By David Tulis
The crisis in the newspaper industry in recent years, particularly since the economic meltdown in September 2008, should prompt people who love their hometown paper to look into underlying realities they perhaps have not considered. The ravages of a credit-dependent economy during a contraction coupled with the lure of the Internet are pronounced — so grave that it might be time to look under the floorboards to see what foundation the newspaper business is built on. Rock or sand?
People who predict the extinction of the newspaper might look first into the existential nature of the newspaper, its place in the created order of reality. It is here they might find confidence in the medium’s survival despite impressive shortcomings.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press is part of the “oldpaper” industry, as our favorite economist, Gary North, tells it. Dr. North says he never buys a paper and does everything over the Internet. Arguments for why the newspaper is so worn out and feeble touch on several aspects of its embarrassing palpability. It has to be delivered physically to your house. It contains yesterday’s news. Leave today’s edition on your sunny dashboard and it yellows. It clumps when damp. Recycling old papers is a chore. A paper has limits on word count and ad space. You have to pay for it. On a cold, wet day, you have to get properly dressed to fetch the news.
The naysayers are half right. The newspaper is part of a reality that starts with creation bound by physical and moral laws beyond man’s control. Vital strictures from God’s creation bind the newspaper to the reader: Time, space and material existence. These are fundamental aspects of mankind that ideologues, science fiction novelists and gnostics pretend aren’t eternally fixed, ** but their tendrils bind the individual members of the public to the printed newspaper.
The Internet lets us ignore essential creational and human truths the printed newspaper has an inherent power to affirm. A day’s edition has heft and is a burden for the company to deliver to my door. If the carrier doesn’t come, I don’t get my news. Yes, the paper is subject to age and moisture. But it is my paper, about my city, my county, my state and my country. The fact that my hometown newspaper circulates only 70,000 each day is not its fault, but a fact to glory in. It circulates only so far because of the delightful handicap of geography. People 60 miles away think their town is the center of the world, not my town. So they care little for my hometown product. As they care less with remoteness, I care more, being on the dot in the middle of the concentric circles on the circulation manager’s carrier chart. Only God sees every place and every event from “above” or from every angle. The Internet pretends to have that nongeographic viewpoint. Its genius as a network frees us to deny origins, birthplace, province and fromness.
But how much of that can people take?
Lococentrism and mortality
The Chattanooga Times Free Press is distinct from much of the Web in that it has a local brain focused on my hometown. The creative work in the newsroom creates a relationship among me, the editors, reporters and photographers. The paper is a printed record about my life, the larger public hometown life it allows me to follow or ignore. It is full of familiar names and places. It stands upon a trust relationship; the local paper gives me the best local and other news.
Because it is physical and delivered to my driveway mailbox, its offerings suffice for that day. The printed paper brings the news not of the minute, as on the Web, but of the day. This point is its secret strength, not a weakness to hide from. Let me dwell on this claim for a moment.
The day’s edition waiting in the red delivery box is only so big. Sharing with it a physical existence, I expect only so much within its pages. I am marked by finitude — wrinkles, weight, a need to eat and sleep. The newspaper makes no promise to be endless and eternal, does not promise to hold my interest for hours, makes no claim to containing every rabbit trail and velleity of the Web. The paper comes in familiar forms and is all business. Its material is fixed. In ink. If I have 20 minutes I can be well informed and satisfied. A bigger paper makes me think I am being enriched. A thin paper makes me think I can take my pleasure and also save time. Like grace from heaven that is sufficient in great trials and small according to the occasion, the newspaper is sufficient for me in my relationship to it, no matter the bulk.
“But, hey,” says a rebuke in back of my head. “It’s yesterday’s news. What do you say about that?” The local paper arrived at my doorstep this morning bearing something fresh, not stale. That the bombings, scandals and bill signings occurred yesterday is fine; I accept delay as reasonable. Yesterday’s events are today’s news. If at work today I hear NPR or catch a moment of TV news, I will still wait for the real accounting tomorrow morning in my red Times Free Press box at the bottom of my driveway by the pine trees.
Vulnerable, the Internet defies time, space and material reality
If my arguments for the sturdiness of the paper are not sufficient, let me enumerate briefly the disfavor that attaches to Web. The Web claims to be universal, total, never sleeping, an eternal daylight of color, faces, claims and teases. If I am listless, the Web is a mile wide and an inch deep. If I am searching, the Web is an inch wide and a mile deep. The Web lets me reorder the world according to personal preference. Unlike the newspaper, the Web is free. I read, but am easily bored and readily skeptical. I skim frequently, move rapidly from site to site. With my self-created homepage, I let news feeds tell me that there is news, but I don’t read and possess it with interest. Cinematic ads and video teases make me think in terms of milliseconds to enhance immediate gratification. I lean forward, as at work.
On the Web I am the moving party, the plaintiff coming to it with claims. It is psychocentric. With the newspaper, I am the defendant, served with paper, a slap of the hard-edged real world.
As a reader of the newspaper, I am not getting and shaping the news, but receiving it predigested and organized by people I more or less trust. If not that, at least I know how they think. When I get the paper I am opening myself to the world, within the limits of my geography, in the same way a reader of fiction opens himself to a novel. The reader trusts the author to transport him into another time and place.
While the Web pretends to transcend time, space and material, it doesn’t. It fails to take account of them. The newspaper, however, does. It operates within their parameters, as do its subscribers and prospective readers. Physical existence, community, neighborliness and lococentrism give the hometown newspaper a powerful claim in the marketplace, despite growing industry weakness.
Having made an argument for the durability of physical newspapers, I would like to go on to suggest an important weakness that Jason Taylor, president, and other smart people at the Chattanooga Times Free Press might try to overcome if they are to prosper amid an industry shakeup brought about by the Internet.
The Web is a digital disruption of the company’s longstanding quasi-monopoly on news in the city. Chattanooga Publishing operates Timesfreepress.com and a host of other specialty sites. Does simply running websites account for the Internet? Can the company survive if all it does it publish various drafts of news written for its printed newspaper on its website?
Is there an idea that might help the newspaper reorganize its operations to account for the Web, and keep Chattanooga Publishing among the top industry performers? Is it possible that a winning idea toward this result arises from a conception of local economy?
I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Times Free Press, and hope to explore how the privately owned company could keep an edge against Web challengers such as Chattanoogan.com, Nooga.com and aggregator newsandbull.com/chattanooga. My suggestions aren’t really technical or gadget oriented. They are more about understanding human nature and borrowing concepts that grow in a rich local soil. The most fertile concepts for such companies that seek to account for the liberating might of the Internet is to inhale the fresh air of liberty and to have confidence in the worth of newsroom people pinched into a restrictive employment covenant.
Sources: Ken Doctor, Newsonomics [;] Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.**
James A. Herrick, Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008)