Archive for March, 2009

A new era begins today

Monday, March 30th, 2009

The Detroit newspapers are not being delivered to homes today.

Is this evidence of the fall of newspapers, or a healthy sign of the re-birth of  journalism in America?

Only time will tell.

The idea that newspapers can survive as a new paper/online mix that emphasizes daily news on the Web and a print edition only two or three times a week, is not that far-fetched.

Actually, it fits my personal news reading habits these days. I often skip my daily newspaper and catch up on the news on-line when I have time. The papers sometimes pile up for days.

But two or three times a week, when I do have time, I prefer to curl up with my dead tree version of the news. It has so many advantages over a computer – portability and serendipity being the most obvious.

So while I was initially critical of the experiment by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, and also reacted negatively to the announcement by Michigan’s Booth Newspapers of similar plans, I’m now rethinking.

For most American newspapers, I think the move would be premature. As long as people want a daily newspaper delivered to their homes, I think media companies should continue providing it. It seems, at first glance, to be insane for the Detroit and Ann Arbor papers to politely decline to deliver the daily paper, even though tens of thousands are willing to pay for it.

But I understand what they’re aiming at. The status quo isn’t working. Newspaper profitability is declining, exacerbated by the recession.  

News that is timely and important, I’ve usually read online before my printed paper arrives (or I get home to read it). 

Much of the content of the paper isn’t that timely. When I read it three days late, I still enjoy it. I’m glad when I find a good article about progress in treating diabetes, or political turmoil in Africa, or a neighbor with an interesting hobby. I would never read those stories on-line, but I’m drawn to them when I turn the newspaper page.

Since most people are now using both methods – along with TV, radio, cell phones, etc., to get the news – why not search for a better blend of online and print that allows cost cuts but retains the essential ingredient – good journalism.

Of course, one of the problems with this scenerio comes when there is big news on a day the newspaper is not delivering. It was probably inevitable that would happen on the first day of Detroit’s experiment, with the big GM announcement and Michigan State making the Final Four. 

Oh, well. I’m rooting for the Detroit, Ann Arbor and other newspaper experiments. Whether they have the right model or not remains to be seen. It’s not a bad thing that they’re experimenting.

If this approach can save local journalism in Detroit and Ann Arbor – reporters covering the news of government and community – then it’s a good thing.

I’m just glad the Monroe Evening News is still delivered to my doorstep daily. It’s still my decision whether I read the print or online version .

In Detroit, readers no longer have that choice, and Ann Arbor readers will lose that choice this summer.

Good for Rush Limbaugh

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

I’ve been listening to Rush Limbaugh off and on for years, since early in his rise to the top of talk radio.

I agree with some of what he says, disagree with some of it, and get a good laugh almost every time I tune him in.

This week was good for several laughs, as Mr. Limbaugh gained the national stage as never before by first challenging the president to a debate, then saying he hopes Barack Obama fails.

The amazing thing is, the mainstream media actually took him seriously.

As a journalist dedicated to being impartial, I’m interested in what everyone has to say. I don’t feel “informed” until I’ve heard all sides.

In that context, I’ve found Mr. Limbaugh to be a convenient mouthpiece for conservatives. If I wondered where the right wing stood on any particular issue, I could listen to Rush for a day or two and feel confident I had heard that side of the story.

Over the years, he has been amazingly consistent with his message. He’s the classic ideologue. He knows one line, and he knows it well. You can count on him for the company line – conservative style.

In the process, you also can count on him to say some really outrageous things. You can’t tell for sure whether he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. He often doesn’t let on. But if you’re half-way open-minded, that’s where the laughs come in. It’s really funny stuff. 

Of course, when you realize that some of the 14 million people in his radio audience think he’s serious, even when he’s being obnoxious for effect, it’s a little scary.

Bottom line. Mr. Limbaugh is a very talented entertainer. In his speech last week to a conservative conference in Washington, D.C., he told some hilarious jokes. He said some things that made a lot of sense, especially if you’re a conservative. And he said some things that were rude and obnoxious. It was all completely in character. That’s who he is.

The great irony is that – no surprise – the big winner of the week was Rush Limbaugh. His ratings will go up. He got lots of attention. It seems obvious that’s what he lives for.

Of course, the Republican Party was the biggest loser. They’re stuck with even more Americans thinking that Rush Limbaugh is the spokesman for their party. Ouch!

The Democrats didn’t come off much better. They jumped so heavily on the bandwagon they must have broken both axles. Not a pretty sight.

Congratulations to Rush.

About history, rivers and ethnocentrism…

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I’m often humbled at the end of a good book.

As I set it down, I take a moment to peer into my own soul and ask, “What have I done to touch the world the way that book touched me.”

Alas, the answer is, “not much.” 

The book I just put down is “A little History of The World,” by E.H. Gombrich. If you’re familiar with it, you know that I’m a little slow, once again. It was 2005 when “A Little History” was first tranlated into English and made a splash in America. Four years late is about on par for me.

No one told me about his book. I was wandering the aisles at Borders when I saw it on a “sale” table. The cover said it was “an international bestseller.” I like history, so why not?

I’m a big believer in serendipity, and here’s another reason why. “A Little History” is like a little nugget of gold or precious jewels, hiding among the self-help books and mystery novels. I’m a richer man for having uncovered it.

There are many reasons this little book touched me, but I’ll only mention two – American ethnocentrism, and the “river of history” metaphor. 

Imagine this scenerio. A young Austrian, just out of college in 1935 and wondering what to do with his life, is asked to translate a children’s history book from German to English. Needing a job, he agrees, but when he reads the book he complains to the publisher that it’s poorly written. So the publisher invites him to write his own version, and gives him six weeks to complete it.

This young man sits down to tell the history of the world, in language intended for a bright 12-year-old. For six weeks he spends his days in the library and writes one chapter each night. When he’s through, he has written, not a history book full of facts and figures, but a sweeping vision of history that seamlessly ties the great tides of human experience into one gently flowing river.

Which is where the river metaphor comes in. In the final chapter he draws that picture himself, asking the reader to imagine flying along in a small airplane above the river of time. It would sound corny and cliched, if you hadn’t just read “A Little History,” which succeeded in doing just that.

I also mentioned American ethnocentrism. In the good ol’ USA, we tend to think of the world as revolving around us. But “A Little History” was written by an Austrian, in Vienna in 1935. It covers the history of the world with only a couple brief mentions of America. More words were spent on the Spanish conquest of Mexico City than on the creation of a new nation in North America.

The Civil War merited a few paragraphs, and the U.S. entry into World War I drew a few more sentences.  But that was about it.  In the eyes of an Austrian in 1935, America was a minor footnote in the grand scheme of things.

I must admit, I was a little hurt at first. While I attribute the birth of democracy and the grand concepts of human rights and equality to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, he talked at length about The Enlightenment and the great French and English writers who championed those causes.

It’s good medicine to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

In this case, you get a rare opportunity to view the entire history of the world. 

Oh, and don’t be put off that it’s written for children. That may very well be what made this particular version of history so compelling.  In order to make it easily understood, Gombrich had to cut through all the complications and details that often bog down history lessons.

He told it like a story – a grand, sweeping tale with no real beginning and no real ending – like a river that starts over the horizon in one direction and flows beyond sight in the other.

In the process, it provides remarkable insight into who we are today and how we got here.