I have a confession to make: I like local newspapers.
Go ahead, read your neatly formatted, instantly re-loading, online Wall Street Journal. Smile smugly at the well-typeset stories appropriately concerned but not excessively worried about international developments. Know what’s going on in Brussels and Turtle Bay. Approve of the conveniently monotonous op-eds, except for the token op-ed from the other side. Read statistics.
I will squint at the misprinted pages of a New Haven Register or Chicago Sun-Times. My hands will be dirty with cheap ink — my nose probably will be too. Most of the stories were probably written a week ago. Several will be about the dangers of social networking Web sites to our community’s children. At least one will be about an eating contest. I expect a picture of the latter.
Colorful quotations will be taken out of context, but will be not nearly as colorful as the blue squares happily overlaying the lede on the Register’s front page every day. That page, by the way, will not cover the latest Congressional outrage; it will, however, promise a detailed analysis of Hillhouse High School’s state playoff hopes, in Section D.
Newspapers are dying, and proclaiming allegiance to one species of dying regime over another in the same genus is a bit like saying that I prefer the Hapsburg to the Ottoman Empire. (There are people who talk like that here at Yale — God bless’em.) But spring is a time for romance and to a young boy who liked to think there was romance in the thud of the Chicago Sun-Times on his porch — or, more likely, in the bushes in front of his house, or maybe at the neighbors’ porch or perhaps in the alley, or it could be that today was the day the paper just didn’t show up.
If you’re lucky, you live in a town with two or even three papers, and every day you can pick up the lowest tabloid, easy to read on the train, easy to tuck under your arm, easy to roll up for swatting your dog or a fly.
You started with the universally lame sports headline. (Imagine what Chicago editors did when the Bears named Lovey Smith their new head coach. They didn’t touch the Cubs for a month, instead going with “I THINK I’M IN LOVEY,” etc., day after day.) After getting your fill of the front page — CORRUPTION AT CITY HALL: NOT ME, MAYOR SAYS — you might flip to the local columnists. The Sun-Times, at least, has happily sectarian regulars: the Jewish suburban columnist, the black woman columnist, and so on, each speaking to her own constituency and anyone else who happens to flip past while looking for the continuation of the hospital closing story.
Finally, to the comics, nationally syndicated and universally prosaic. (A few are serial adventures, not properly comedic: “Stacey called.” “Stacey! I thought he was in Mexico.” “Not anymore. Rod, there’s something I have to tell you.” The last phrase shows a distressed woman in a hat and simple pearl earrings talking in the phone on the foreground and a man in a trench coat and a gun standing in a doorway behind her. “I’ll call you back!” Each sentence was differently capitalized, emboldened, underlined, or italicized; 16 different font combinations meant the look could change in the middle of sentences, or even clauses. “You mean — They’ve FOUND her!”) And past that, the car ads. Well, we know where those went.
Somehow, in my mind, The New York Times’s Web site — sleek, lots of good negative space, perhaps even on the verge of a sensible financial model — is tied both to the death of local identity and the death of print media as we know them. Such is the way of the world. Free agency killed the local baseball team, but we wouldn’t deny ball players their rights. Soon they’ll shut down the bars and the baseball and we’ll just be left with Wal-Mart and highways.
Yet even in this age of easy air travel, most Americans and especially most of our fellow human beings don’t have a global perspective. They can’t. Their world is necessarily local. In our own Yale bubble of Light Fellowships and banking — er, consulting — gigs in Dubai, it’s easy to forget about life when you can’t take Metro-North to the city, reading the same headlines as the kid on New Jersey Transit to the city. It’s easy to forget that our parents’ lives — mine, at least — were shaped by street corners they passed every day, and their parents’ lives by villages and fields. The national paper, like the Internet, is great for someone who thinks of himself as on top of the world — but that Olympian, where is he from? And what kind of guy is not from anywhere?
Maybe it was all a serial fantasy. Maybe next week’s three frames will tell us about the next twist in the adventure, or tell us that that guy is from Krypton. Or maybe they will tell us that the problems of this world finally found an Ivy Leaguer’s Kryptonite.
Give me the picture of Dixwell’s eating contest anyway. Those are real people, not just numbers.
Michael Pomeranz is a senior in Silliman College.