Ruminations of an Old Paper Boy

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INTRODUCTION: Views from the Edge publishes this reflection of John D. Miller, a fellow curmudgeon who looks at where and HOW we’re getting our news these days. John is serious, but he always has a twinkle in his eye. The links and photo have been added by Views from the Edge.

I was twelve years old when I got my first real job. I became a paper boy for The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. It was an afternoon newspaper.

CapTimesMy bundles of papers would be dropped off at a certain place on the east side of the city. After school, I would fold them and put them into a big wire basket I bought for my bike. It was first business expense I ever had, but I did not know that at the time. Besides, Uncle Sam would not have cared.

I would peddle my papers in a six-square-block area between East Washington Avenue and East Johnson Street. About a third of the families in my entrepreneurial domain were subscribers.

On Sundays there was no Capital Times. Instead, I delivered The Wisconsin State Journal.The Times strongly leaned Democratic; the Journal was Republican. On Sundays, everybody in Madison was a Republican, I assumed.

This employment lasted for a year, until our family moved from the East Side to the West Side. Then, instead of peddling and reading The Capital Times, I just read it. When you’re in eighth grade, you don’t peddle papers any longer, for heaven’s sake, especially on the west side.

It is surprising that my parents, particularly my father, subscribed to the Times rather than the Journal, because they were Republicans. But Dad went to work before the State Journal could arrive. Neither he nor Mom had the time or inclination to read the paper in the morning, if there was one in our home to read. They wanted their news as fresh as possible in the late afternoon or evening when they sat down to read the paper. (This was before television came to Madison.)

In the nearly seventy years that have passed since I was a paper boy, the newspaper business has changed dramatically. In medium-sized cities, like Madison, there used to be at least two competing newspapers, a morning one and an afternoon one. In large cities there were three or more competing papers.

Now, in nearly every community large enough to sustain a daily newspaper, there is only one  paper, which is half the size it used to be. It also has well less than half the number of subscribers it used to have. Perhaps there might be another small struggling competitor on life support.

* * * *

My wife and I live in The Seabrook, a Hilton Head Island retirement community. When we first moved there, we had a young woman who delivered our Island Packet and USA Today to our door.  Before we moved to the retirement home, we also subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. I gave it up, though, because it was taking me at least two hours every morning just to read three newspapers, and I decided that was obsessively ridiculous.

After a while, our faithful, always-on-time young woman took another job. Then the papers began arriving at 8 AM or 9 AM or noon, or maybe not at all. We and our geezer neighbors were complaining. Geezers have taken a lifetime to learn how to become experts in the new avocation of their golden years, and they do it well.

So, unbeknownst to me, my wife called The Packet and said that if they would deliver all the newspapers for our entire retirement community to the door of our retirement building, WE would deliver the papers. Later, after I recovered from my shock of learning about my new journalistic position, she informed me that it is a community service, which it is, sort of. Its main drawback as a community service is that it begins at an ungodly hour each morning.

Thus, a year and a half ago, not long before I became 78 years old, I became a paper boy once again. I guess I’ll be one as long as I am able to wheel my sturdy wagon down the halls of The Seabrook.

* * * *

Since 1951, when The Capital Times depended on me to get the news to citizens in a six-square-block area just west of the East High School in Madison, Wisconsin, the news business has changed enormously. Television came in, much later cable network television came in, the Internet came in, and Facebook et alalso came in.

When cable news and the Internet were launched, newspapers started to lose subscribers. It was because they were an arm of the “cool media,” and thus were old-fashioned. Who knew?

In 1964, the Canadian philosopher and student of media Marshall McLuhan published an essay about the then relatively new medium of television. Soon thereafter he wrote a book which expanded on the essay. He intended to call it The Medium Is the Message.

When the proof for the book came back to him, the title has been miscopied. The typesetter had written The Medium Is the Massage. McLuhan was so delighted with the mistake that it became the new title for his book.

McLuhan’s thesis was that television is what he described as a “hot” medium. That is, it creates a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the screen. This does not happen in the print media, he said — newspapers, magazines, and books. The reason he went with the typo in the title is that he said that television “massages” us as the print media do not.

Most of us would probably agree with that. Surely that is correct for most of us. However, it should also be alarming to us, especially if we are easily massaged by television.

Furthermore, we would have to acknowledge that movies, live theater, speeches, lectures, and similar experiences affect us in ways that are markedly different from the way the printed word affects us.

On the other hand, for some of us there is something about reading words on a printed page that the hot media can never match. I shall call it “The Tactile Transfer.”

The word tactile has to do with touch. Physically to touch something is to engage in a tactile act of communication.

Reading is a tactile activity. We have to touch the pages to keep the newspaper, magazine, or book open.

But there is more to it than just that. Psychologically and mentally, some of us find reading a “hotter” way of gathering and storing information than the supposedly hot media provide us. By touching whatever we are reading, a transfer takes place to our memory and our brain. Reading, to us, is “cooler,” in the late twentieth century sense of that word, than it is for us to watch television or a movie or a play.

Only when I began writing this essay did I finally realize after several decades why I object almost so irrationally to the “technological media.” I would rather get my information from something I can actually touch than from the images or words on a screen, which I cannot touch; I can only touch the screen. The words are less “real” if they are digitalized than if they are imprinted onto paper.

I cannot scientifically explain the Tactile Transfer, but I can verify that for me it has happened for my entire life. For that reason there were many years I subscribed to as many as a dozen or fifteen magazines at a time. For the same reason I have read countless hundreds of books. Let me touch information with my fingers, and it transfers into my head far more readily than if I see it on a screen.

* * * *

Democracy is in trouble because newspapers are going out of business all over the world. For Tactile Transfer thinkers, that is a tragedy. We are convinced that all of us need newspapers and magazines. Everybody needs to touch printed news; it is the only news you can be fairly sure in accurate. Television and other such technological media will not be sufficient for us.

But why should democracy be in trouble if newspapers, magazines, and books become far less frequently employed as media for dispelling information? It is because we then will be forced to rely solely on the “hot media” to learn about the news of the world. And, as we have seen in the last few weeks, the Facebook debacle suggests that the hot media cannot be trusted as much as the “vetted media.”

To “vet” the news means that there are editors and experts and academics who look at news stories before they get publicized to determine whether what is proposed to go press or to go “viral” is accurate. To use a phrase much in the news for the past couple of years, is it fake news or is it real news? Is it truthful, or is it deliberately misleading?

Viral “news” can go out instantaneously from any computer operating anywhere in the world. There is no mechanism for checking its validity. It need not be accurate, and often it is not.

Nevertheless, increasing millions of people, perhaps in order to avoid having to pay for their news, are getting their news on-line. It is increasingly evident that they are not getting the straight scoop, to use a term of newspapers from long ago.

News that puts smudges of ink on your fingers is far more likely to contain vetted, accurate news than the Internet or your cell phone. Very unfortunately, hot media people have not yet widely admitted that. And until that happens, democracy will be in trouble, because elections can be won by means of what must be termed “genuinely fake news.”

All over the country most afternoon newspapers have gone out of business or have merged with the morning newspapers in those communities. Previously, one paper in those cities leaned toward the Republicans and the other toward the Democrats.

A friend emailed an article from The Washington Post that she had read on-line. Because it was from the Post, I considered it well vetted and thus reliable.

The article was entitled A once unimaginable scenario: no more newspapers. It was written by two Canadians, and it referred more to Canadian newspapers than American ones. They noted that two major newspaper publishing companies in Canada have gobbled up most of the newspapers there. They said it is predicted that one of those mega-journalistic enterprises will have fallen into insolvency within five years.

The writers also said that since 1994, American weekday print circulation of newspapers has gone from 60 million subscribers to 35 million subscribers. In that same period, advertising revenue dropped from $65 billion to $19 billion. No wonder newspaper corporations are consolidating or going bankrupt.

Who will uphold verification and balance in the news when newspapers are gone, the two writers wondered. Who will differentiate between vetted news and truly fake news if no professional journalists are involved in that process?

Many decades ago The Capital Times gave up the ghost in Wisconsin’s capital city. Now the Wisconsin State Journal is neither Republican nor Democratic; it is too much a blandly independent newspaper.

* * **

This morning I started my paper route in The Seabrook at the Fraser Center, our nursing wing, as I always do. The people there are up earlier than nearly everyone else in our neck of the woods.

When I walked by the nursing station, I saw a very elderly woman sitting in her wheelchair by the desk. She is 103 years old. I have known her for 39 years.

I asked her what she was doing at the nurses’ desk. In a typical humorous whispered aside, yet also with some degree of seriousness, she told me she was being held hostage there. A nurse overheard her, and said she had become confused, and had been trying to get out of bed. So they were keeping an eye on her until she became herself again, as she always does.

I tried to assure her everything would be all  right, but she seemed skeptical, and not altogether convinced. So I gave her her paper, and went to deliver papers to other patients. When I came back, she was busily scanning the pages of The Island Packet, as she has been doing for the past half-century, seeking the tactile transfer.

Old folks still love to read the paper. Too many people under sixty years of age do not. Part of the reason so many newspapers are going under is because too many of their elderly subscribers are going under the ground, and too few younger citizens are filling the gap.

It is dangerous for anyone to rely solely on the Internet or even on network televised news or cable news networks for their news. It behooves all of us as citizens to read newspapers and news magazines.

Being a paper boy was my first job. Being a paper boy may also be my last one. I’ll keep doing it as long as my elderly lower limbs will carry me.

Maybe McClatchy Newspapers should hire only old paper people to deliver papers. They are the ones who still believe in newspapers, and read them, and they want to read them early. However, no applicants should assume they will able to retire and live happily ever after in a retirement community on the remuneration thereof.

Nevertheless, as my wife correctly reminds me, it is a community service.

  — The Rev. John M. Miller has been the pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island for fifteen years. Prior to that he was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church from 1979 to 1996.