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Posted at 09:35 PM ET, 05/24/2012

The end of the daily Times-Picayune, and nostalgia for newsprint


That’s what it used to look like. (Mario Tama - GETTY IMAGES)
Journalism, they tell you, never goes out of style.

People have a fundamental hankering for news. They always have. News at its most primitive level is simply an expansion of the possible subjects for gossip, and gossip has fueled our conversations ever since we first sat around fires roasting large hunks of mammoth meat.

“Garg Who Kills Most Mammoths will not make a good chief,” we said. “Urm Who Paints The Caves is worthier.”

“No,” someone said. “Urm Who Paints The Caves couldn’t spear a mammoth if his life depended on it, and I hear he’s cruel to his tame wolf-hound.”

“I hear Garg eats tame wolfhound.”

“There was a very interesting study,” someone else would chime in, “that every seven minutes conversation automatically stops because we have to listen for approaching predators.” (The person who begins most sentences in conversation with the phrase “There was a very interesting study” is a recognized type who has been around for centuries.)

The conversation would dutifully stop.

“I don’t hear any predators,” someone else would say.

We would continue chewing our meat in silence. “It’s been a while since we had a good stoning,” Zurg Who Watches Too Avidly The Noisy Talking Heads would conclude. “We should get on that.”

I ponder this because the Times-Picayune in New Orleans is ceasing to be a daily paper. And this seems like a milestone. But is it?

The newspaper as we know it, Metropolitan and Well-Respected and Striving To Be Objective, is a relatively recent invention. Newspapers were once the brainchildren of men with surplus money and opinions, desirous of getting rid of one and putting the other before the public. They came out in the morning and in the afternoon, and small boys in caps waved them around and yelled, “Extra! Extra!”

Now, we’re circling back to that. To get your voice out, you don’t need a printing press — just a WordPress.

And the only time you see people in those caps is old, balding men on buses who think that wearing them disguises the fact that they are balding. As a point of fact the opposite is true. But this is how these things go.

News has always happened 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It waits for no man, like time, the tide, or someone who just quit his job as a waiter.

Perhaps news comes in more flavors than it used to. We have a whole human zoo of professionals whose daily task is to supply us with constant updates — they go outdoors wearing no pants, or too many pants, or — well, something to do with pants. Others run for office. As long as we want to watch and read and click ahead, they ensure that there is something on. 

And we want to watch. There are the people who mainline news cable, which is so noisy that you become convinced it must be important. There are the people who get it from Jon Stewart. There are the people who check Twitter constantly for the absolute freshest, purest, most breaking, to-the-second updates. There are the people who hear it on Facebook. There are the people who wait for e-mail, check RSS feeds, read blogs. There are the people who still like their morning papers, but they are growing fewer. Seventy-five percent of us get news via e-mail or social media. Only 50 percent read a local or national newspaper.

This saddens me. I was crawling around with newsprint on my fingers before I knew what any of it meant. I liked it. I still do.

But the fond memory of inconveniences is always a sign that you are aging. You are becoming irrelevant. You are gradually moving out of the demographic of greatest interest to advertisers. True, I have no such fondness for the whine of dial-up, floppy disks, or the download speeds that used to swallow up a day for two minutes of video. But there is something about words printed on cheap paper that tugs at you. You feel that there is some cogent justification for them.

“There’s nothing like holding the paper in your hand,” you say. True. And soon there won’t be.

This nostalgia, like most nostalgia, is a kind of misplaced homesickness for the past. It is hard to sort out what you miss because it was good, from what you miss because it is gone.

I once held a copy of the Picayune. It was slim and heavily supplemented with wire material, if I remember correctly. I was reading it for the comics. That is generally what I do with print papers. I read them from the comics backward, and then I return them to the rack without paying for them. It’s a filthy habit. So admixed with the nostalgia for the paper between my fingers is a sort of creeping guilt.

The Times-Picayune is going to be printed thrice a week — Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. But if you don’t need a printed paper seven days a week, a friend asked, why do you need it three days? He’s right. If we can get by without it, eventually we will.

Even when Warren Buffett bought the Media General papers, canny investor though he is, good bargain though it seemed to be, it did not console me. He is an old man. Old people are not a representative sample. They still read the newspapers.

The hunger for news is there. But does it extend to a hunger for newspapers? They’re a classic, as Twain said, something we praise and don’t read. We miss the print editions, but we don’t buy them. The Times-Picayune's move was only logical. It will in all probability not be the last set of print pages to go.

We still hunger for news and thirst for journalism. And the papers themselves will continue, in some form or other. The world will spin on. But still. I’ll miss the newsprint on my fingers.

By  |  09:35 PM ET, 05/24/2012

 
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