. Ralph Waldo Emerson testifies:

Look into the morning trains, which, from every suburb, carry the business men into the city to their shops, counting rooms, work-yards and warehouses. With them enters the car — the newsboy, that humble priest of politics, finance, philosphy and religion. He unfolds his magical sheets, — twopence a head, his magical bread of knowledge costs — and instantly the entire rectangular assembly, fresh from their breakfast, are bending as one man to their second breakfast. (Complete Works of Emerson, 1878, p. 218).

Reading this, I can’t help but think of the last morning ride I had on a subway, when I looked up the rows and saw every head bowed in just about the same way — over a Blackberry or iPhone.

Lessons from a newspaper’s death

I’ve watched a newspaper die from the inside.

The first paper I worked for, The Evansville Press, published its last edition on Dec. 31, 1998. I was there when the very last paper dropped off the press, in fact.

Unlike newspapers these days, we knew the day and the hour of our demise, had known it for years. It was an afternoon paper in a world that just has no use for afternoon papers anymore.

I loved working for that paper. I loved writing for an afternoon daily, the challenge of coming up with angles that were different from the morning paper. The competition.

And we were competitive. We had a handful of dedicated editors and reporters. And even as the numbers dwindled and the days wound down, everyone worked just as hard, maybe harder.

Here’s what I learned from that experience. If you’re selling something nobody wants, it doesn’t necessarily matter how well you’re making it. I could scoop the other guys three times a week, and it never sold any more papers.

It was important for me to see that as a reporter. Not because I needed a dose of fatalism or a lesson in “nothing you do matters.” It was important because I needed to see the business as bigger than what went on in my small department. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to be an editor, reporter and columnist. Combine that with my previous roles as delivery boy and clerk, and I’ve seen plenty of the business from the newsroom.

But as any good reporter will tell you, the newsroom is just about the worst place from which to report a story.

In the newsroom, we make a lot of great points. From the newsroom, we see that people want news more than ever before. From the newsroom, we know that newspapers are in a better position to give it to them in its various forms than anyone else.

From the newsroom, it looks as if we’re in this vast desert with truckloads of water, but not a soul in our industry can figure out how to sell it to people.

And there’s something to be said for that view. Newspapers for so long didn’t have to work for readers, didn’t have to innovate, didn’t have to advertise or sell themselves. Too many big companies just squeezed the profits out of them without putting back in.

So here we are. Newspapers are down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking. But the situation isn’t exactly like it was for that afternoon daily I saw run out the clock.

If you add the print readers and web readers together, more people are reading my paper, The Courier-Journal, than at any time in its history. It’s not that people don’t want what we’re selling. It’s that they don’t want to pay for it.

Maybe newspapers need to find a way to demonstrate to people what they’re worth, before they gut themselves to the point where they aren’t worth much of anything.

I don’t have the answer. But I do know this: newspapers won’t be saved without bold action. The duck-and-cover mentality that seems to be prevalent now, the constant cutting and constriction, will do little more than leave readers with an emaciated corpse to remember when newspapers die.

There is a point at which all this cutting compromises the future of these papers.

Instead, someone is going to have to act boldly, to attack the problems rather than run for cover. I’d like to see someone, somewhere, plot a definite direction and, right or wrong, commit to it and see what happens.

Gannett, the company that employs me, this week announced that each employee in its newspaper division will be asked to take a one-week unpaid furlough. (An acknowledgment, by the way, that further cuts would do real damage to their newspapers).

As long as we’re doing this, here’s what I’d like to see from Gannett.

Instead of muddling through while everybody fits in furloughs, I’d rather them shut everything down for a week — all at the same time. Stop the presses. Shut down the web sites. Park the delivery trucks. Let the racks stay empty.

A week without newspapers. It would be a huge story. But not for us to report.

It would save more money than a week of furloughs. (Yes, it would cut revenues, too, but if revenues are hurting the way people are saying, what’s the harm?)

More importantly, it would serve a much more symbolic and significant purpose. It would let cities all over this nation experience life without a newspaper for one week. And not just without a newspaper, but without the news, the features, the sports, that the paper generates.

Maybe people might look at things differently after that. And maybe they wouldn’t, but would things be any worse?

Maybe they could roll the papers back out strategically, half online only, charging for the news, half print only, and study the markets.

Maybe this is utter nonsense.

But newspapers, soon, are going to realize that the status quo will lead to their demise. As it is, papers are not fully committing to online operations, and at the same time are letting their print editions atrophy. It is a no-man’s land. Too often, the strategy now is a throwing of you-know-what against the wall to see what sticks.

I don’t blame them entirely. If there were an easy answer, the situation wouldn’t be this grave. It gets down to far more than what we do in the newsroom, and spreads more toward the changing nature of advertising, and a fundamental questioning — on the fly and under duress — of how newspapers make their money, period.

Oh, and having to address these questions — which have been staring newspapers in the face, anyway — amid the worst economic climate in a half-century doesn’t make things easier. But if anything, this economy merely has pushed fast-forward on a scene that had been developing slowly on its own.

As someone more prominent than I am said of another question during the recent presidential campaign — it’s above my pay grade.

I will say, this is one case where having a press-row seat isn’t necessarily fun. Those of us who work for papers are in a precarious spot, of course. But most of us take some solace in this — even if newspapers die, the news will not. This business will reconstitute itself and return in some fashion.

Still, as long as the clock is ticking, I’d hope that a few papers somewhere might decide that they’re not going to go down quietly or simply shrink their way to a certain fate. At least, I’d like to see a few ride out to meet it, and see what happens.

Lessons from a newspaper's death

I’ve watched a newspaper die from the inside.

The first paper I worked for, The Evansville Press, published its last edition on Dec. 31, 1998. I was there when the very last paper dropped off the press, in fact.

Unlike newspapers these days, we knew the day and the hour of our demise, had known it for years. It was an afternoon paper in a world that just has no use for afternoon papers anymore.

I loved working for that paper. I loved writing for an afternoon daily, the challenge of coming up with angles that were different from the morning paper. The competition.

And we were competitive. We had a handful of dedicated editors and reporters. And even as the numbers dwindled and the days wound down, everyone worked just as hard, maybe harder.

Here’s what I learned from that experience. If you’re selling something nobody wants, it doesn’t necessarily matter how well you’re making it. I could scoop the other guys three times a week, and it never sold any more papers.

It was important for me to see that as a reporter. Not because I needed a dose of fatalism or a lesson in “nothing you do matters.” It was important because I needed to see the business as bigger than what went on in my small department. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to be an editor, reporter and columnist. Combine that with my previous roles as delivery boy and clerk, and I’ve seen plenty of the business from the newsroom.

But as any good reporter will tell you, the newsroom is just about the worst place from which to report a story.

In the newsroom, we make a lot of great points. From the newsroom, we see that people want news more than ever before. From the newsroom, we know that newspapers are in a better position to give it to them in its various forms than anyone else.

From the newsroom, it looks as if we’re in this vast desert with truckloads of water, but not a soul in our industry can figure out how to sell it to people.

And there’s something to be said for that view. Newspapers for so long didn’t have to work for readers, didn’t have to innovate, didn’t have to advertise or sell themselves. Too many big companies just squeezed the profits out of them without putting back in.

So here we are. Newspapers are down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking. But the situation isn’t exactly like it was for that afternoon daily I saw run out the clock.

If you add the print readers and web readers together, more people are reading my paper, The Courier-Journal, than at any time in its history. It’s not that people don’t want what we’re selling. It’s that they don’t want to pay for it.

Maybe newspapers need to find a way to demonstrate to people what they’re worth, before they gut themselves to the point where they aren’t worth much of anything.

I don’t have the answer. But I do know this: newspapers won’t be saved without bold action. The duck-and-cover mentality that seems to be prevalent now, the constant cutting and constriction, will do little more than leave readers with an emaciated corpse to remember when newspapers die.

There is a point at which all this cutting compromises the future of these papers.

Instead, someone is going to have to act boldly, to attack the problems rather than run for cover. I’d like to see someone, somewhere, plot a definite direction and, right or wrong, commit to it and see what happens.

Gannett, the company that employs me, this week announced that each employee in its newspaper division will be asked to take a one-week unpaid furlough. (An acknowledgment, by the way, that further cuts would do real damage to their newspapers).

As long as we’re doing this, here’s what I’d like to see from Gannett.

Instead of muddling through while everybody fits in furloughs, I’d rather them shut everything down for a week — all at the same time. Stop the presses. Shut down the web sites. Park the delivery trucks. Let the racks stay empty.

A week without newspapers. It would be a huge story. But not for us to report.

It would save more money than a week of furloughs. (Yes, it would cut revenues, too, but if revenues are hurting the way people are saying, what’s the harm?)

More importantly, it would serve a much more symbolic and significant purpose. It would let cities all over this nation experience life without a newspaper for one week. And not just without a newspaper, but without the news, the features, the sports, that the paper generates.

Maybe people might look at things differently after that. And maybe they wouldn’t, but would things be any worse?

Maybe they could roll the papers back out strategically, half online only, charging for the news, half print only, and study the markets.

Maybe this is utter nonsense.

But newspapers, soon, are going to realize that the status quo will lead to their demise. As it is, papers are not fully committing to online operations, and at the same time are letting their print editions atrophy. It is a no-man’s land. Too often, the strategy now is a throwing of you-know-what against the wall to see what sticks.

I don’t blame them entirely. If there were an easy answer, the situation wouldn’t be this grave. It gets down to far more than what we do in the newsroom, and spreads more toward the changing nature of advertising, and a fundamental questioning — on the fly and under duress — of how newspapers make their money, period.

Oh, and having to address these questions — which have been staring newspapers in the face, anyway — amid the worst economic climate in a half-century doesn’t make things easier. But if anything, this economy merely has pushed fast-forward on a scene that had been developing slowly on its own.

As someone more prominent than I am said of another question during the recent presidential campaign — it’s above my pay grade.

I will say, this is one case where having a press-row seat isn’t necessarily fun. Those of us who work for papers are in a precarious spot, of course. But most of us take some solace in this — even if newspapers die, the news will not. This business will reconstitute itself and return in some fashion.

Still, as long as the clock is ticking, I’d hope that a few papers somewhere might decide that they’re not going to go down quietly or simply shrink their way to a certain fate. At least, I’d like to see a few ride out to meet it, and see what happens.

About this blog’s title

– 30 –

Like many newspaper journalists for a couple of hundred years, I’ve been putting this little notation at the bottom of my stories to mark the end.

There are at least 30 stories to explain this cryptic designation. The most plausible come from the old telegraph era, one alleging that an operator named Thirtee added it to the end of his dispatches, another claiming that it came at the end of an early 30-word dispatch to a news organization, and thereafter the designation -30- was attached to news items.

Where it came from doesn’t matter quite so much as what it means. It means that the story is finished, and for my purposes, it means that the newspaper portion of my writing for the day is done.

What comes after the – 30 – is what you will find here. Some of it will seem journalistic in nature, though perhaps more journal than newspaper. Some if it will be creative. Little if any of it will intersect with my professional writing for The Courier-Journal, or the subject matter of my blog for that publication, which can be found by clicking here.

Thanks for stopping by.