Wednesday, March 18, 2009

R.I.P. the daily paper

Newspapers are dying. It’s like watching a part of civilization sputtering and going dark. Mostly it’s happening in America. The latest was the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which will survive in a different form, online. At least, that’s the plan.) Before that, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News shut its doors.
In San Francisco they’re close to losing the Chronicle. On the east coast the New York Times was recently saved from bankruptcy by a Mexican billionaire. What a bitter pill it must have been for proud New Yorkers to be rescued by a super-wealthy man called Carlos from south of the border!
The thing that’s killing all these papers (and the many more also in deep doo-doo) is the internet. Everything’s going there... both readers and advertising dollars. Young people aren’t reading newspapers now. The Classifieds are shrinking. Every happens online and for free and at such great speed that by the time you read a morning paper almost everything in it is no longer news. Even if you’ve not seen it online, you’ll have sucked it up via TV or radio.
Print’s just not in the game any more.
Newspapers are ‘declining and transitioning’ according to a guy whose company recently shored up another sick-puppy newspaper, San Diego’s Union Tribune. In other words, we’re in a time of great change and no-one knows quite where thing s will end up.
Of course, papers have died here too. I often go past an empty Auckland City lot. It’s long been a car park but once contained the building that housed the Auckland Star, my first workplace. Its smoke-filled newsroom... gone. The clattering linotype machines... gone. The great presses whose thunder used to shake the Fort Street pavement and fill the air with pungent ink fumes...gone.
And yet we shouldn’t be surprised. There was something very old about many of these dead papers. It was in the way they announced themselves to the world. Their top-of-front-page titles were in heavy gothic script. Gutenberg, who invented movable type and paved the way for commercial printing, used this script in the 1400s. Even then it was old – apeing the painstaking calligraphy used by monks and nuns to hand-copy old religious texts.
A hundred years ago, newspaper proprietors took pride in that look because it stood for authority, power and heritage. Today it just looks, well, quaint.
And though it’s still used on the masthead of the newspaper I read every day (more out of habit than enthusiasm), I look at that antique font and see it not as a sign of power, but as a signal that these once-great institutions are running close to their use-by date. Sob. I don’t want papers to die. They’ve been part of my life. But then (and here’s the real killer) my local takeaway shop doesn’t even deign to wrap up fish’n’chips in dirty newsprint.

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