Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End Papers

I did the unthinkable last week—at least, it was the unthinkable for me. I canceled my subscriptions to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

I have been a subscriber to the Los Angeles paper for twenty years or more, through four different addresses, a host of natural disasters, a plethora of cataclysmic world events, and a wealth of local stories that eventually wound up having worldwide significance.

But enough is enough.

Since Sam Zell took over, the paper has diminished in quality to the point where all semblance of quality has left the building. Sure, Steve Lopez is still there, and David L. Ulin, and a few other stragglers from the glory days. But the paper takes less and less time to read, and costs more and more of my income in a time of diminished circumstances for a lower middle class private school teacher. I can read the best of the paper—a very thin group of articles on the best days—online in a matter of minutes. Why pay for home delivery of what I can read for free on my desktop?

The New York Times got the boot for a different reason. I still enjoyed the paper, thought the writing still had merit, considered it still the paper of record for American journalism. The problem was in the delivery. I found myself calling three or four of the seven days of the week to complain when the paper had not arrived at my house. Sometimes a replacement copy came; many times, I received an apology from an electronic voice and a credit of a buck fifty to my account.

Not good enough, by a long shot.

Again, I could read the full paper online for free. Why pay for something that could not be consistently delivered as promised?

A funny side note to this: after I canceled the paper over a week ago, The New York Times now arrives, on time, every day at my doorstep without fail, even though I have called three times to confirm my cancellation. I am waiting for my credit card statement to see if I have been charged before screaming bloody murder.

Overall, I did have other motivations for canceling my subscriptions. I needed more time for books. In these days of diminished financial resources, I find myself also economizing with time. I need more time for study and writing, so a choice had to be made.

But did I make the right choice?

There is something addictive and enthralling about the immediacy of journalism in a magazine or newspaper. I could read journalism forever and be a happy camper. But I am also a book lover, and I could read books forever and also be happy. In fact, my happiness might just be dependent on reading everything forever. There is, however, the problem of the twenty-four hour day and the finite lifespan.

I cannot live without thinking and pondering. I cannot live without reading. I cannot live without writing. These are the touchstones of my life. Meanwhile, my students’ papers pile up. The garbage needs to be taken out. The dog cannot go more than sixteen hours without urinating. Life is a deadline, and there is not enough time to read everything.

For now, I will visit the news stand and occasionally buy my copies of the papers there. As much as I can, I will read online. The world has changed. Book publishing is experiencing declines; magazines are cutting staff and trimming pages; and newspapers have become about the profit margin instead of keeping people informed.

David Carr, a cultural reporter for The New York Times, had this to say about the state of newspapers in the Upfront column in last Sunday’s Book Review: “The physical artifact will become a luxury item over time. Small papers will do fine, many medium-size papers will tip over and large newspapers will have to globalize to survive. The second and third worlds are hatching new customers every day who have a need for high-quality, uncensored information.”

Who would have ever thought that a newspaper might be a more valuable and welcomed commodity on the streets of Iraq than on Main Street, U.S.A.?

As for me, what I will miss is the wood pulp artifact of yesteryear with the news of the world thudding at my door every morning. That sound, I fear, is gone for good, and I mourn the loss.