The taste of ink

Philadelphia_Inquirer_-keep_it_local-_campaign

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was to unfold the Philadelphia Inquirer on the carpet, either in my living room or at my grandparents’, lie in a prone position and read the sports section cover to cover.

The Inquirer was a thing of beauty, rolled up with a rubber band and sometimes encased in a plastic sleeve to repel raindrops. True to the publication’s nickname, the ink would rub off on your hands and even get on your clothes, but I didn’t mind one bit.

That’s why Wednesday’s news of the massive layoffs at the staffs of the Inquirer, its sister paper the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com struck a nerve. I love newspapers, but the Inky and the Daily News weren’t just newspapers to me. They were institutions, monoliths in the very fabric of my childhood. They were part of my dreams. They were me.

When I was growing up and people asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to work for the Inquirer or the Daily News. I got that into my head sometime in high school, and it became an unshakable vision. How many kids today read a print newspaper? When I was of the age that I guess is now called a “tween,” I felt like I was the only one my age who read newspapers — and that was 20 years ago.

As I look back on the narrative of my life and how the Inquirer/Daily News are intertwined with it, it still surprises me that when I had the chance to interview for a job on the sports desk at the Daily News almost six years ago, I turned it down. Part of me still wonders how I arrived at that decision, given that for most of my life I’d been telling people that I wanted to work for that company; when I was coming up through school I would’ve, to borrow the words of Pete Rose, walked through hell in a gasoline suit to get a job there.

But now, for those who are left at that company, and those who are left in its wake, I wonder whether that metaphor is too close a description of reality.

Years ago (seems like another lifetime), I was the proprietor of another blog where I wrote about sports and occasionally journalism, and Wednesday’s events in Philadelphia made me think of one entry in particular. Here it is:

March 3, 2009

I love newspapers.

There, I said it. These days it seems more and more objectionable to admit an affinity for the companies whose mission has long been to take pressed wood pulp and stamp words and pictures onto them that are both informative and worth a couple of quarters.

People are actually rooting for newspapers to die. This was cemented by a clip shown on “The Daily Show” yesterday in which some speaker uttered the sentence “Newspapers are dying,” and the crowd roared. Yes, the fine folks at CPAC seem to be rooting against a lot of things, but the point is clear: There are a lot of people out there who are not just indifferent about newspapers, they wholeheartedly hope they all go out of business, whether it be for a liberal bias, poor reporting, a negativity bias, etc.

A mistrust of media has existed for decades, but it seems to have gotten worse — especially against newspapers — since the economic crisis delivered an uppercut to follow the Internet’s body blows to newspaper companies. (U.S. Rep. Jared Polis recently thanked himself and bloggers for helping kill a newspaper).

As I crank up my laptop each day and am met by endless stories of cuts at newspapers across the country, I sometimes look back and wonder how newspapers let this happen and what’s next.

I remember, as a child, unfolding the Philadelphia Inquirer on the floor and plopping down to read the sports section from front to back (it must have been 16 to 18 pages on Sundays — a number that seems absurd to me now). It was a daily lesson in how to write with simple grace (Bill Lyon) and with wit and sarcasm (Jayson Stark).

With no Web around, those pages were the only way for me to keep up with my favorite teams. The fact that my family didn’t have cable made newspapers even more essential. When I was about 5 or 6, there was even a time when I was so fascinated with box scores, I carefully clipped them out and collected them.

Those early days are a big reason why I became a journalist. And given the state of newspapers some 15 years later, they seem to have been in another lifetime.

So, the questions I’m left with are: Do enough people out there actually care about whether newspapers — and the tenets of journalism they practice — survive? Is the idea that “information ought to be free” and “everyone should be able to publish” (via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, et al) so pervasive that it quashes the idea that some content is worth paying for?

In other words, if we wake up tomorrow and every newspaper with a Web site has converted to some sort of pay model (subscription, micropayments or whatever) would that be rejected and would print circulation continue to plummet?

Obviously, millions of people in this country still read newspapers. But the heart of newspapers’ profits is in the printed product, circulation in general has been falling about 2 percent a year. The Rocky Mountain News (circulation 210,000) closed last week. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (circ. 198,000) is about to die. The San Francisco Chronicle’s days may be numbered. Tribune Co. is in bankruptcy. Many companies, including Gannett, have instituted mandatory furloughs. Meanwhile, in the area of biggest growth in readership — online — 99.9 percent of newspapers give away their product. It seems the only way for newspapers to save themselves is to find a way to monetize the Web.

But if the notion about Web content being free wins out, and scores of newspapers fold … will anyone care that the mayor is embezzling millions from the sewer fund and no one’s doing the legwork to uncover it? Will anyone care that local school board meetings aren’t being reported on? Almost without exception, newspapers are the only media that do these kinds of stories. Is the general antipathy directed at newspapers a sign that much of the public doesn’t care about these things anymore and would rather be logging on to Facebook, reading blogs and watching “American Idol”?

If the answer is yes, I fear the future.

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