Sunday, January 10, 2010

Steve Lopez and the Importance of Newspapers

It has been one year since I cancelled my subscriptions to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In that time, I continued to read both publications online. My assessment of this experiment is that reading newspapers and journalism online is vastly inferior to the hard copy thrown on my porch each morning. So I restarted my subscription to the Los Angeles Times and I have made it a point to buy The New York Times as often as I pass one of those coin boxes or my local news stand.

The catalyst for this re-evaluation resulted from catching the film, The Soloist on cable last week. I liked the movie, although the scenes I found most interesting were the ones that showed columnist Steve Lopez at work. I realized the book was sitting in my “to-read” stack, so I pulled it and began reading.

The book, as I expected, is better than the film. Lopez clearly addresses the revolution occurring in journalism, and worries about his future with the paper even as he researches and writes about Nathaniel Ayers, the down-on-his-luck, mentally ill musician whom Lopez finds playing a decrepit violin in Pershing Square. He considers moving into public relations, corporate communications, in fact, any job that might be open to a man who has spent three decades writing for print publication. He comes to the realization that he belongs nowhere else but at his desk cranking out columns for as long as the job holds. Journalism is in Lopez’s blood; he models his work on the great newspaper writers of the twentieth century like Jimmy Breslin. He cannot leave the work behind, because everyone has a story to tell, and as long as stories are out there, that is where Lopez belongs.

What the book made me realize is that if newspapers fold, or worse, journalism disappears into the sham of celebrity and superficial gossip, we will lose a great chunk of our culture. Newspapers have told the story of this country since the Revolution, informing citizens, offering a discussion of issues, and influencing culture. The recent decline of journalism, the shuttering of both bureaus and whole papers across the globe, says much about our decaying culture.

When I read Lopez’s book, I felt like I was coming home. His journalistic writing is clear, direct, to the point, often letting the sights, sounds and dialogue speak the story to the reader. This is in the best tradition of newspaper reporting, often giving us characters and places that are off the beaten track, detailing lives we know virtually nothing about but in the process of reading about them, we come to understand.

Towards the end of the book, Lopez tells us why he has decided to ride the journalism train to the end of the line. “…I thought seriously about leaving an industry in the throes of revolution, and [Nathaniel Ayers] is the reason I’ve decided I’ll never be happy doing anything other than telling stories.”

If we are ever to return to a culture of intellectual depth, if we are ever able to recapture the original spirit of democracy, we must return journalistic writing to the center of the discussion. Newspapers bring people together and create an informed populace.

In an article in the January-February 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Peter Osnos writes that one way this might happen is to classify newspapers and journalism as “nonprofit media,” like public television and radio. “National Public Radio (NPR)…has emerged in recent years as one of the United States’ most significant sources of quality news, with more correspondents stationed abroad than all of the broadcast networks put together…” This idea is one worth examining. Newspapers should not be about profit, and they are not an average business. The desire to increase profitability has led to pressure on newspapers to increase revenue. Big corporations demand growing profit margins, and when newspaper do not produce, the problems begin. The internet also changed everything. Why would a reader pay for something that is free online? The same problem has plagued a number of industries.

So why did I decide to resume paying for a newspaper? Most of the papers I accessed online listed the top stories on the front page. They usually included a list of the most-viewed stories. But if I wanted to scan through the entire newspaper, I needed to take time to click on a number of links and follow through and look at each article. With the physical newspaper, I scan through the entire edition page by page, section by section. This kind of browsing is awkward for me online but feels natural with print.

In short, reading the newspaper each day is much more thorough for me than rocketing down the home page selecting articles. Re-subscribing was also a matter of protest, a vote for journalism and its importance to our culture.

Already, in just a few days, I feel like I am rediscovering the world. Even though the Los Angeles Times is struggling still, and newspapers as we have known them will probably disappear, I will hold on until I find a new model that equals the old. Newspapers may be a part of the “dead tree media,” but I miss that forest. Even in difficult times, or maybe because of the uncertainty in the world today, I want to re-commit to that “dead tree” a little longer.

4 comments:

Brent said...

I share your admiration for newsprint and mourn the loss of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, one of Seattle's two long-standing dailies. I haven't received a print paper since I moved abroad and I certainly miss it. Perhaps a Kindle subscription would provide something of the same experience as the real thing?

Nairi said...

I saw this movie yesterday on HBO and it really did touch me. Not only the story about Mr. Ayers himself but about Mr. Lopez. His determination to stick to what he loves doing regardless of the direction the industry is headed is admirable.

Paul L. Martin said...

If you liked the film, Nairi, you should read the book. I thought the book was much better.

Journalism is in a state of revolution right now. The situation in Haiti with the earthquake shows us the power of reporting and what good journalism can do to change the world. I just hope we do not lose the craft and people like Steve Lopez or we will be left in the dark.

Thanks for the comment.

Paul L. Martin said...

Brent, what I am contemplating writing about soon is that I am already having delivery problems with the paper. It seems they want to make it easy to drop the subscription. I mean, paying for something I can get online, and more reliably, looks like a good deal at this point. Nostalgia only goes so far.

Thanks for the comment.