Andrew points me to a Richard Rodriguez essay in Harper’s on the newspaper and the city. Andrew’s pull is a great line: “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”
For me, this is the truest line in the essay: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper.” And this is the most false or misleading: “If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death… it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.”
The gap between these two statements is huge. It can be true – and I believe it is true – that the relationship between newspapers and their host cities has shifted, and that in very many cases the daily newspaper no longer reflects citizens’ sense of their place. Rodriguez lovingly describes the 19th-century newspaper and the San Francisco Chronicle of his youth; what he describes seems vastly different from the functions served by the daily newspaper today. We’ve experienced a profound change in the relationship between a newspaper and its readers’ geographic identities.
However, one cannot and ought not to conclude that the absence of this reflection implies that our sense of place has simply vanished. Yet that’s what Rodriguez does:
The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city…
We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen… We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.
There are several ironies in this. First, the daily omnibus paper that Rodriguez praises in his hymn to the local itself already obliterated locality. The citywide daily asks readers to identify beyond their own neighborhoods, thinking of themselves as part of an imagined community called San Francisco. The death of neighborhood and foreign-language and political newspapers likewise pushed towards a cosmopolitanism within the polis.
Second, it’s more likely that a range of other media have taken over this identity-mirroring function from the newspaper — local identity has simply been displaced, not imploded. Here’s a candidate: the alt-weekly. As high-circulation dailies increasingly target suburban readers — those Silicon Valley upstarts Rodriguez is so anxious about — they become, again, less rooted in the daily life of a city than the smaller, more targeted local papers. Our identities didn’t simply drift away from the big dailies; they were pried away by hungry upstarts who offered a different, more useful, perhaps more compelling vision of the city.
The internet, too, offers us a sense of the local as well as the cosmopolitan. Rodriguez hints at this with an anecdote about Craigslist (a San Francisco institution if ever there was one):
The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)
This might not be a sense of locality Rodriguez wishes to endorse, but you can’t tell me, after long paragraphs about Rolling Stone and the 60s sexual revolution, that you blame Craigslist for turning San Francisco into a place where people seek anonymous sex. That, too, is part of the texture of a place.
The final irony is that the mobile internet, which for Rodriguez suggests only the possibility of transcending the long ride on the Geary St bus, offers the greatest promise of restoring the local. I’m thinking of sites like Yelp, that augment the yellow pages with reviews and commentary from our actual neighbors. What’s more, with GPS, we can access this information as a function of our physical proximity to these places. We become more than just obituaries and directory listings; we become living people, navigating through live, dynamic space.
So on the one hand, Rodriguez is right. Most of us probably don’t think of the newspaper as a city anymore, or vice versa. What we’ve replaced it with, though, is no less rooted in the physical or the local as what came before; if anything, it’s simply easier for us to balance our cosmopolitanism (which was always an outstanding possibility in the world of print) with our locality — like the body, like pain, that most persistent of actualities. Wherever you go, there you are.