twilight of the american newspaper

topic posted Mon, November 9, 2009 - 2:22 PM by  Gerbil
In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.
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  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Mon, November 9, 2009 - 3:15 PM
    Michale Moore was talking in San Francisco recently (by coincidence), and one of the topics he brought up was thedecline of the American newspaper. He pointed out that in Europe the newspaper is doing just fine, and they have the internet there, too.

    He blamed a combination of lousy education in the U.S. which has discouraged reading, especially long articles that in-depth reporting requires, and the consolodation of media into huge companies that want nothing but higher profit margins, which in turn force newspapers that were actually doing all right to make big cuts in staff and expenses, and therefore produce and iferior porduct people don't want to pay for.

    The biggest irony is that such policies were pushed by the conservatives that the newspapers themselves endorsed the majority of the time.
    • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

      Mon, November 9, 2009 - 7:43 PM
      >>The biggest irony is that such policies were pushed by the conservatives that the newspapers themselves endorsed the majority of the time.<<

      It's insane how consistently that dynamic has played out in the past three decades. I mean "insane" as in "I hope we are fucking insane, as a people, because the alternative is a level of stupidity that threatens the integrity of spacetime"
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Mon, November 9, 2009 - 8:03 PM
    here's the rest of the article. forgot that it has restricted access:
    Final edition:
    Twilight of the American newspaper

    By Richard Rodriguez
    Richard Rodriguez is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco. His most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The God of the Desert,” appeared in the January 2008 issue.
    A scholar I know, a woman who is ninety-six years old, grew up in a tin shack on the American prairie, near the Canadian border. She learned to read from the pages of the Chicago Tribune in a one-room schoolhouse. Her teacher, who had no more than an eighth-grade education, had once been to Chicago—had been to the opera! Women in Chicago went to the opera with bare shoulders and long gloves, the teacher imparted to her pupils. Because the teacher had once been to Chicago, she subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, which came on the train by Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest.

    Several generations of children learned to read from that text. The schoolroom had a wind-up phonograph, its bell shaped like a morning glory, and one record, from which a distant female voice sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

    Is it better to have or to want? My friend says her teacher knew one great thing: There was something out there. She told her class she did not expect to see even a fraction of what the world had to offer. But she hoped they might.

    I became a reader of the San Francisco Chronicle when I was in high school and lived ninety miles inland, in Sacramento. On my way home from school, twenty-five cents bought me a connection with a gray maritime city at odds with the postwar California suburbs. Herb Caen, whose column I read immediately—second section, corner left—invited me into the provincial cosmopolitanism that characterized the city’s outward regard: “Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?”

    Newspapers have become deadweight commodities linked to other media commodities in chains that are coupled or uncoupled by accountants and lawyers and executive vice presidents and boards of directors in offices thousands of miles from where the man bit the dog and drew ink. The San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, once the Chronicle’s archrival. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters in New York City. According to Hearst, the Chronicle has been losing a million dollars a week. In San Francisco there have been buyouts and firings of truck drivers, printers, reporters, artists, editors, critics. With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death—and why else would the editors celebrate its 144th anniversary? and why else would the editors devote a week to feature articles on fog?—it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.

    Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post–Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.

    Nineteenth-century newspapers draped bunting about their mastheads and brandished an inflated diction and a Gothic type to name themselves the Herald, the Eagle, the Tribune, the Mercury, the Globe, the Sun. With the passage of time, the name of the city was commonly attached to the name of the newspaper, not only to distinguish the Alexandria Gazette from the New York Gazette but because the paper described the city and the city described the paper.

    The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, precursor to the San Francisco Chronicle, was founded in 1865 by two teenage brothers on a borrowed twenty-dollar gold piece. Charles and Michael de Young (a third brother, Gustavus, was initially a partner in the publishing venture) had come west with their widowed mother from St. Louis. In California, the brothers invented themselves as descendants of French aristocracy. They were adolescents of extraordinary gumption at a time when San Francisco was a city of gumption and of stranded young men.

    Karl Marx wrote that Gold Rush California was “thickly populated by men of all races, from the Yankee to the Chinese, from the Negro to the Indian and Malay, from the Creole and Mestizo to the European.” Oscar Wilde seconded Karl Marx: “It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.” What must Gold Rush San Francisco have been like? Melville’s Nantucket? Burning Man? An arms bazaar in Yemen? There were Russians, Chileans, Frenchmen, Welshmen, and Mexicans. There were Australian toughs, the worst of the lot by most accounts—“Sydney Ducks”—prowling the waterfront. There were Chinese opium dens beneath the streets and Chinese opera houses above them. Historians relish the old young city’s foggy wharves and alleyways, its frigates, fleas, mud, and hazard. Two words attached to the lawless city the de Young brothers moved about in. One was “vigilante,” from the Spanish. The other was “hoodlum”—a word coined in San Francisco to name the young men loitering about corners, threatening especially to the Chinese.

    The de Young brothers named their newspaper the Daily Dramatic Chronicle because stranded young men seek entertainment. The city very early developed a taste for limelight that was as urgent as its taste for red light. In 1865, there were competing opera houses in the city; there were six or seven or twelve theaters. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was a theatrical sheet delivered free of charge to the city’s saloons and cafés and reading rooms. San Francisco desperately appreciated minstrel shows and circuses and melodeons and Shakespeare. Stages were set up in gambling halls and saloons where Shakespearean actors, their velvets much the worse for wear, pointed to a ghost rising at the back of the house: Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.

    An Italian who came to San Francisco to study medicine in 2003 swears he saw the ghost of a forty-niner, in early light, when he slept and then woke in an old house out by the ocean. The forty-niner was very young, my friend said, with a power of sadness about him. He did not speak. He had red hair and wore a dark shirt.

    We can imagine marooned opera singers, not of the second, perhaps not even of the third rank, enunciating elaborate prayers and curses from the Italian repertoire as they stumbled among the pebbles and stones of cold running creeks on their way to perform in Gold Rush towns along the American River. It was as though the grandiose nineteenth-century musical form sought its natural echo in the canyons of the Sierra Nevada. The miners loved opera. (Puccini reversed the circuit and took David Belasco’s melodrama of the Gold Rush back to Europe as La Fanciulla del West.)

    In 1860, San Francisco had a population of 57,000. By 1870, the population had almost tripled, to 149,000. Within three years of its founding, by 1868, the Daily Dramatic Chronicle would evolve with its hormonal city to become the Daily Morning Chronicle. The de Young brothers were in their early twenties. Along with theatrical and operatic listings, the Chronicle then published news of ships sailing into and out of the bay and the dollar equivalents of treasure in their holds, and bank robberies, and saloon shootings, and gold strikes and drownings, an extraordinary number of suicides, likewise fires, for San Francisco was a wooden city, as it still is in many of its districts.

    It is still possible, very occasionally, to visit the Gold Rush city when one attends a crowded theater. Audiences here, more than in any city I know, possess a wit in common and can react as one—in pleasure, but also in derision. I often think our impulse toward hoot and holler might be related to our founding sense of isolation, to our being “an oasis of civilization in the California desert,” in the phrase of Addison DeWitt (in All About Eve), who, though a Hollywood figment, is about as good a rendition as I can summon of the sensibility (“New York critics”) we have courted here for one hundred and fifty years. And deplored.

    The nineteenth-century city felt itself surrounded by vacancy—to the west, the gray court of the Pacific; to the east, the Livermore Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra Nevada range. Shipping and mining were crucial to the wealth of the city, but they were never the consolations the city sought. The city looked, rather, to Addison DeWitt—to the eastern United States, to Europe, for approbation. If there was a pathetic sense of insecurity in living at the edge of the continent—San Francisco proclaiming itself “the Paris of the Pacific”!—the city also raised men of visionary self-interest who squinted into the distance and conceived of opening trade to Asia or cutting down redwood forests or laying track across a sea of yellow grass.

    Readers in other parts of the country were fascinated by any scrap of detail about the Gold Rush city. Here is a fragment (July 9, 1866) from Bret Harte’s dispatch to readers of the Springfield Republican (from a collection of such dispatches edited by Gary Scharnhorst). The description remains accurate:

    Midsummer! . . . To dwellers in Atlantic cities, what visions of heated pavements, of staring bricks, of grateful shade trees, of straw hats and white muslin, are conjured up in this word. . . . In San Francisco it means equal proportions of fog and wind. On the evening of the Fourth of July it was a pleasant and instructive sight to observe the population, in great-coats and thick shawls, warming themselves by bonfires, watching the sky-rockets lose themselves in the thick fog, and returning soberly home to their firesides and warm blankets.

    From its inception, the San Francisco Chronicle borrowed a tone of merriment and swagger from the city it daily invented—on one occasion with fatal consequences: in 1879, the Chronicle ran an exposé of the Reverend Isaac Smith Kalloch, a recent arrival to the city (“driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper”) who had put himself up as a candidate for mayor. The Chronicle recounted Kalloch’s trial for adultery in Massachusetts (“his escapade with one of the Tremont Temple choristers”). Kalloch responded by denouncing the “bawdy house breeding” of the de Young boys, implying that Charles and Michael’s mother kept a whorehouse in St. Louis. Charles rose immediately to his mother’s defense; he shot Kalloch, who recovered and won City Hall. De Young never served jail time. A year later, in 1880, Kalloch’s son shot and killed Charles de Young in the offices of the Chronicle.

    “Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman,” Ambrose Bierce later remarked of Michael, the surviving brother. However just or unjust Bierce’s estimation, the de Young brothers lived and died according to their notion of a newspaper’s purpose—that it should entertain and incite the population.

    In 1884, Michael was shot by Adolph Spreckels, the brother of a rival newspaper publisher and the son of the sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, after the Chronicle accused the Spreckels Sugar Company of labor practices in Hawaii amounting to slavery. De Young was not mortally wounded and Spreckels was acquitted on a claim of reasonable cause.

    When he died in 1925, Michael de Young bequeathed the ownership of the Chronicle to his four daughters with the stipulation that it could not be sold out of the family until the death of the last surviving daughter.

    San Francisco gentility has roots as shallow and as belligerent as those of the Australian blue gum trees that were planted heedlessly throughout the city and now configure and scent our Sunday walks. In 1961, Holiday magazine came to town to devote an entire issue to San Francisco. The three living daughters of Michael de Young were photographed seated on an antique high-backed causeuse in the gallery of the old M. H. de Young Memorial Museum their father had donated to the city to house his collection of paintings and curiosities (including a scabrous old mummy beloved of generations of schoolchildren—now considered too gauche to be displayed). For the same issue, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, widow of Adolph, was photographed taking tea in her Pacific Heights mansion in what looks to be a fur-trimmed, floor-length velvet gown. The Spreckels family donated to the city a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris to house a collection of European paintings and rooms and furniture. One Spreckels and three de Youngs make four Margaret Dumonts—a San Francisco royal flush.

    In 1972, the museum donated by Michael de Young merged with the museum created by the family of the man who tried to murder Michael de Young to become the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

    Men, usually men, who assumed the sole proprietorships of newspapers in the nineteenth century were the sort of men to be attracted by the way a newspaper could magnify an already fatted ego. Newspaper publishers were accustomed to lord over cities.

    William Randolph Hearst was given the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a mining millionaire and U.S. senator, who may or may not have won it in a poker game in 1880. As it happened, young Hearst was born to run a newspaper. He turned the Examiner into the largest-circulation paper in San Francisco before he moved on to New York, where, in 1895, he acquired the New York Journal. Hearst quickly engaged in a yellow-journalism rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Both Hearst and Pulitzer assumed political careers. Hearst served in the Congress of the United States—served is not quite the word—as did Pulitzer, briefly.

    We remember Joseph Pulitzer not as a sensationalist journalist but as the philanthropist who endowed an award for excellence in journalism and the arts. We remember William Randolph Hearst because his castle overlooking the Pacific—fifty miles of ocean frontage—is as forthright a temple to grandiosity as this nation can boast. And we remember Hearst as the original for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Welles portrayed Charles Foster Kane with the mix of populism and egomania audiences of the time easily recognized as Hearst. Kane the champion of the common man becomes Kane the autocrat. Kane builds an opera house for his paramour. Kane invents a war.

    The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner were both losing money when, in 1965, Charles Thieriot, grandson of Michael de Young, met with William Randolph Hearst Jr. to collaborate on what they called the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. The Agency was a third entity designed to share production and administrative costs. The papers were to maintain editorial discretion and separate staffs. In addition, an incoherent Sunday edition shuffled together sections from both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The terms of the publishers’ agreement eventually favored the afternoon Hearst newspaper, for it was soon to fall behind, to become the lesser newspaper in a two-paper town. The Examiner nevertheless continued to collect half the profits of both.

    In January 1988, Phyllis Tucker, the last surviving daughter of Michael de Young, died in San Francisco. Tucker’s daughter, Nan Tucker McEvoy, managed to forestall the sale of the paper for several years. But in 1999, the founding publisher’s posthumous grip was pried loose by a majority vote of family members to sell. At that time, the Hearst Corporation was desirous of reclaiming the San Francisco market. Hearst paid $660 million to the de Young heirs for the San Francisco Chronicle.

    To satisfy antitrust concerns of the Justice Department, the Hearst Corporation sold the still-extant San Francisco Examiner to the politically connected Fang family, owners of Asianweek, the oldest and largest English-language Asian-American newspaper. The Hearst Corporation paid the Fangs a subsidy of $66 million to run the Examiner. Florence Fang placed her son, Ted Fang, in the editor’s chair. Within a year, Florence Fang fired her son; Ted Fang threatened to sue his mother. In 2004, the Fang family sold the Examiner to Philip Anschutz, a scattershot entrepreneur from Colorado who deflated William Randolph Hearst’s “Monarch of the Dailies” to a freebie tabloid that gets delivered to houses up and down the street twice a week, willy-nilly, and litters the floors of San Francisco municipal buses.

    The day after I was born in San Francisco, my tiny existential fact was noted in several of the papers that were barked through the downtown streets. In truth, the noun “newspaper” is something of a misnomer. More than purveyors only of news, American newspapers were entrusted to be keepers of public record—papers were daily or weekly cumulative almanacs of tabular information. A newspaper’s morgue was scrutable evidence of the existence of a city. Newspapers published obituaries and they published birth announcements. They published wedding announcements and bankruptcy notices. They published weather forecasts (even in San Francisco, where on most days the weather is optimistic and unremarkable—fog clearing by noon). They published the fire department’s log and high school basketball scores. In a port city like San Francisco, there were listings of the arrivals and departures of ships. None of this constituted news exactly; it was a record of a city’s mundane progress. News was old as soon as it was dry—“fishwrap,” as Herb Caen often called it.

    Unwilling to forfeit any fraction of my quarter, I even studied the classifieds—-unrelieved columns laid out like city blocks: Room for rent. Marina. No pets. File clerk position. Heavy phones. Ticket agent for busy downtown box office. Must be bonded. Norman, we’re still here. Only once did I find the titillation I was looking for, a listing worthy of a barbershop magazine, an Argosy, or a Mickey Spillane: “Ex-Green Beret will do anything legal for cash.” Newspapers were sustained by classifieds, as well as by department-store ads and automobile ads. I admired the urbanity of the drawings of newspaper ads in those years, and I took from them a conception of the posture of downtown San Francisco. Despite glimpses into the classified life of the city, despite the hauteur of ad-art mannerism, the Chronicle offered some assurance (to an adolescent such as I was) it would have been difficult for me to describe. I will call it now an implied continuity. There was continuity in the comics and on the sports page, but nowhere more than in the columns.

    During Scott Newhall’s tenure as executive editor, from 1952 to 1971, the Chronicle achieved something of a golden age. Newhall was flamboyant in ways that were congenial to the city. At a time when the Los Angeles Times was attracting admiration from the East Coast for its fleet of foreign bureaus, Newhall reverted to an eighteenth-century model of a newspaper as first-person observer.

    For nearly two decades the city that prized its singularity was entertained by idiosyncratic voices. At the shallow end of the Chronicle’s roster (under the cipher of a coronet) appeared Count Marco, a Liberace of the typewriter who concerned himself with fashion and beauty and l’amour. At the deep end—a snug corner at Gino and Carlo’s bar in North Beach—sat “Charles McCabe, Esq.,” an erudite connoisseur of books, spirits, and failed marriages. Terrence O’Flaherty watched television. Stanton Delaplane, to my mind the best writer among them, wrote “Postcard”—a travel series with charm and humor. Art Hoppe concocted political satire. Harold Gilliam expounded on wind and tide and fog. Alfred Frankenstein was an art critic of international reputation. There was a book column by William Hogan and a society column by Frances Moffat. Allan Temko wrote architectural criticism against the grain of the city’s sensibility, a sensibility he sometimes characterized as a liberal spirit at odds with a timorous aesthetic. All the Chronicle columnists and critics had constituents, but the name above the banner was Herb Caen.

    Herb Caen began writing a column for the Chronicle before the Second World War. At that time, Caen was in his twenties and probably resembled the fresh, fast-talking smarty-pants he pitched his voice to portray in print. Item. . .item. . .who’s gotta item? In 1950, he was lured over to the Examiner at a considerable hike in salary, and circulation followed at his heels. He knew all the places; he knew the maître d’s, the bartenders, the bouncers, the flower-sellers, the cops, the madams, the shopkeepers—knew them in the sense that they all knew him and knew he could be dangerous. In 1958, Caen returned to the Chronicle, and, again, circulation tilted.

    Each day except Saturday, for forty years, Caen set the conversation for San Francisco. Who was in town. Who was in the hospital and would appreciate a card. Who was seen drinking champagne out of a rent boy’s tennis shoe. His last column began: “And how was your Christmas?” He persuaded hundreds of thousands of readers (crowded on buses, on the way to work) that his was the city we lived in. Monday through Friday, Caen was an omniscient table-hopping bitch. On Sunday, he dropped all that; he reverted to an ingenue—a sailor on leave, a sentimental flaneur infatuated with his dream “Baghdad-by-the-Bay.” The point of the Sunday perambulation was simple relish—fog clearing by noon; evidence that the mystical, witty, sourdough city had survived one more week.

    After a time, Caen stopped writing Sunday panegyrics; he said it was not the same city anymore, and it wasn’t. He wasn’t. Los Angeles, even San Jose—two cities created by suburbanization—had become more influential in the world than the “cool grey city of love,” a George Sterling line Caen favored. The Chinese city did not figure in Caen’s novel, except atmospherically—lanterns and dragons, chorus girls at the Forbidden City, Danny Kaye taking over the kitchen at Kan’s, that sort of thing. The growing Filipino, Latin-American city did not figure at all.

    In Caen’s heyday, the San Francisco Chronicle reflected the self-infatuated city. But it was not the city entire that drew the world’s attention. In the 1950s, the version of San Francisco that interested the world was Jack Kerouac’s parish—a few North Beach coffeehouses habituated by beatniks (a word Caen coined) and City Lights Bookstore. By the time I was a teenager, the path to City Lights was electrified by the marquees of topless clubs and bad wolves with flashlights beckoning passersby toward red velvet curtains. Anyway, the scene had moved by that time to the fog-shrouded Grateful Dead concerts in Golden Gate Park and to the Haight Ashbury. A decade later, the most famous neighborhood in the city was the homosexual Castro District. San Francisco never seemed to grow old the way other cities grow old.

    In 1967, the Chronicle’s rock and jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason, teamed up with a renegade cherub named Jann Wenner to publish Rolling Stone magazine. What this disparate twosome intuited was that by chronicling the rising influence of rock music, they were effectively covering a revolution. In New York, writers were cultivating, in the manner of Thackeray, a self-referential point of view and calling it the “New Journalism.” In San Francisco, Rolling Stone was publishing a gospel “I” that found itself in a world without precedent: Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, Patti Smith, Timothy Ferris, Hunter S. Thompson. I remember sitting in an Indian tea shop in South London in 1970 (in the manner of the New Journalism) and being gripped by envy potent enough to be called homesickness as I read John Burks’s account of the Stones concert at Altamont. It was like reading a dispatch from the Gold Rush city.

    One morning in the 1970s, the Chronicle began to publish Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—adding sex and drugs and local branding to the nineteenth-century gimmick of serial fiction. At a time when American families were trending to the suburbs, Maupin’s novel insisted that San Francisco was still magnetic for single lives. In those same years, Cyra McFadden was writing satirically about the sexual eccentricities of suburban Marin County in a series (“The Serial”) for an alternative newspaper called the Pacific Sun.

    In those same years, Joan Didion wrote, in The White Album, that for many people in Los Angeles “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the (Manson family) murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” To borrow for a moment the oracular deadpan: In San Francisco, the Sixties came to an end for many people in 1977, when Jann Wenner packed up and moved Rolling Stone to New York. As he departed, the moss-covered wunderkind griped to a young reporter standing by that San Francisco was a “provincial backwater.”

    What no one could have imagined in 1977, not even Jann Wenner, was that a suburban industrial region thirty miles to the south of the city contained an epic lode. Silicon Valley would, within twenty years, become the capital of Nowhere. What no one could have imagined in 1977 was that San Francisco would become a bedroom community for a suburban industrial region that lay thirty miles to the south.

    Don’t kid a kidder. Herb Caen died in 1997. With the loss of that daily hectoring voice, the Chronicle seemed to lose its narrative thread, as did the city. The Chronicle began to reprint Caen columns, to the bewilderment of anyone younger than thirty.

    If you die in San Francisco, unless you are judged notable by our know-nothing newspaper (it is unlikely you will be judged notable unless your obituary has already appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times), your death will be noted in a paid obituary submitted to the Chronicle by your mourners. More likely, there will be no public notice taken at all. As much as any vacancy in the Chronicle I can point to, the dearth of obituaries measures its decline.

    In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.

    We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.

    A few months ago there was an item in the paper about a young woman so plugged into her personal sounds and her texting apparatus that she stepped off the curb and was mowed down by a honking bus.

    In this morning’s paper there is a quote from an interview San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, gave to The Economist concerning the likelihood that San Francisco will soon be a city without a newspaper: “People under thirty won’t even notice.”

    The other day I came upon a coffeehouse that resembled, as I judged from its nineteenth-century exterior, the sort of café where the de Young brothers might have distributed their paper. The café was only a couple of blocks from the lively gay ambience of upper Market Street yet far removed from the clamorous San Francisco of the nineteenth century. Several men and women sat alone at separate tables. No one spoke. The café advertised free wi-fi; all but one of the customers had laptops open before them. (The exception was playing solitaire with a real deck of cards.) The only sounds were the hissing of an espresso machine and the clattering of a few saucers. A man in his forties, sitting by the door, stared at a screen upon which a cartoon animal, perhaps a dog, loped silently.

    I should mention that the café, like every coffeehouse in the city, had stacks of the Bay Guardian, S.F. Weekly, the Bay Area Reporter—free and roughly equivalent to the Daily Dramatic Chronicle of yore. I should mention that San Francisco has always been a city of stranded youth, and the city apparently continues to provide entertainments for youth:

    Gosta Berling, Kid Mud, Skeletal System El Rio. 8pm, $5. Davis Jones, Eric Andersen and Tyler Stafford, Melissa McClelland Hotel Utah. 8pm, $7. Ben Kweller, Jones Street Station, Princeton Slim’s. 8:30pm, $19. Harvey Mandel and the Snake Crew Biscuits and Blues. 8pm, $16. Queers, Mansfields, Hot Toddies, Atom Age Bottom of the Hill. 8:30pm, $12.

    The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)

    Another friend, a journalist born in India, who has heard me connect newspapers with place once too often, does not dispute my argument, but neither is he troubled by it: “If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”

    So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies. In Chicago, women go to the opera with bare shoulders.

    Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (add to shopping cart), they will do it.

    We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction”—Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

    National newspapers may try to impersonate regional newspapers that are dying or dead. (There have been reports that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will soon publish San Francisco Bay Area editions.) We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

    An obituary does not propose a solution.

    Techno-puritanism that wars with the body must also resist the weight of paper. I remember that weight. It was the weight of the world, carried by boys.

    Late in grammar school and into high school, I delivered the Sacramento Bee, a newspaper that was, in those years, published in the afternoon, Monday through Saturday, and in the morning on Sundays. My route comprised one hundred and forty subscribers—nearly every house in three square blocks.

    The papers were barely dry when I got them, warm to the touch and clean—if you were caught short, you could deliver a baby on newspaper. The smell of newspapers was a slick petroleum smell of ink. I would fold each paper in triptych, then snap on a rubber band. On Thursdays, the Bee plumped with a cooking section and with supermarket ads. On Sundays, there was added the weight of comics, of real estate and automobile sections, and supplements like Parade and the television guide.

    I stuffed half my load of newspapers into the canvas bag I tied onto my bicycle’s handlebars; the rest went into saddlebags on the back. I never learned to throw a baseball with confidence, but I knew how to aim a newspaper well enough. I could make my mark from the sidewalk—one hand on the handlebar—with dead-eye nonchalance. The paper flew over my shoulder; it twirled over hedges and open sprinklers to land with a fine plop only inches from the door.

    In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from the wet steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. I remark their thinness as I climb the stairs. The three together equal what I remember.
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Tue, November 17, 2009 - 11:03 AM
    The future of the news
    Created 11/17/2009 - 14:06
    Natalie Fenton
    The collapse of the media’s business model demands a critical consideration of what we want news for and how it can be delivered

    The production and circulation of independent, quality news is a hallmark of democratic societies with a complex history of commercial practices, regulatory controls and technological innovation. The demise of the existing business model of the local and regional press and of broadcast news in the regions together with the struggle for survival of many national newspapers demands a critical consideration of what we want news for and how it can be delivered.

    A recent study [1] by Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media ResearchCentre provides empirical evidence that challenges utopian visions of the internet as a brave new world with everyone connected to everyone else, a non-hierarchical network of voices with equal, open and global access. This latest ‘new’ world of ‘new’ media has not greatly expanded the news that we read or hear or changed mainstream news values and traditional news formats; neither has it connected a legion of bloggers to a mass audience. Rather, as the economic model for traditional news production stumbles and falls in the digital age, professional journalism has become the first casualty, the second, if we’re not careful, and pretty close behind will be the health of our democracy.

    The research draws on over 170 interviews with a range of professionals from a cross section of mainstream news media, as well as news sources and new producers online including bloggers and people operating in the realm of alternative news; we added to this, 3 newsroom ethnographies and a content analysis of online news across mainstream news media, online alternative media, social networking sites and YouTube.

    We looked at the role of structural factors such as commerce, finance and regulation along with the cultural complexities of journalism, journalistic subjectivities and working practices.

    And we found an industry and a practice in trouble.

    2007_Eurostat_AnnualProduct [2]

    Newspaper circulation and readership levels are at an all time low; there has been a tremendous growth in the number of news outlets available including the advent of, and rapid increase in, free papers, the emergence of 24 hour news and the popularization of online and mobile platforms; a decline in advertising revenue alongside cuts in personnel. With regard to local and international news production, the lack of economies of scale means that it is increasingly commercially unviable.

    The Newspaper Society notes that 101 local papers closed down between January and August 2009. In those that are surviving fewer people are doing more and more work. Now I know we may all say that about our jobs, but in journalism what we see is the perfect storm – a history of marketisation, deregulation and globalisation, throw new technologies in to the mix (bringing about yet more speed and space and more need to invest in technical infrastructure). These factors combined have had a negative impact on journalism for the public good and in the public interest.

    The working context of news media has increased pressures in the newsroom to fill more space (through the expansion of online platforms), work at greater speed (to fill the requirements of 24 hour news and the immediacy of online communication) with fewer journalists in permanent positions and more job insecurity.

    "In the old days you had to get up in the morning and read all the newspapers, listen to the Today Programme [.…] Now, in addition to all of that we also have to keep an eye on websites, blogs of others, just in case stories crop up [.…] As on the Internet what we have to contend with is hugely increased sources of information." (Political Newspaper Editor, National Mid-Market)

    "... when you’re under those time constraints, the Internet is fabulous but it’s dangerous as well. And I think that, a lot of the time people get things wrong, particularly on 24-hour news channels, it’s because they’re relying on the Internet." (Political Editor, Commercial Broadcasting)

    In this environment there is evidence of journalists being thrust into news production more akin to creative cannibalization than the craft of journalism – as they need to fill more space and to work at greater speed while also having improved access to stories and sources online – they talk less to their sources, are captured in desk-bound, cut and paste, administrative journalism. Ready-made fodder from tried and tested sources takes precedence over the sheer difficulty of dealing with the enormity of user generated content or the overload of online information leading to an homogenization of content as ever increasing commercial pressures add to the temptation to rely not just on news agencies but on all cheaper forms of news gathering.

    Given the speed of work, and the sheer amount of traffic and noise that journalists are exposed to every day, it is less easy for ordinary citizens and non-elite sources to make direct contact with reporters in mainstream media. In order for journalists to pick out the important information from the ‘blizzard’ online they are forced to create systems of ‘filtration’ based on known hierarchies and established news values. With so little time at their disposal journalists tend to prioritise known, ‘safe’ sources. So mainstream news on-line has not expanded to include a broader diversity of voices or shifted focus according to information filtered through social media.

    And even though there is now a plethora of media outlets, and citizens and civil society can publish media content more easily than ever, there still is a dominance of a limited number of players that control news, information content and public debate. In other words mainstream news matters, maybe more than it ever has done – and most people, most of the time get most of their news from it. Furthermore the organisation of web search tends to send more users to the most popular sites in a winners take all pattern. It seems ever likely that the voices on the web will be dominated by the larger, more established news providers in a manner that, yet again, limits possibilities for increased pluralism.

    In some newspapers, the combination of staff reductions and speeded up production schedules mean that only the most established senior, journalists, with the highest level of personal autonomy, have the luxury of leaving the office to talk to people, phoning a number of different people to verify information, or probing for alternative views or contradictions. But its not just the young journalists whose working practices have been transformed:

    "They [journalists] don’t even try to talk to you, they just watch breaking news upstairs. I pass them every day when I come in, I pass one of the rooms and I see them watching telly and they’re banging away on the typewriters, all of them [.…] When I first came here [.…] it would be rare for that Lobby not to include some journalists, and sometimes it could be as many as ten or a dozen or twenty. Now, the only people you see in the Lobby are the fellas in the fancy breeches looking after the place [.…] I think it’s the advent of 24 hours news." (Labour MP)

    What we’re left with is a contradiction between the transforming potential of new technologies and the stifling constraints of the free market.

    The material conditions of contemporary journalism (particularly unprotected commercial practice) do not offer optimum space and resources to practice independent journalism in the public interest. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do the journalism most of them want to do – to question, analyse and scrutinize.

    What is the relationship between news media and democracy? A news media that can be relied upon to monitor, hold to account, interrogate power and facilitate and maintain deliberation is critical to a functioning democracy. In a world of one click communication and information overload protecting and enhancing a news media that can aim for this ethical horizon has actually become more important rather than less important. Without it we are left scrambling through the blogosphere, drowning in opinion, with no known serious fact-checking, no requirement to put stories in context, no real way of holding the writer gatherers to account. Where the well resourced and the already powerful are able to shout the loudest, twitter their way to the top of the pile while everyone else whispers in the wind.

    How do we preserve it and should government have a role in media structures and behaviour? Any government that truly believes in the basic principles of democracy should be prepared to provide the means by which it can function. This means regulating news media to provide the freedom to operate in the public interest rather than purely for commercial gain. To ignore this is to accept that the market can be relied upon to deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come under threat, ethical practice is swept aside in pursuit of financial stability.

    How do we do it? My view is that we need to move towards a system of post-corporate, low profit or not-for-profit news supported by government funding that comes not from the Licence fee but from practices that are popular elsewhere in Europe such as industry levies and the charging of news aggregators that exploit news content.

    Source URL:

    • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

      Wed, November 18, 2009 - 10:35 AM
      As I age I realize the value of not getting news.

      It is not a fault of readerships - I used to think it was - but it's impossible to blame the 'us' for rejecting a filthy and logistically inefficient advertising vector made of pulp.
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Wed, January 13, 2010 - 3:12 AM
    quoted on page 20
    "The danger from newspapers lies in their outside connection and their inside stock jobbing and corporation alliances. The safety as against this stripe of newspapers is in the almost universal distrust which they have inspired and the accurate deductions made by the people regarding their connections. For one man who is now influenced by an editorial there were formerly all of 10,000. Even their relation of alleged facts is distrusted. It is a pitiful condition of things. A remedy? That question presents a difficulty that at present looks insurmountable....But the day is not far distant when the so-called newspapers will force the issue against themselves and some radical expedient will be adopted by the public to rid themselves of the flippant, insincere, and even corrupt incubus."
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Fri, March 26, 2010 - 12:43 PM
    The New York Times reports that newspaper advertising tanked by more than 27 percent last year, shedding $10 billion from 2008. Online advertising swooned more than 11 percent, which would largely be, I suspect, because it’s so tied to print sales via upsells.

    But I have a bone to pick with this:

    From its peak in 2005, newspaper ad revenue dropped 44.2 percent, from more than $49.4 billion to less than $27.6 billion last year. The last time advertisers spent less on newspapers was in 1986.

    That’s nominally correct, but it’s wrong in reality. The 1986 comparison is only right if you don’t adjust for inflation. The newspaper industry did indeed take in $27 billion in 1986. But adjusting that for inflation gets you $52.9 billion in real dollars.

    That means, according to these calculations I made last summer (when I estimated 2009 would hit 1965 levels), that the last time newspapers ads were lower was in 1963.

    This is a good example of why journalists should always try to use real dollars, not nominal ones—especially when comparing two numbers separated by a lot of time.

    If papers continue on their fourth-quarter trajectory, they’ll sink to levels last seen in the 1950s this year. Which is why stories like the Times’s own about iPad ads in high demand are so important. Too bad the paper stuffs the story inside.

    Chase Sapphire, a credit card for the high-end market, has bought out The New York Times’s iPad advertising units for 60 days after the introduction…

    FedEx will be the exclusive advertiser on the Reuters and Newsweek apps for 90 days after their introduction.

    Now it’s great to see such demand for ads in this new format, which we’ve said before is one of the last best hopes for newspapers and magazines. But it’s not a good sign I’d say that one advertiser is able to snap up all ads in the NYT, say, for months. That would never happen in print because the demand is too broad-based and the inventory of ad pages is so deep. What does this say about the number of ads that publishers will be able to show on the iPad?

    Also interesting here is the news that The Wall Street Journal will charge $17.99 a month for its iPad app. I think it’s great that a newspaper is being so aggressive in pricing its paper, and it raises questions about why the Times apparently isn’t charging from the get-go.

    But the WSJ pricing doesn’t make sense. A subscription costs less than half as much—$8.62 a week. A print subscription delivered to your door costs just $9.92 a month. A print and online subscription costs $11.66 a month. But you’re going to charge $18 for the iPad app?

    It better be good!

    ADDING: The WSJ also has an iPad ad story this morning and it’s better than the Times’s. This is interesting:

    Hype over the iPad unveiling two months ago focused on selling subscriptions for the device, but no major magazines appear ready to do so yet, according to people familiar with the matter. That leaves titles like Time and People, Men’s Health and Hearst Corp.’s Esquire to offer weekly or monthly iPad editions of their magazines, priced at or near the cover price of a print issue.

    It would have been nice to have some explanation here, because this makes no sense:

    Esquire, whose iPad plans are furthest ahead in the Hearst magazine stable, is leaning toward a downloadable issue without advertisements for now, priced at $2.99, or $2 less than the physical magazine’s cover price.

    But this is real money, especially for a brand-new device, one limited to a few hundred thousand or couple of million early adopters:

    Six advertisers, including Coca-Cola and FedEx, have agreed to advertise with the Journal, and a four-month ad package costs $400,000, according to these people.

    That would be $2.4 million over four months, presumably with no traffic minimums, or $7.2 million annualized. That seems like a pretty great start to me. Fingers are crossed here at The Audit.

    UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader writes me to question whether I misconstrued that last quoted sentence there. And it sure looks like I may have. While I thought the sentence implied that the six advertisers had signed up for $400,000 packages, it could just be juxtaposed by an unfortunate “and.” I’ll ask the WSJ for a clarification and update when I hear back.
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Thu, May 20, 2010 - 1:19 AM
    • Unsu...

      Re: twilight of the american newspaper

      Thu, May 20, 2010 - 7:31 AM
      I work for a monthly newspaper and our advertising decreased during the crash, but it's back up. The thing with newspapers is that they have to reassess what their function is. It's no longer the newspapers job to bring news from around the world to people. We can go to Google or Yahoo to find that. These days newspapers need to find a niche and concentrate on that. Our paper focuses solely on our neighborhood. We advertise to people in our neighborhood and cover schools, crimes, polices, controversies in our neighborhood. We're free to people who live in the immediate neighborhood and exist mostly on advertising, though we do send out subscription donation envelopes twice a year to people to help allay delivery costs. We're still here.

      And there are several neighborhood newspapers in LA that are doing great because they stick to covering their neighborhood and they're successful because you can't just go on Yahoo to find out if the school down the street is going to have the same festival it had last year. Sometimes you can, most of the time you can't. The local newspaper knows.
  • Re: twilight of the american newspaper

    Thu, June 3, 2010 - 1:30 AM
    I have an idea for a brand new type of newspaper feature. And gosh do newspapers need one. No industry in living memory has collapsed faster than daily print journalism. You can still buy a buggy whip, which is more than can be said for a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post, or Seattle Post-Intelligencer. One would think that a business in such dire condition would be—for desperation’s sake—wildly innovative. But newspapers exhibit a fossilization of form and content that’s been preserved in sedimentary rock since the early 1970s when the “Women’s Pages” were converted to the “Leisure Section.” General Motors itself showed more inventive originality on its way to Chapter 11, as the two people who bought Pontiac Azteks can attest.

    Readers are fleeing newspapers. What are newspapers offering to lure them back? Out-of-register color photographs have replaced blurry black and white pics. More working women and black people appear in comic strips. (Although comparisons to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” show, if anything, a decline in the social relevance of the funny pages, “Marmaduke” always excepted.) Various versions of “Dr. Gridlock” have been instituted so that when you get to work and open your morning paper you can see why you didn’t get to work. That avant-garde broadsheet the New York Times supplemented its dull “Corrections” with a “Public Editor” who combines pomposity with groveling as only a New York Times editor can. And, in “Styles of the Times,” Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust have been crossbred with Anna Wintour to produce something for famously overdressed people with scary romantic entanglements that’s known in the trade as the Gay Sports Pages. Then there’s Sudoku. (Tip for silencing airplane seatmates: Take out a Friday Sudoku and rapidly fill every box in ink—it’s not like they’ll check if your numbers are right.)

    One bright idea isn’t going to solve the problems of the American newspaper industry, but it’s one bright idea more than the American newspaper industry has had in 40 years. What I propose is “Pre-Obituaries”—official notices that certain people aren’t dead yet accompanied by brief summaries of their lives indicating why we wish they were.

    The main advantage of the Pre-Obit over the traditional obituary is the knowledge of reader and writer alike that the as-good-as-dead people are still around to have their feelings hurt. It was a travesty of literary justice that we waited until J. D. Salinger finally hit the delete key at 91 before admitting that Catcher in the Rye stinks. The book’s only virtue is that it captures, with annoying accuracy, the maunderings of a twerp. The book’s only pleasure is in slamming the cover shut—simpler than slamming the door shut on a real Holden Caulfield, if less satisfying. The rest of Salinger’s published oeuvre was precious or boring or both. But we felt constrained to delay saying so, perhaps because of an outdated Victorian hope for a death-bed flash of genius.

    Let us wait no more. With the Pre-Obituary we can abandon pusillanimous constraint and false hope and say what we think about the lives of public nuisances when their lives are not yet a dead letter. And we won’t be stuck in the treacle of nostalgia and sentiment. We won’t find ourselves saying of some oaf, “His like will not pass this way again.” Or, if we do say it, we can comfortably add, “Thank God!” The precept of Diogenes isn’t “Do not speak ill of the living.”

    Think of the opportunities we’ve missed already. Bea Arthur (1922-2009) performed a grievous disservice to popular culture by uniting two equally dreadful but previously discrete American types. In her portrayal of loud, Bolshie Maude, Arthur taught every angry feminist to be a common scold and every termagant housewife to be Emma Goldman. Once Arthur had become respectable by dying no one had the nerve to title her funeral notice “The Taming of the Shrew.”

    Paul Newman (1925-2008) was not, in and of himself, a bad person. But he deserved to be damned to his face for lending charm to the smirk of liberalism. And after he’d become an immortal only a heartless writer would have pointed out that for an entire generation of young people, Paul Newman is, mainly, a salad dressing.

    John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was, in and of himself, a bad person. He taught economics at Harvard, served in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, was chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, and, after 97 years of comfort and achievement in a free market society, still believed that a free market society is wrong. Maybe it is, if it provides comfort and achievement to John Kenneth Galbraiths. There’s a special stove-top perch in the kitchen corner of hell for witty, urbane, prosperous, and celebrated leftists. It would have been nice to tell John about it before he took his seat.

    And then there’s that missed opportunity of all opportunities, Ted Kennedy (1932-2009). One Pre-Obituary hardly would have done the job. Teddy left us with 50 years of unperformed dances upon his future grave. There was the death of his self-respect in 1962 when he was given his brother’s Senate seat the way a child is given a toy to keep him occupied on a long trip. There was the death of his conscience in 1969 when he killed Mary Jo Kopechne. There was the death of his political fortunes in 1980 when he couldn’t wrestle the presidential nomination from even Jimmy Carter. And there was the long, slow death of what little sense he had as he became the Grand Old Moron of the Senate.

    We mustn’t let these passings pass us by again. There are all sorts of knaves and fools ready to be put to bed with a shovel. Why should they sit at their ease in God’s waiting room reading old issues of the Nation?

    Jimmy Carter is 85. We must hasten to throw the Camp David Accord in his face before he heads to his eternal camp-out with Anwar el-Sadat. Gore Vidal is 84. There’s no chance he’ll end up in the same place as Bill Buckley. We ought to take up Buckley’s gauntlet and slap Gore’s face here and now. Noam Chomsky is 81. Why should Satan have all the fun? We own pitchforks of fact aplenty with which to prod his living flesh. Norman Lear is 87 and will be married to Maude forever any minute now. (Although Lear may find himself forgiven. He never meant to make Archie Bunker a hero and a role model, but perhaps the road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.) Ed Asner is 80. Put him together with Ben Bradlee (88) and Alan J. Pakula, director of All the President’s Men (died in 1998, darn it), and you have the villains in the tragic tale of the American newspaper’s self-congratulatory ossification. Ross Perot also will be 80 soon. We owe him one Bill Clinton-sized philippic. Ralph Nader is 76. High time that someone, metaphorically, flipped him in a Corvair. And Paul Ehrlich is 78. In these days of the graying workforce, baby bust, and demographic decline, surely he needs a population bomb in his underpants.

    The beauty of obituaries for the still-extant is that they needn’t be limited to those who are about to go home feet first. Preemptive necrology can be practiced on persons who are in the prime of life, especially if they’ve had their little turn in the limelight and will never do anything else of note if they live to be 1,000.

    Maybe “prime of life” isn’t the right descriptive phrase for Ted Turner (71) and Jane Fonda (72), Barney Frank and Harry Reid (70), Bernie Sanders (68), Christopher Dodd (66), Bernadine Dohrn (68), and Bill Ayers (65). They’ll all receive medical treatment paid for with our Medicare tax dollars when they have the stroke they’ll get after reading their Pre-Obits. But, aging though these pests may be, they strike this writer as the kind of people who will live on and on and, before they buy the (organic) farm, may be declared “national treasures” if we don’t do something about it now.

    Among the younger of the “dead-but-too-dumb-to-lie-down” we find Andrew Lloyd Webber (62). What a joy to get out the knives and hatchets and hammers and tongs and craft fresh reviews of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. A careful reinspection of the career of Donald Trump (63) might send the man to federal medium security prison (naming rights available). What a stink there is rising from the rotting corpse of the body of ideas held by Paul Krugman (57). And to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (both 59), late—as it were—of Ben & -Jerry’s, let us suggest the flavor “Grateful Deadly Nightshade.”

    Chronological age means nothing, of course, among show business types. They pop off at random all the time. An announcement of the untimely continuing existence of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, or any of the Kardashian sisters would provide an always welcome chance to denounce every aspect of what passes for entertainment in modern America. As a bonus, such advance post-mortems have every likelihood of proving more prescient than premature. “Sudden Collapse in Pilates Studio” seems a likely all-purpose headline. Let’s throw in Sean Penn for good measure.

    Plus there are quite a few show business types who actually are past their sell-by dates. Keith Richards is a high-mileage 66 and Mick Jagger is pushing 67 with a short stick. The members of the Who (those “who” remain alive) have a cumulative age greater than the number of hours it feels like it takes to listen to Tommy. “Hope I die before I get old,” indeed. To make a detailed list of this category of geriatric star mark down everyone who’s played the Super Bowl halftime since Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, plus Janet (44).

    Finally there is the Pre-Obituary of an individual that can be run as a regular feature: “______________ Mysteriously Not Shot by His Wife.” The item is as predictable as “Hints From Heloise,” but what newspaper reader will be able to resist a weekly—or even daily—peek into the ongoing living death of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, and Tiger Woods.

    P.J. O’Rourke, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is author, most recently, of Driving Like Crazy.

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