Monday, February 23, 2009
A Broken Contract
Death Rustle. Like a rattlesnake in the leaves.
ALL THE NEWS THAT'S SIMPLE ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND. Today, Philly.com announced that its parent company was in trouble:
PHILADELPHIA - The owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sunday in an effort to restructure its debt load.
Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC, is the second newspaper company in two days, and fourth in recent months, to seek bankruptcy protection.
"This restructuring is focused solely on our debt, not our operations," chief executive officer Brian P. Tierney said in a statement. "Our operations are sound and profitable."
The filing Sunday indicated the company has between $100 million and $500 million in assets and liabilities in the same range. The company said it will continue the normal operations of its newspapers, magazines and online businesses without interruption during the debt-restructuring process. In a story posted on its Web site Sunday, the company says it has a debt load of $390 million.
"In the last two years, we experienced the rare trifecta of a dramatic decline in revenue, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a debt structure out of line with current economic realities," Tierney said.
Tierney said the company's goal was to bring its debt in line with "the realities of the current economic and business conditions."
I saw this early in the morning and thought, callously, "Ho hum. Another one bites the dust." It took Mrs. CP to remind me, sadly, that there was a time when we all liked newspapers. That there was a time when they were a tactile, if not sensuous, part of everyone's day. I realized she was right and making a huge point almost no one has made during this calamitous collapse of the whole newspaper business.
And, no, I wasn't misusing the word 'sensuous.'
sen·su·ous (snsh-s) adj.
1. Of, relating to, or derived from the senses.
2. Appealing to or gratifying the senses.
a. Readily affected through the senses.
b. Highly appreciative of the pleasures of sensation.
It's been so long since I physically interacted with a newspaper that I forgot. All this talk about what's killed newspapers is wrong. It isn't the Internet. It's the newspapers themselves.
The Internet is a computer screen, chill if not cold, at best a cool window rather than a handshake and lacking any murmur of response. That's not how newspapers used to be. They were, in their heyday, manly friends who showed up politely at your doorstep every morning.
I think 'manly' is the key word. In an old school way. You wake up, you're grumpy or anyway taciturn, and you get yourself a cup of coffee and the paper from the doorstep. You're in the grim stepped-down mode of wanting minimal communication. The banner of the front page is exactly the right note. The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times. The Hometown Herald. Predictable, formal, remote as a business card. You start with the front page. No emotions here. Guaranteed. "Here's the lowdown, old man, all the worst news without a sigh or a tear." And you're buoyed by the gravity of the whole paper in your hands, still folded, a weight of information raising you back to life after a night of fleeting dreams and spiraling abstract worries.
You drink coffee, you read the news. Man to man. Still coming to grips with the fact of another new day. There are sections you can control physically. Heft by heft, you can quickmarch to the sports section when you are ready for the straitjacketed emotions that have to do with mere athletic contests. A surprising win, a disappointing loss. The boxscores. You are in control. Here is the gist if the hometown oratory is too much to deal with. More coffee. The paper is your first intimate of the day. You integrate it with your breakfast table, bend pages, use it as a screen or prop to interact with mere humans, and you can even razor through the blur of a night's sleep to wield cartoon punchlines from the funny pages as if they were blades of your own wit. If you're up to it, which is not always the case, you can glance at the editorials and op-ed columns to determine just how mad you're prepared to get today. At the obituaries if you're of an age and interested.
When you finally refold it and drop it on the breakfast table, you are ready for your private battles. You know what the world has already tried to do, and you bequeath that to the other members of your family as you sally forth on the important business of the day. You've had a close but polite encounter with the kind of old friend who always knows the order in which you like to meet the day and never oversteps his bounds. He never calls you by a pejorative personal nickname. He's always just there and always correct in his communications.
The paper itself is part of the experience. The smell, the texture, the sound of your own back and forth with the pages. Reawakening all your senses without offending any of them. Re-igniting your mind without starting an unnecessary argument.
This, all of this, represents the broken contract, the reason for the imminent death of so many newspapers. When journalists acquired their lust to save the world and allowed their political views to infect the strictly news pages of the paper, they did far more damage to their institutions than the Internet has ever done. They screwed up the process of slowly returning to the world in an orderly, predictable fashion. When politics slithered into sections that should have been just sports or fashion or the arts or comics, with a potential venomous hiss lurking in every paragraph, they turned their sacred trust into a primeval danger that poisoned the process of waking up.
The coldness of the Internet was a liability in the tactile environment of the newspaper. Until newspapers turned traitor and started getting subtly personal with their readers on the news pages. Nobody wants that from the front page on their first cup of coffee. That's when the icy impersonality of the Internet starts to feel good. There's no handshake behind any of the betrayals.
The Internet didn't kill newspapers. Newspapers did. The way old friends and faithful spouses kill the love of those who loved them.
Goodbye Inquirer. Goodbye Daily News. Goodbye New York Times. I have in times past reveled in all your pages, gloried in your ink and friendly bulk. But that's all over now. When your news pages, sports sections, features, reviews, and comics are all editorial pages you think you can sneak past old friends, don't even try to approach me with the old glad handshake. I don't trust you any more. That's the way it is with all intimate relationships. Betray them and you can never again expect the same level of trust. That's when people look for other partners. Don't blame the Internet; she's a young and unreliable slut with an unspeakably filthy mouth. But she doesn't lie about who and what she is.
Just remember, when you die, that life and loyalty weren't taken from you. You pissed them all away. When your obit is written, only one short sentence will be necessary: "You messed up our mornings." Nobody needs a rattlesnake coiled on the breakfast plate. SSSSSSSSSSSS.