Oily Fingers and the Demise of an Intellectual Paradigm

Word that the San Francisco Chronicle may close down if it can't find a buyer or lower its expenses considerably hit me like a ton of bricks. The news is emblematic of the general trend for daily newspapers in the face of increased competition from on-line information sources and the failing economy.

Still, being an avid consumer of media, the notion of the daily paper, pulp and all, going away strikes me as having considerable consequences for how we imbibers of information and news do our consuming.

The first consequence is textural. This may seem inconsequential, but for all my life there has been a deep connection between the feel of thin, inky, oily paper in my hands and learning about the world around me. The textural nature of the newsprint has been a contextual element of reading text that described the world. I've not developed any similar connection that is obvious to me when I read about the world from a computer screen or hand held devise. Does this matter?

The second consequence of the demise of the newspaper involves the way I (we?) consume news. When you hold open a newspaper and focus on an article about a flood in the Midwest that is positioned in the upper left part of page 2, your eyes can't escape the headlines that surround this story. So even as you read the story of the flood, your mind takes in vague hints of how that event is placed in context with the rest of the news. Below it is a story on a scandal in a metropolitan police department. The eye also notes on page three a long story on the the rise of a former city counsel member in a southern city to the status of Mayor. And below that there is a small story, relative to the flood story and the new mayor story, on a tourist who fended off an attack by muggers at a famous zoo.

When reading from a paper, the eye and mind multi-tasks even as you focus on the Flood story. It sees other stories. It evaluates the importance of those stories merely by the number of column inches they take up. It sees the size of the headline relative to the size of the headline over the story of the flood.

The mind isn't allowed to work this way when the same stories are presented on a computer screen. And this difference has consequences for how individuals and communities understand the world around them.

The demise of the daily newspaper and the way it lays out the world and the way it FEEL in your hands as you soak up the news of the world has been a significant and important and paradigmatic element in how we learn about our world…And it's going way

I'm thinking of the Wednesday Food & Wine section in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Holding the inky, smooth paper in my hand my eye goes to the reviews of Syrahs, but at the same time I note the story on a winemaker that sits next to another story on Paella. Doesn't this unconsciously form a manner of thought and ideas in my mind? And what of the advertisement at the bottom of this page for a Chocolate and Wine Tasting Even at the winery. I'm reading the reviews of Syrah…but my mind is associating these reviews with the rest of the features and ads on the page.

This intellectual and communicative dynamic is going away.

Posted In: Personal, Wine Media


14 Responses

  1. Gretchen - February 26, 2009

    I feel the same way about books and the Kindle

  2. Samantha - February 26, 2009

    Been hearing the same thing about the Los Angeles Times, really can’t imagine my mornings without actually holding the paper. Makes me so sad…

  3. JohnLopresti - February 26, 2009

    The Chronicle was better when it was simply smart and instinctual. For the Chronicle modern times set in as its sole competitor, the afternoon paper, acquired the Chronicle and began the slow process of attrition of the best Chronicle writers, an incremental seemingly purposeful attempt to degrade the brilliance and diversity of the former Chronicle’s writers. On Sundays, it was evident even more after that acquisition, as the new overlord from the afternoon paper permitted the chronicle only two inserts in the entire Sunday ponderous weight of news and idle chatter which serves our Sunday muse. Or did, in earlier times.
    One of the real ironies of the Chronicle’s most intrepid and persistently dedicated writers, even after the Chronicle’s takeover by the afternoon paper, was visible during a labor strike in the 1990s at a time when few news sources were online yet. A substantial number of the Chronicle’s writers developed an online substitute, to produce the news for its readers throughout the strike. Their new website continued after the strike ended.
    I agree there are all sorts of benefits of the unanticipated linkages with other news than what we are reading in the paper.
    Concerning the article you were reading about the winemaker, I, too, noticed some of the unusual material presented there. The winemaker also participated in a panel on new ways to understand tannins at UC Davis last spring. I thought the comments about warm nights being beneficial near harvest possibly eccentric, and the coverage’s skipping the traditionally known problems with soil buffering in near-ocean vineyards perhaps disingenuous.
    Still, the winemaker’s background in biochemistry studies at Cal Poly, and several years of work in programs at UC Davis’s enology and viticulture facility, plus an ascending record with a respected northcoast vintner making some of the most temperamental wines, are all features which attracted me to the concepts the winemaker is seeking to advance. The vineyard savvy folks who helped introduce me to viticulture, however, would shudder at the photos of the sheep grazing by delicate vines. There are quite a few concepts the winery is exploring.
    Yet, something is going to change when there are no newspapers to set beneath the fastfood, and there are fewer ways to divert our attention from other distractions in our homes and restaurants.

  4. Bob - February 26, 2009

    I actually disagree with much of this, although I feel very differently about books. I have read newspapers voraciously all my life, but switched to on-line news reading about 8 years ago, for a number of reasons. Obviously, the total demise of “newspapers” would be disasterous. Someone has to gather and interpret the news and write stories coherently and intelligently, and blogs just don’t substitute for that. Plus, so far on-line “newspapers” haven’t figured out a viable economic model.
    On the other hand, I’ve never been particularly in love with messy, inky papers. And while I understand what you’re saying about the context of the page, I find something parallel to that with the way I read news on-line.
    Now, as I said before, I feel totally differently about books. I’ve never read a book in other than a book format (I also have no interest in books on tape), and have my doubts whether I’ll ever switch to a Kindle or related format..

  5. Kevin Finn - February 26, 2009

    This is certainly a lightning rod issue, especially recently. But I have to respectfully disagree. I have been subscribing to both the print version and online version of the Wall Street Journal, and over the past year I have noticed that my print versions just keep piling up on my doorstep, while my online news stories (fed through my Google Reader of course) can’t come fast enough. I hear your points, and from a nostalgic sense almost agree, but practically, the efficiency of online distribution seems a formidable foe.
    The newspaper problem is above my pay grade, but I would be interested to see what would happen if a newspaper undertook Mark Andreessen’s audacious suggestion to immediately shut down the printing presses during his interview with Charlie Rose (http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10093). Consider if one could take those cost savings and pour the money into interesting original reporting, rather than regurgitated AP articles.
    On the kindle, I guess I’m still old fashioned too. But I wish that I could have purchased my college textbooks via the Kindle, saving money and potential back problems from lugging around a backpack full of textbooks.

  6. Dombeya Wines - February 26, 2009

    A lot of well worded responses. I think too that underneath all of the economic reasons for this happening is the gradual dumbing down of society and the lowering standards of education that make quality writing less appreciated.

  7. Bob - February 26, 2009

    Sometimes it seems like there are parallel universes. Look at the quality of the writing and thoughton this post and the comments. Then compare it to the comments on on-line versions of many newspapers. It’s mostly people insulting each other and using caps to accentuate their rants.
    I keep track of about a dozen wine blogs, and he quality of writing is pretty impressive. Just think what it was like before the Internet. There was the Wine Spectator and Decanter, and a few other wine and food publications, and some good wine writers for a few major newspapers. Now look at how many good writers there are. Of course, many probably do it for fun (I write a modest [unnamed] Internet wine column for fun,having long ago abandoned any hope of giving up my day job for it). And some are offshoots of wine industry professional (e.g., Joe Dressner).

  8. G - February 26, 2009

    Another aspect is the locality of a newspaper. A newspaper comes from nearby, and usually deals with local issues. So much of the web is so far away, locality is often not a concern. Also, other than than the enjoyable tactile qualities of holding a paper in your hand, there is also something to be said about it simply being in your hand. You have your news, and it can’t be taken away, or censored. It is in your hand, an object. It doesn’t take much to make a website disappear.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - February 27, 2009

    This is a subject about which I have many thoughts. I write three separate columns for three separate newspapers in New York. I also maintain an online blog, and I used to write a blog for Cruvee.
    As far as I’m concerned, I like to have access to all kinds of media–print, online, radio, TV, whatever. But of all of them, the newspaper holds a special place in my soul (even though over these past decades the genre has been steadily reduced to a jumble of dumbing down attempts to keep readers).
    I also am an author and I just discovered that one of my books is being sold on Kindle, a technology I have yet to explore.
    I’ve also been on personal computers since the day they hit the street, and I know from my own experience that reading from a screen is problematic, and it is a source of much misunderstanding, as we don’t seem able to absorb screen-read material as well as we absorb from a page, which is partly why most online writing lacks length and depth–something that good newspapers used to and some still provide.
    I fear fro the course of information dissemination, but that may be because I’ve been disseminating it for most of my adult life, and I just my be biased.
    PS: I rarely get inane, insulting comments from my newspaper readers–but I get quite my share of that stuff from online readers.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - February 27, 2009

    The other thing about newspapers: they provide editors to remove the typos like the two above…

  11. mydailywine - February 27, 2009

    Yes, nostalgia abounds. I have been an avid newspaper reader for many years.
    The Age in Melbourne, Australia was my favorite for the many years I lived there. No other paper came close to competing with their weekly pull out food and wine section.
    But now I only read them at the airport or hotel, during my frequent business trips.

  12. Chris Wickham - February 28, 2009

    End the Federal Reserve the true source of our debt based economy!
    The financial future for wine only looks good for value producers for the next ten years.
    Peace out.

  13. Dylan - March 3, 2009

    Tom, you make this out as though it were the end. For the paper maybe, but it’s only the beginning and a shift toward something great for news and all writing. I agree the feel of paper between the hands will be missed but consider the other elements you mentioned. It’s perfectly reasonable that online offerings can replicate the layout of information as performed with print paper.
    Even I have my own complaints about reading long stories on screen because it stresses the eyes unlike printed word, but with innovations like the Kindle, they are even answering that problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_paper).
    It’s an amazing world we live in. Expect to see trains with morning commutes filled with people reading their news not from wide-opened papers, but from their smart phones and kindles (and whatever else comes out). The real question is what you’re going to put in the bottom of the bird cage when you’re done reading.

  14. Nexpider - July 14, 2009

    Oily Fingers and the Demise of an Intellectual Paradigm. Word that the San Francisco Chronicle may close down if it can’t find a buyer or lower its expenses.

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