Being a slave to routine is both a comfort
and a curse. On the positive side, there are few surprises
in my life. The alarm goes off at 5:50 am, I open the door
and pick up the paper at 6:00 am, and by 6:02 am (give or
take a minute), the coffee is on: so begins my Swiss army
day. Yet my mechanical adherence to "the plan" leaves me
feeling dazed and confused when things do go awry, as with
the recent disappearances of my morning paper.
Here is what I can tell you about the pilfered papers:
* The paper delivery man drops off my morning paper
between 2:30 and 3:00am each morning (a late night paper
to some of you, but a morning paper to me: I'm from Toronto)
* There have been no delivery problems since I moved
to this apartment last fall
* I have had eight copies of my morning paper, and one
copy of the Sunday paper, go missing from my doorstep
- between the hours of 2:30am and 6:00am - since May 4th
* There is a new tenant in #408. His move-in date was
April 28th and he keeps late hours
Tragedy brings us closer together, right? Well, this
recent development has seen my affection for the morning
paper extend to all those responsible for bringing it
to me. I have made good friends with my paper's district
manager, Carmen; we talk daily, and she even puts little
smiley faces on my replacement papers. I know that Jeff
is the one who delivers my paper, although I am never
awake when he makes his rounds (one of these days, I'll
leave him some milk and cookies). And my superintendent,
Glen, has put up menacing letters around the building,
threatening to impose a full and fitting punishment on
the newspaper pirate (God Bless Glen!).
Admittedly, there is nothing but circumstantial evidence
to lay at the doorstep of tenant #408. There is, however,
ample evidence to suggest that I am a newspaper addict.
Much in the same way as going without coffee at 6:02 am
saddles me with a headache for the rest of the day, the
absence of my morning paper leaves me feeling grumpy (grumpier
than usual) and empty, without that glut of news to fill
me up. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
has said that "it's not the paper in newspaper that defines
us, it's the news", but I think he's wrong. Nowadays,
news is bought and sold in various media stores, in a
way similar to hand cream and handkerchiefs. What defines
a newspaper, in this era of market segmentation and product
differentiation, is the mark left by its permanent record.
The authority of the physical product, in turn, fortifies
a sense of community. Through their wide circulation,
newspapers reach a population (such as Canada's) which
is both disparate and dispersed. Just as I turn to read
the cover story in my morning paper, so too does someone
in Napanee, Ontario and Tignish, PEI; although we may
read the story in three different ways, in doing so, we
establish a sort of communion across space and time. Arguably,
on the Internet there is an even greater likelihood of
having 300,000 people read the same story at the same
time. But who are these online newsreaders: are they permanent
residents or accidental tourists? In the borderless world
of the Internet, what binds these "readers" together?
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently,
the Internet may be wiring us together technologically,
but it has not done so socially, politically or culturally:
"we are now seeing and hearing one another faster and
better, but with no corresponding improvement in our ability
to learn from, or understand, one another."
That sense of community, that common understanding,
has grown out of a trust that newspapers have preserved
and protected for many years. The New York Times slogan
"All The News That's Fit to Print" has endured since 1851
not because it is catchy, but because it describes a promise
which readers have reason to believe will be delivered.
While we should not expect to wait 150 years to trust
online news providers, the reality is that newspapers
represent the backbone of web news. And despite the promise
of the Internet - that one could run a news site for Ecuadorian
peanut farmers from a fishing hut in Port aux Basques
- the fact remains that news gathering is a local endeavor,
and newspapers persist as the primary generators of news.
A sense of community. A source you can trust. If this
sounds like a bad tagline for your supper-hour newscast,
that's because Debbie and Don, Carla and Ken, and the
rest of the bright-eyed bingo callers have taken to mouthing
the newspaper credo without any newspaper credentials.
News organizations in other media rely heavily on the
illusion of authenticity to disguise what is a striking
lack of substance: a "live on location" broadcast coats
the most mundane story with the sheen of urgency, while
a news website buries nuggets of truth beneath the dross
of "reader responses" and "online polls". Meaning, context
and analysis need not apply.
If newspapers are dead, then why is Tenant #408 stealing
my cold, limp broadsheet? Surely he has a TV and a radio
(over 97% of Canadians do), and access to the Internet
(as 75% of his fellow Canadians do); if information is
so readily available in other media, then why pick up
a paper (or steal a paper, with the looming threat of
litigation and a boot to the head)? Perhaps it's because
he likes the grimy feel of ink-stained hands, or those
wasted moments trying to fold the paper the wrong way.
Or maybe, like me, his virtual world feels somewhat flighty
without the weighted anchor of the printed page.
Forty years ago, Arthur Miller made the comment that
a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself. God knows
that there is a dearth of good newspapers out there, but
I do hope that, forty years on, the good ones will still
be here; that they will continue to provide that forum
for national dialogue; and that, somewhere, someone will
be paying for their own damn copy.
O'Grady looks hard on the front steps.