Wednesday, January 27, 2016

JFK, Fish & The Wrap They Came In

Perhaps enough time has passed to admit that I once dabbled in journalism. Yes, that was me writing bad jokes and a fake advice column for the Campbell High School "Tattler" under a long forgotten pseudonym.

But even by then I'd been in the newspaper business for some time, having delivered the Regina Leader Post since somewhere around the age of 12.

Back in the day, we Whitmore Park newsies would gather on a snowy corner by the Safeway to await the big metal truck that would dump hot off the press bundles we'd transfer into our own canvas bags for delivery while the pimply-faced and barely older than us circulation overlord who drove the truck barked about complaints we'd gotten or a new circulation drive.

We also got books of Rider tickets to sell door to door that would earn us an end zone ticket for each one we completed. 

Or there'd be admissions to the fairground for Summer's "Buffalo Days" where we could snag a free ducket to the Grandstand show featuring "The Gaylords" or "The Harmonicats" as well as the famous "Dancing Waters" -- direct from Las Vegas.

Newspapers were pretty much a staple back then. You got radio news for five minutes on the hour or 15 minutes on TV at six and eleven, which didn't allow for a lot of depth. So pretty much every house in the neighborhood got the paper every night. Making the regular circulation drives a bit of a joke.

And delivering newspapers taught me a lot. 

I learned that despite all the information, classifieds, movie times and grocery special flyers we tucked inside the front door or mailbox, nobody really wanted to pay for it. I had to come around at least twice for the dollar a week people shelled out for all that plus the big Saturday edition with a full section of color funnies.

And people who worked for the government were even worse. They never felt the need to pay until they got paid at the end of the month.

But I also discovered while collecting one Friday night that the hottest cheerleader we had was sitting at home because all the guys at school were too intimidated to ask her out. Luckily, I had taken in enough cash for bus tickets, popcorn and a movie, so we bailed for a fun night on the paper's dime. 

It felt a little bit like eloping and taught me that nothing is ever truly out of reach.

I had to borrow money from my dad the next morning to pay my bill at the paper. But I became an appreciated "chip off the old block" when he learned the reason why.

The biggest lesson I learned as a paperboy, however, came the day President Kennedy was assassinated. We were in the same time zone as Dallas, so by the time events had sorted themselves out, the truck was late getting to the Safeway.

It was dark by the time I set out on my route. But I didn't drop a single paper where the subscribers usually wanted them. Someone was waiting on the front step or in the driveway of every single house to get a hard copy of the news.

That night I learned how similar we all are and that when something matters deeply to one of us, it probably matters to a whole lot of other people as well.

Newspapers were still important when I moved to Toronto in the 1970's. The town had three dailies then, all publishing multiple editions six days a week. 

My first local job was in a 24 hour porn store disguised as a bookshop on Yonge Street and around Midnight we'd get the early edition of the Globe and Mail, most of which were snapped up in bulk by street guys who'd hawk them outside bars when they closed.

It might be hard to believe that drunks would stumble out of "The Gasworks" after a couple of hours listening to "Trooper" or "Max Webster" suddenly in need of a newspaper. But they did.

Somewhere in my archives is a copy of the first Toronto Sun, a tabloid created by the suddenly unemployed staff of the suddenly defunct Telegram. Imagine any redundant journalists taking such a chance today.

Of course, it's a different time. There are at least a half dozen 24 hour news channels on my cable feed. Most on a 20 minute repetitive loop, but still. Spin any radio dial and you'll find almost as much information programming as any genre of music.

But it's online that truly cratered traditional journalism. Even paywalls don't keep people from what they want or need to know. Blocked by a provider, people just google the topic -- or in Canada, go to the CBC, already mandated to deliver it free of charge.

A couple of days ago it was announced that two of our oldest papers, The Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News were silencing their presses after 147 and 141 years respectively. Corus radio's Mike Stafford particularly mourned the passing of the Nanaimo paper, noting that it was always delivered between "two delicious wafers of chocolate".

But a few thousand people in both communities will now have to do something else while they wake up with their morning coffee.

The same day those newspaper closings were announced actor Abe Vigoda, best known as Detective Fish on "Barney Miller", died at the age of 94. And there was a bittersweet angle to his passing. 

For Vigoda had become a well-worn Internet meme, reported dead at least once or twice annually for the last decade, often in Twitter or Facebook posts picked up and reported by traditional media.

Each time, Vigoda had to make a hang-dog appearance to say, "No, I'm still here." and everybody had a laugh.

But whatever the mainstream reaction this time, I can guarantee nobody was waiting on their front step to find out what really happened.

Every morning while I walk the dog, I see the local delivery guy making his rounds in a beat up Toyota. But he doesn't stop at every house. He'll pull in at one place, drive a block to his next drop, then zoom over the hill, almost out of sight before the brake lights come on again. 

He got me wondering about the last time I actually paid for a newspaper. My local comes free with a coffee at Tim Horton's. And that got me wondering what not only the guy in the beat up Toyota, but all the people who work for all daily newspapers are going to do with their lives.

Because theirs is an era clearly coming to an end. Even behemoths like the NY Times and Washington Post have seen their subscription numbers drop by 40% over the last couple of years alone.

And while there are all kinds of economic, cultural and technological reasons contributing to that, if I was to point a finger at just one thing that has killed the newspaper, I'd say it was a shift from journalism to advocacy.

Oh, to be sure, newspapers have always endorsed causes or candidates. But now there's a air of insistence about it. Used to be you were presented with the facts or some columnist's opinion and left to make up your own mind. Now it's hard to escape the feeling of being belittled for not sharing their position or agreeing with the spin a particular outlet puts on any story.

And whether that spin is coming from the Left or the Right, I think people sense the denigration and naturally shy away from being made to feel uncomfortable or just plain stupid for whatever values and opinions they may hold.

As someone not as enamored of our current Prime Minister as the many journalists who fawned over him during the election campaign, I can't help but wonder how the few hundred recently laid off from Bell, Rogers, Corus and the Post chain will feel when he doesn't come as quickly to their aid. 15,000 workers a month losing their jobs in Alberta might just have to take precedence.

There was a time in Toronto when the joke went -- "The Globe is read by those in power. The Star is read by those who want to be in power. And the Sun is read by people who don't care who's in power as long as she looks good in a bikini".

But now that breezy sentiment has gone the way of the crusading journalists epitomized by pulp writers, Film Noir, "All The President's Men" and "Spotlight" who never gave up the struggle to reveal the truth.

And as the truth has taken a backseat to advocacy, a lot of avid news junkies have moved from multiple sources to a couple to one to -- not really bothering anymore.

We still need to be know what's going on in the world. What we don't need is a lecture on how we ought to feel about it.

1 comment:

Ds said...

Awesome insight. As always. And thanks for the reminder!