The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The post-newspaper city

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.


It’s funny that in yet another ‘print is dying’ argument, I’m frustrated because my response to this won’t be out in print for another few weeks!

But basically, my argument was that the mobile internet – Twitter, Foursquare or whatever – produces a sense of the local because it: a) makes the experience of a neighbourhood/city etc. more immediate; b) opens it up to the kinds of serendipitous discoveries that can happen through Twitter and Foursquare. Far from feeling less connected to a place, this incessant buzz of the local makes me feel much more part of my hometown than ever before (and it seems worth pointing out that I’m both an immigrant and a visible minority).

What’s more, this imagined community is, in ways I haven’t yet been quite able to articulate, ‘somewhere’ – i.e. it’s on this screen, accessible by thousands. Put yourself on that screen – whether through a blog, your Twitter, etc. – and you too become part of that imagined community as a writer, as someone who inscribes and produces the dynamics of that community.

I think the lament for the newspaper is fair. There is something about the kind of cultural capital and what I call the ‘centri-centrism’ of what feels like an authoritative voice (“oh it was in the Globe – that place is *really* part of our city now). But I like your read much better. And if print weren’t so damn slow, I could share my thoughts in a more clearly thought-out manner!

Zach Seward says…

Among the old-school newspaper types, my favorite is Pete Hamill, who was editor of both the Daily News and New York Post. He wrote an essay in 1998 that your post immediately brought to mind. I was 13 when I first read this passage, and it was immediately, like—yes:

In the cities and towns of Mexico, the main plaza is usually called the zócalo. It is a marvelous social institution. Along the sides of most such public squares are the city hall, the central police station, and the church. There is often a band shell in the center, surrounded by a park, with benches under the trees and shoeshine boys and newsdealers. Most buildings have arcades fronting the square, and beneath the arcades there are café tables, there is much talk. At one table, the subject might be football. At another, the cost of living. At a third, the perils of love. Every sort of information is exchanged: news of politics, corruption, the cost of living. Each night, there are thousands of small encounters, collisions, illuminations. More important, there is a sense of belonging in the rude democracy of the zócalo. The daily visitors belong to that town. They are its citizens. They come to know its great men and strong women, its frauds and informers, its liars and its truth tellers, its solid citizens and its criminals. In the zócalo, they come to understand clearly what factors—weather, devaluations, the larger economy—will affect their ability to put food on their tables. They go to the zócalo to learn.

The institution of the central plaza has never existed in the same way north of the Rio Grande. There is no unifying, centralizing plaza in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Our scale is too large, the cities too immense. Even our small-town equivalents—the town square or Main Street—have been abandoned for the glossier attractions of shopping malls. But I like to think of newspapers as psychological zócalos. A newspaper is a specific product; but it is also a common destination for citizens of all walks of life, a thing that is also a shared location. Those citizens spend only a short time in the printed zócalo, but they can feel a small amount of comfort in the big, anonymous, alienating city in knowing that such a brief experience is common to hundreds of thousands of others.

The newspaper as plaza must be open to all those who want to learn more about the place in which they live and the world in which that place exists. If it is too narrow, too insistently rooted in the parish, it becomes by definition parochial. If its concerns are too ethereal, too remote from the lives of ordinary citizens, it will become a closed space, a kind of private club, a force for exclusion instead of inclusion. A newspaper must be open. It must communicate a sense of welcome. There is room in the zócalo for people who are interested only in sports or politics, crime or education. Some might want to know about changing fashions, the latest plays, movies, or music, the best restaurants. Some might want to laugh; they can turn to the comic strips. Some might want to hear the latest gossip.

“What is your audience?” is the question often asked of newspaper executives.

The answer should be a variation of: “Everyone in the zócalo.”

I remember finding Hamill’s vision exactly right but also aspirational. No newspaper I knew came anywhere close. Now it doesn’t read like a vision for a newspaper at all. This was way before Daily Kos (or, but he was obviously describing a good blog.

I love this – the magnanimity of it:

There is room in the zócalo for peo­ple who are inter­ested only in sports or pol­i­tics, crime or edu­ca­tion. Some might want to know about chang­ing fash­ions, the lat­est plays, movies, or music, the best restau­rants. Some might want to laugh; they can turn to the comic strips. Some might want to hear the lat­est gossip.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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