Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Down in the Hole

As a fellow Irish friend observed recently, Irish sober = not so interesting. (A toast to which we raised our double shots of Bushmills.) And that’s why as I began The Wire, season 5 last night, I was schadenfreudenly pleased to find Jimmy McNulty off the wagon and whoring.

Of course, while McNulty’s wiener-capades delight us, they wouldn’t be so great if these hookups weren’t based on character, and if the fucking didn’t take place against the greater landscape of an urban dystopia. It’s The Wire’s willingness to tackle huge issues, that makes it rise above the regular cop show, and Season 5 takes on the decline of the paper.

And so we finally we reach the point of this post. And here I shall employ another lazy-ass Chuck Klosterman post-modern self-aware transition (I’m out of coffee, ok?):


I was struck by how The Wire through fiction explores the same points made by this article in The Nation, The Death and Life of American Newspapers.

Among other points, The Wire and The Nation make the case that papers are failing because in the interest of short term profits, they did not cultivate (read: pay) their talent. As the writing deteriorated in quality, new readership (i.e. young readership) failed to develop.

Conversation in Episode 3 between editor Augustus "Gus" Haynes (trying to save the paper) and skilled, veteran reporter Roger Twigg, (getting the shaft):

Haynes: “You know my father worked over at Armco, right? And every morning before he went to work he’d sit at the table reading the paper with a cup of coffee and no one could interrupt him for that fifteen minutes before he walked out the door. And I remember watching him thinking, what the hell is so important about that damn paper. I want to be a part of that. It made me want to be a newspaperman.”

Twigg: “One day I was cuttin’ class at Patterson and there was this man on the downtown bus folding his broadsheet just so. And the way that man folded that paper and concentrated on reading those pages made him look like the smartest son of the bitch on the bus. It was just one of those moments.”

I possess dim memories of these good old days, when the paper mattered. Sundays we all read the paper, passing sections around, and my parents still subscribe — they simply are of that era. Paper: It’s what you do. God bless them for it because The Tuscaloosa News is truly awful. (Sports = football. Front page = stadium construction news. Religion = the coach and his wife went to church. Life = the coach’s wife reupholstered her sofa. Metro = there's boxing until football season in six more months.)

Now, I’m not sure I could document a decline exactly of The Tuscaloosa News, but I can safely say it has gotten even worse because of all the outsourced articles, which destroyed the local character. The paper used to, at least, have some personality.

Not so long ago it seemed many great writers whetted their pens at their local paper (and actually Lee Smith worked for T-town news in the 70s). Maybe these writers didn’t stay in journalism, but it was considered an honorable phase, and “reporter” (as the job was called back then), did have the aura of a glamorous profession. But as more papers came to read like canned copy, writers lost interest. We writers need at least a little romance to keep us going. Maybe it wasn’t the pay so much as the harness. Perhaps the decline in newsprint journalism has birthed creative nonfiction as a genre to compensate.

Is it too late for the paper? Probably, Has anyone learned that short term profits lead to increasingly poor product and eventually, bankruptcy? Doubtful. But I like to think there is some moral victory in that (at least partially) the pending failure of the local paper lies in that the owners should have freaking developed their writers.


unsaid said...

I got excited when I saw the title of this post. I love when it gets recognized for being the great show that it is when people do things like what you did here in this post.

Laurie W. said...

But a fraction of the death toll hereSigh. The Chi Tribune has turned garbage design-wise since they went tabloid size. I feel horrible when I see the dust jackets on older books with celebratory and intelligible blurbs that came from the Tribune. No more...

Anna said...

Wiener-capades. Hahaha.

Eric said...

This post really hits home as I (coincidentally) too am in the middle of The Wire's Season 5, and have had all these exact thoughts. Hurrah for group think. ;)

One of my friends, who was a recently laid off photojournalist for the Sun Times, has been lamenting the fall of newspaper print for years now. Internet gives it away for free, and sometimes, with better content, provided that you do your research.