Twilight of the American newspaper
Richard Rodriguez is an editor at New America Media in
A scholar I know, a woman who is ninety-six years old, grew up in a tin shack on the American prairie, near the Canadian border. She learned to read from the pages of the Chicago Tribune in a one-room schoolhouse. Her teacher, who had no more than an eighth-grade education, had once been to Chicago—had been to the opera! Women in
Several generations of children learned to read from that text. The schoolroom had a wind-up phonograph, its bell shaped like a morning glory, and one record, from which a distant female voice sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”
Is it better to have or to want? My friend says her teacher knew one great thing: There was something out there. She told her class she did not expect to see even a fraction of what the world had to offer. But she hoped they might.
I became a reader of the San Francisco Chronicle when I was in high school and lived ninety miles inland, in
Newspapers have become deadweight commodities linked to other media commodities in chains that are coupled or uncoupled by accountants and lawyers and executive vice presidents and boards of directors in offices thousands of miles from where the man bit the dog and drew ink. The San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, once the Chronicle’s archrival. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters in
When a newspaper dies in
Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post–Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.
Nineteenth-century newspapers draped bunting about their mastheads and brandished an inflated diction and a Gothic type to name themselves the Herald, the Eagle, the Tribune, the Mercury, the Globe, the Sun. With the passage of time, the name of the city was commonly attached to the name of the newspaper, not only to distinguish the Alexandria Gazette from the New York Gazette but because the paper described the city and the city described the paper.
The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, precursor to the San Francisco Chronicle, was founded in 1865 by two teenage brothers on a borrowed twenty-dollar gold piece. Charles and Michael de Young (a third brother, Gustavus, was initially a partner in the publishing venture) had come west with their widowed mother from
Karl Marx wrote that Gold Rush California was “thickly populated by men of all races, from the Yankee to the Chinese, from the Negro to the Indian and Malay, from the Creole and Mestizo to the European.” Oscar Wilde seconded Karl Marx: “It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in
The de Young brothers named their newspaper the Daily Dramatic Chronicle because stranded young men seek entertainment. The city very early developed a taste for limelight that was as urgent as its taste for red light. In 1865, there were competing opera houses in the city; there were six or seven or twelve theaters. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was a theatrical sheet delivered free of charge to the city’s saloons and cafés and reading rooms.
An Italian who came to
We can imagine marooned opera singers, not of the second, perhaps not even of the third rank, enunciating elaborate prayers and curses from the Italian repertoire as they stumbled among the pebbles and stones of cold running creeks on their way to perform in Gold Rush towns along the
It is still possible, very occasionally, to visit the Gold Rush city when one attends a crowded theater. Audiences here, more than in any city I know, possess a wit in common and can react as one—in pleasure, but also in derision. I often think our impulse toward hoot and holler might be related to our founding sense of isolation, to our being “an oasis of civilization in the California desert,” in the phrase of Addison DeWitt (in All About Eve), who, though a Hollywood figment, is about as good a rendition as I can summon of the sensibility (“New York critics”) we have courted here for one hundred and fifty years. And deplored.
The nineteenth-century city felt itself surrounded by vacancy—to the west, the gray court of the Pacific; to the east, the
Readers in other parts of the country were fascinated by any scrap of detail about the Gold Rush city. Here is a fragment (July 9, 1866) from Bret Harte’s dispatch to readers of the Springfield Republican (from a collection of such dispatches edited by Gary Scharnhorst). The description remains accurate:
Midsummer! . . . To dwellers in Atlantic cities, what visions of heated pavements, of staring bricks, of grateful shade trees, of straw hats and white muslin, are conjured up in this word. . . . In
From its inception, the San Francisco Chronicle borrowed a tone of merriment and swagger from the city it daily invented—on one occasion with fatal consequences: in 1879, the Chronicle ran an exposé of the Reverend Isaac Smith Kalloch, a recent arrival to the city (“driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper”) who had put himself up as a candidate for mayor. The Chronicle recounted Kalloch’s trial for adultery in
“Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman,” Ambrose Bierce later remarked of Michael, the surviving brother. However just or unjust Bierce’s estimation, the de Young brothers lived and died according to their notion of a newspaper’s purpose—that it should entertain and incite the population.
In 1884, Michael was shot by Adolph Spreckels, the brother of a rival newspaper publisher and the son of the sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, after the Chronicle accused the Spreckels Sugar Company of labor practices in
When he died in 1925, Michael de Young bequeathed the ownership of the Chronicle to his four daughters with the stipulation that it could not be sold out of the family until the death of the last surviving daughter.
In 1972, the museum donated by Michael de Young merged with the museum created by the family of the man who tried to murder Michael de Young to become the Fine Arts Museums of
Men, usually men, who assumed the sole proprietorships of newspapers in the nineteenth century were the sort of men to be attracted by the way a newspaper could magnify an already fatted ego. Newspaper publishers were accustomed to lord over cities.
William Randolph Hearst was given the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a mining millionaire and
We remember Joseph Pulitzer not as a sensationalist journalist but as the philanthropist who endowed an award for excellence in journalism and the arts. We remember William Randolph Hearst because his castle overlooking the Pacific—fifty miles of ocean frontage—is as forthright a temple to grandiosity as this nation can boast. And we remember Hearst as the original for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Welles portrayed Charles Foster Kane with the mix of populism and egomania audiences of the time easily recognized as Hearst. Kane the champion of the common man becomes Kane the autocrat. Kane builds an opera house for his paramour. Kane invents a war.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner were both losing money when, in 1965, Charles Thieriot, grandson of Michael de Young, met with William Randolph Hearst Jr. to collaborate on what they called the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. The Agency was a third entity designed to share production and administrative costs. The papers were to maintain editorial discretion and separate staffs. In addition, an incoherent Sunday edition shuffled together sections from both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The terms of the publishers’ agreement eventually favored the afternoon Hearst newspaper, for it was soon to fall behind, to become the lesser newspaper in a two-paper town. The Examiner nevertheless continued to collect half the profits of both.
In January 1988, Phyllis Tucker, the last surviving daughter of Michael de Young, died in
To satisfy antitrust concerns of the Justice Department, the Hearst Corporation sold the still-extant San Francisco Examiner to the politically connected Fang family, owners of Asianweek, the oldest and largest English-language Asian-American newspaper. The Hearst Corporation paid the Fangs a subsidy of $66 million to run the Examiner. Florence Fang placed her son, Ted Fang, in the editor’s chair. Within a year, Florence Fang fired her son; Ted Fang threatened to sue his mother. In 2004, the Fang family sold the Examiner to Philip Anschutz, a scattershot entrepreneur from
The day after I was born in
Unwilling to forfeit any fraction of my quarter, I even studied the classifieds—-unrelieved columns laid out like city blocks: Room for rent.
During Scott Newhall’s tenure as executive editor, from 1952 to 1971, the Chronicle achieved something of a golden age. Newhall was flamboyant in ways that were congenial to the city. At a time when the Los Angeles Times was attracting admiration from the East Coast for its fleet of foreign bureaus, Newhall reverted to an eighteenth-century model of a newspaper as first-person observer.
For nearly two decades the city that prized its singularity was entertained by idiosyncratic voices. At the shallow end of the Chronicle’s roster (under the cipher of a coronet) appeared Count Marco, a Liberace of the typewriter who concerned himself with fashion and beauty and l’amour. At the deep end—a snug corner at Gino and Carlo’s bar in
Each day except Saturday, for forty years,
After a time,
In 1967, the Chronicle’s rock and jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason, teamed up with a renegade cherub named Jann Wenner to publish Rolling Stone magazine. What this disparate twosome intuited was that by chronicling the rising influence of rock music, they were effectively covering a revolution. In
One morning in the 1970s, the Chronicle began to publish Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—adding sex and drugs and local branding to the nineteenth-century gimmick of serial fiction. At a time when American families were trending to the suburbs, Maupin’s novel insisted that
In those same years, Joan Didion wrote, in The White Album, that for many people in
What no one could have imagined in 1977, not even Jann Wenner, was that a suburban industrial region thirty miles to the south of the city contained an epic lode.
Don’t kid a kidder. Herb
If you die in
In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in
We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of
A few months ago there was an item in the paper about a young woman so plugged into her personal sounds and her texting apparatus that she stepped off the curb and was mowed down by a honking bus.
In this morning’s paper there is a quote from an interview
The other day I came upon a coffeehouse that resembled, as I judged from its nineteenth-century exterior, the sort of café where the de Young brothers might have distributed their paper. The café was only a couple of blocks from the lively gay ambience of upper
I should mention that the café, like every coffeehouse in the city, had stacks of the Bay Guardian, S.F. Weekly, the Bay Area Reporter—free and roughly equivalent to the Daily Dramatic Chronicle of yore. I should mention that
Gosta Berling, Kid Mud, Skeletal System El Rio. 8pm, $5.
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.)
Another friend, a journalist born in India, who has heard me connect newspapers with place once too often, does not dispute my argument, but neither is he troubled by it: “If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”
So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies. In
Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (add to shopping cart), they will do it.
We will end up with one and a half cities in
National newspapers may try to impersonate regional newspapers that are dying or dead. (There have been reports that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will soon publish San Francisco Bay Area editions.) We already live in the
An obituary does not propose a solution.