What papers do you read to form your world view?

I started writing this post after walking the dog on this blustery autumn morning. On the way out the door, we picked up the NY Times and, since it wasn’t raining, I tried reading while the hound stalked squirrels and nibbled on grass. I don’t recommend reading a newspaper while walking a dog. Most mornings, I only manage to read the portion of the front page above the fold. The art of folding a paper for compact reading is fine for riding the bus, but is complicated by a leash and a plastic bag full of excrement.

Newspapers have been on my mind lately. The most current reason is Sarah Palin’s inability to answer Katie Couric’s question about the newspapers or magazines she reads. She subsequently told Fox News that Couric annoyed her by not asking the right questions. Apparently, Couric should have asked these: "Governor Palin, would you share a few reasons why you think Barack Obama is a bad choice for America? Rather than answering me, would you mind just talking straight to the American people so my filters won’t get in your way?"

We now know that Palin reads the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, among others. Were I the interviewer, my “gotcha” question would have been: “Which comic strip in the NY Times is your favorite?” And, I’d ask whether she does the crossword puzzle in pen or pencil. (For purely tactile reasons, I’m a pen guy -- pencil on newsprint is less pleasurable).

Oh, here are a few more media-related questions I’d ask Governor Palin: “You said that you watched Tina Fey’s impersonation of you with the volume turned down. Really? C’mon, really? The sound was turned down? Could nobody find the remote and turn the damned volume up? You're lying again, aren't you?”

The Toy Cannon household receives the Oregonian and the NY Times at our doorstep seven days a week. I’m at loose ends if I don’t have a paper spread across the table with my first cup of coffee. When my wife and I go out for breakfast on a Sunday morning, we tote along sections of the paper to read while waiting for the food. It may look like we’re not talking to each other, but there’ll be time for that while we eat.

I cling to newspapers like others cling to guns and religion, and I know I’m a member of a dying breed. Those of us who still read newspapers probably do so out of family tradition more than anything. When I was a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the region had two dailies--one in the morning (The Chronicle) and one in the afternoon (The Examiner)--delivered by paperboys on bicycles with canvas bags slung over their shoulders. (I’m treading into Norman Rockwell territory now). My family was a morning paper family, so I grew up with Herb Caen and his daily dose of witty observations, neologisms (he coined both “beatnik” and “hippy”), and society name-dropping characterized as “three dot journalism” for the frequent use of ellipses to divide stories. I can't swear that I read these columns when I was young. When I read Herb Caen now, I wince a little and see his writing as an artifact of a different age and generation--a time of Mad Men and Joey Bishop. Still, I can't deny that they seem to have seeped through my pores, and I feel their influence every time I use an ellipsis ... (But where did the parenthetical asides come from)?

When Jonathan Nicholas wrote a regular gossip column in the Oregonian, both his content and cadence reminded me of a less able Caen. (Get it? ... Able/Caen ... Cain/Abel). I was never a big fan of Nicholas’ column, though I admit to having always read it. I guess I would rather read breezy gossip on People About Town than self-congratulatory, heart-string-tuggers that have become the current form of social columnizing. But I seem to have digressed.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about newspapers is because The Oregonian is trying to bribe at least 100 full-timers to quit (an estimated 50 from the newsroom) in order to stanch the bleeding from lost advertising revenue. In late June, publisher Fred Stickel sent employees a letter affirming the paper’s long-held “Job Security Pledge,” which promises that no full-time, non-represented employee will be laid off due to economic or technological changes. Stickel’s letter emphasizes one ominous caveat: “The Pledge does not/will not apply to situations in which our newspaper ceases to publish daily in its current newsprint form.” My prediction is that we’ll see the Oregonian drop its Saturday edition within the next year, thus ceasing to publish “daily” and clearing the decks.

Two months after that letter, a follow-up letter (posted here on the Portland Mercury blogsite) dropped the proverbial other shoe by offering a tempting buyout deal to full-time employees (less generous for part-timers). Columnist S. Renee Mitchell recently decided to jump, announcing the move in her final column last week. (She promised to continue serving humanity in other ways). On his blog, stellar music critic, David Stabler, announced that he will be staying. Those eligible for the buyout offer have until October 6, 2008 to announce their decisions, so brace yourselves.

Because of my job and my personal interests, I'm curious to learn which of the paper's ever-shrinking crew of cultural critics will remain, and how much further its arts coverage will wither. Setting aside my generally pro-labor bias, I don't object to articles written by freelancers. (Ex-Oregonian critic Bob Hicks has done some of his best writing as a freelancer both for the Oregonian and through his blog at Art Scatter). My concern is one of consistency and depth. If a writer such as Shawn Levy jumps ship, will the Oregonian turn to a changing cast of freelancers for its movie reviews? (By the way, Levy is writing a biography of Paul Newman due out next fall, so could probably use a little time off to put a rush on it. See his lengthy obituary of Newman here). I may not always agree with a critic, but am better equipped to interpret his or her latest review when read through the lens of past reviews and with some appreciation of that writer's sensibilities and voice.

The Oregonian is already a slim production. When I fillet the Sunday paper and stack the ads to the side, there's not much left to read. Even then, a good portion of the "news hole" (love that term) in the books and arts section is often eaten up by gratuitously large photos and photo essays.

I'll concede that a photograph is worth at least a thousand words. The right photo can illustrate a story, or at least provide a little visual interest to break up a particularly tedious piece of writing. (Don't worry, I'm almost done here). All I'm saying is if the Oregonian shrinks any more, or keeps getting filled by wire stories, or loses consistency and depth in its arts coverage, then I'm ready to walk away.

One last note of trivia: Herb Caen’s counterpart on the other side of the Chronicle's op-ed section was Stanton Delaplane, who was primarily a travel writer. With a quick Google search to confirm the spelling of his name, I found his NY Times obituary from 1988:

Stanton Hill Delaplane, an award-winning columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle who championed Irish coffee in the United States, died Monday of emphysema at his home in San Francisco. He was 80 years old.”

Delaplane won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for a series of articles about the secessionist movement calling for Northern California and Southern Oregon to become the State of Jefferson. An interesting story worthy of journalism’s highest honor. However, his most noteworthy achievement appears to be the promotion of an alcoholic drink. Let that be a lesson to aspiring young journalists!


culturejock said...

Nice piece, MTC. I too have a tactical need for a newspaper with my morning coffee, and for me it's all about the NY Times. I ditched my Oregonian subscription about two years ago when I did a scientific study of the arts coverage and found that not only was the arts coverage dwindling, but random national news feeds outnumbered locally written stories by almost 2 to 1. Their argument that there just wasn't enough ad revenue to support local arts stories didn't cut it for me; my research revealed that they chose to spend their column inches in other ways.

I was getting fairly fond of The Tribune, but the minute they scaled down to a Thursday-only paper, I found them irrelevant. "Daily online," whatever.

And let me just say that I agree with those who have said there's a danger in our increasing ability, mostly because of the internet, to screen the news that we want to read, and filter out everything else. This is one of the reasons that I have started reading the Wall Street Journal much more frequently, and I find it to be intelligently written throughout, regardless of whether or not I agree with them politically.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't be more involved in this nor more acutely aware of the number of column inches in The Oregonian devoted to arts and culture coverage, BUT I would humbly submit that if you didn't pick up your local paper this morning you missed out on an excellent report from Bob Hicks on Johnny Stallings' prison "Hamlet" in Umatilla, DK Row's review of "Wild Beauty" at the PAM, reviews of Imago and Third Rail productions ("Dead Funny" is a must), a report on Lang Lang's appearance with the symphony, and for you hip-hop fans, a Talib Kweli take. And I might suggest that there isn't another spot in the entire known universe you can go and find this combination of responses to art in Portland for your (now) 75 cents. Not the NYT and not the WSJ and not any other publication or website in town. (not even artscatter!). Just sayin'...

MightyToyCannon said...

Barry comment puts up a strong defense of the Oregonian’s arts and culture coverage. Today’s paper was indeed an example of that coverage at its best and most thorough. Over breakfast this morning, I read every article he cited (at the expense of getting to my bus on time). I concede that it would be unreasonable for me to expect a regional paper to devote that many column inches every day, but I’d love it if such coverage could be found more often. Maybe at bit more on Sundays, please?

Speaking of the Sunday paper, I appreciated D.K. Row’s article and interview with artist Christine Bourdette yesterday. I’m looking forward to seeing her retrospective show at Marylhurst’s Art Gym, having also been encouraged to do so by friend, Mary Oslund. Last year, Bourdette designed a simple, yet effective set for Oslund’s work SKY. (That work was brilliantly described on Art Scatter by none other than Barry Johnson—a post that may have been my first introduction to that site, and one that I’ve forwarded and quoted often on behalf of Oslund+Company/Dance).

While I’m in a magnanimous Monday mood, here’s another nice thing about the Sunday Oregonian: I suspect that the number of column inches allocated to book reviews is higher than in comparable regional papers. Is anybody out there able or willing to confirm that (or argue otherwise)?

My post referred to “the paper's ever-shrinking crew of cultural critics” and described its arts coverage as “withering.” (I was using the latter as a verb meaning “shriveling,” not as an adjective meaning “scornful” or “destructive,” which could be appropriate in describing arts coverage). I made those statements without empirical evidence. So let me now clarify that my post was intended as a meditation on the FUTURE of arts coverage, not a critique of the present. Had I no regard for the Oregonian’s Arts Team (or its esteemed editor), the buyout plan would be no concern for me, and I would have written simply, “Good riddance.”

culturejock said...

I know! Imagine how pleased I was to find all the content in today's Oregonian just 17 hours after I wrote my comments above, which failed to observe the fact that Mondays have become a nice showcase of arts-related stories. I would happily purchase a Monday-only subscription to The Oregonian if it were available! I wish we could figure out a viable internet revenue model, though, because I think Art Scatter is worth 75 cents/day when The Oregonian often isn't.

Anonymous said...

Art Scatter's ears are burning! If we fast-forward some indeterminate number of years (and it may not be a large number), it's likely (and beneficial) that there are more robust formations of arts and culture discussion/news/gossip with a local flavor than there are now. And by that time, the money part of the equation will have been solved, I bet. It's a transitional time we live in...

Anonymous said...

We discussed critical arts coverage in our Creative Capacity breakout session last week, and agreed unanimously that there's a dearth of intelligent critical writing on the arts in this town. Portland is not alone in this (Seattle's even WORSE in some ways) and it's not entirely The Oregonian's fault; they have their own huge problems to deal with. But how can we invest in something that will be a platform for better, more consistent CRITICISM and EVALUATION of the arts in Portland?

MightyToyCannon said...

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I can't resist weighing in again.

My original post was provoked by wistful affection for old fashioned newsprint. (Perhaps I was hearing the death rattle of a dying print media wafting on the autumnal breeze). However, the ease with which I slip into nostalgia should not signal resistance to new-fangled means of communicating ideas.

I agree with Barry that soon we’ll be seeing more “robust formations of arts and culture discussion/news/gossip with a local flavor." Indeed, we already are. While I'd like Culture Shock to be part of that movement, I hope to still be able to find cultural commentary written by those who have experience, knowledge and perspective that yayhoos like me lack. I want to read reviews by writers who can teach me something new, or who can examine a performance or painting from an angle I might have otherwise missed. I appreciate the arts perspectives of friends and colleagues – at least those whose judgment I trust. I'm not so interested in the opinions of people I haven't gotten to know.

Maybe that’s the crux of the issue: With a plethora of voices and opinions, who do you trust? Or whose voice do you know well enough that you can decide when to listen and when to laugh? As cultural commentary goes online, will we end up exchanging opinions and gossip on the arts in ever-shrinking micro-communities? Will there be a chance of accidentally tripping across a review for which you weren't looking, thereby discovering something new? Will we take the time to search out reviews by critics with whom we know we'll disagree, or will our feeds leave them out?

A quick aside: Many who toiled in Portland theater a few years back can regale us with spine-chilling stories of wretched reviews by the Willamette Week’s theater critic, Steffen Silvis. My personal favorite is when he declared “Dennis Bigelow isn’t fit to direct community theater in Scapoose,” by which he unfairly, albeit economically, slandered: (1) the widely-admired and sadly late-Dennis Bigelow; (2) community theater; and, (3) Scapoose.

Steffen could be wildly offensive and petty, but he was often as insightful as he was inciteful. The fact that I looked for his reviews each week is telling. (Though perhaps it only demonstrates an addiction to schadenfreude). I frequently disagreed with his views, but I learned to appreciate his voice and to treat it as a counterbalance to reviews written by other critics.

I understand Anonymous’ perspective on the paucity of arts writing in Portland, having heard the complaint often. But allow me be a contrarian for a moment: In my experience, the common indictment heard from artists and arts organizations isn’t about the QUALITY of the writing, but rather its QUANTITY. The issue boils down to wanting more previews and reviews to promote a production or exhibition. Let’s be honest: Unable to afford paid advertising in the Oregonian or Willie Week, our hope is that we can secure the elusive “earned media” that might move tickets. Of course, we then complain when the review is rubbish and drives audiences away--darn those stupid critics. We forget that an arts critic is not the same as a publicist.

The Creative Capacity discussion to which Anonymous refers addressed questions of how public funds (in Future World) should be spent to advance arts and culture. I’m curious about what kind of investment would be appropriate in creating a platform for cultural criticism and evaluation. Excuse me if I sound libertarian, but is that an appropriate role for government? I love me my Regional Arts and Culture Council (and its intrepid staff), but feel a tiny shudder when I think of RACC taking on some new media role. But I haven't thought about this very imaginatively yet.

How else might the need for more and better arts coverage be tackled? Is the solution to be found on the internets?

Anonymous said...

At PORT: portlandart.net we do what we can to speak to those who want more in depth interviews and reviews (by people with very qualified backgrounds) but we are a focused specialty publication that hones in on the visual arts. Weve even solved the funding problem that people keep referencing. In August we had 115,000 + unique readers too. Most of them are hard core art and design geeks.

check out ou interviews with Brad Cloepfil, Fritz Haeg and our latest

BTW the Oregonian absolutely must have a full time architecture critic as Portland goes through these dramatic changes (when prompted most of the city's leaders seem to agree, do you want me to circulate a petition?... seriously). It's the difference
between a rent a cop and a personal body guard when discussing freelance vs.
full time critics. The problem with newspapers isn't revenue, it's the absurd
profit margins that the private shareholders of newspapers expect. It's a resource
management problem and the editors and writers are up against a wall at most newspapers, I feel for them. Maybe Y'all should go Norma Rae on them and form your own "mutual" newspaper like the St Petersburg Times, that way the writers are the shareholders?

MightyToyCannon said...

Jeff, thanks for weighing in. The PORT: portlandart.net site is an excellent example of an online source of cultural commentary with a local flavor, albeit with a focus on visual arts and architecture. Congratulations on your numbers.

I wholeheartedly agree that a full-time architecture critic is needed at the O, given what's going on in the region. (I love your analogy of the rent-a-cop vs. the personal body guard). I was disappointed when Randy Gragg left the paper, but am glad his voice is still out there.

You raise a cogent point about ownership and profit-margin issues and how those shape the economics of publishing. It shouldn't be a surprise that the same buyout plan being implemented at the Oregonian is happening all over the place. (Ironically coinciding with the timing of the O's buyout offer, its comics page ran a Doonesbury series featuring reporter Rick Redfern taking a buyout offer from the Washington Post).

Our economic crisis is largely the result of business culture that makes short-term returns for shareholders its highest priority. Whatever happened to the notions of stewardship, sustainable growth and community service? There I go getting all teary-eyed and idealistic!