If there has been one constant in my life, it’s been newspapers. At the suburban house where I grew up, there was a thwack on the driveway twice a day: the San Francisco Chronicle in the morning, and the Palo Alto Times in the afternoon. It was no surprise then that at college, I ended up spending way too much time in the office of the school newspaper. The quarter I tried to serve as entertainment editor, I almost flunked out.
And while my publishing career took me to magazines rather than newspapers, I never lost that habit. In fact, if I didn’t read a newspaper every morning, I felt as unsettled as I would have if I hadn’t brushed my teeth. During my ill-fated semester at Cornell, I read both the New York Times and the New York Daily News (anything to take my mind of economics and statistics). Later, back in Palo Alto, I subscribed to both the Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury-News. Only by getting both of them did I really get all the news and features I needed. (By this time, the Palo Alto Times had morphed into something called the Peninsula Times-Tribune. It expanded its coverage but reduced its page count, and so ended up serving none of its communities very well and closed in 1993.)
When I married, my very practical wife put the kibosh on having two newspapers, from the standpoint of both time and money. We settled on the Mercury-News, since San Jose was closer to where we settled and it covered Silicon Valley better. Those were heady days, with lots of pre-Web advertising. The Mercury-News won Pulitzers for investigating the Marcos regime in 1986 (a story of local interest simply because so many Filipinos lived in the Bay Area) and covering the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Our day always began the same way – sharing thirty minutes with coffee, the newspaper, and each other.
But with the dawn of online services, the paper began to thin. Soon it didn’t take thirty minutes to read it; sometimes it took less than ten. It was like seeing someone waste away from cancer. We switched back to the Chronicle, even though its editors seem to think the only two cities in the Bay Area are San Francisco and Oakland. It begrudgingly covers the South Bay in only three major ways: technology, Stanford football, and really grisly crimes. Occasionally its sports section will acknowledge there’s a professional hockey team in San Jose.
That would be fine, except that history is repeating itself. It’s taking less and less time to read the Chronicle. Now that the Super Bowl is over, I can dispatch the sports section in under two minutes flat. And if I even catch one NPR broadcast in the afternoon, I find the same headlines in the paper the following morning (and I pay for NPR, too). At the same time, I began to sense that I was getting billed for it more frequently. I checked my records and realized that the paper had upped its subscription rates to the equivalent of about $1.50 a day, even though its newsstand cost is only $1 (and that doesn’t include tip). It began to strike me as flagrantly wasteful that something that cost more than $500 each year would end up in the recycling basket two hours after it had arrived.
And yet … the idea of buying two computer tablets and downloading the paper to both of them seems even more extravagant. Somewhere, some smart techie is getting together with some smart journalist to devise an electronic newspaper that brings together everything specific readers want and nothing they don’t.
That, unfortunately, excises the serendipity that makes the journey of discovery every morning with the newspaper so much fun. You never know what you’re going to find. There’s something homey and romantic about the give-and-take of who gets to read each newspaper section, skimpy though each one may have become. Our cat Bandit really likes sleeping on the sections we’re not reading. And the Sunday paper gives me enough crossword puzzles to last me through the week. Given my history with newspapers, the idea of contributing to yet another one’s death spiral seems faintly treasonous. And so, for now, we remain subscribed.
Frankly, it would be much easier to cancel if our delivery person wasn’t so punctual. But rain or shine, our guy has the paper on our driveway every morning when I get up. And you know what’s really ironic? He doesn’t even speak English.