On the news

During a recent, technologically-imposed Internet famine, I had the healthy experience of not knowing what was in the news for days. Now that it is over, I am again cussing myself for my habits. You see, gentle reader, my history as a news junkie runs deep. Habit keeps me reaching for “the papers,” even when there aren’t any left. I go into withdrawal.

A shameful life, addicted to the news.

By the age of six or seven I was hooked by the broadsheet typography. (Its editor had asked my father to propose a redesign of the Pakistan Times, which he then rejected; but meanwhile what could I do but watch?) I’m not precisely sure of the chronology, but by the time Pope John XXIII died (in 1963) I was saturated with the content, too. I had also started a little weekly myself, called the Comet Express, reproduced in about thirty copies from a gelatin tray, and sold door to door in the Park district of Georgetown, Ontario, for two cents a copy.

It is hard to recover from a tailspin like this. By fourteen I was reading European papers in German, French, and sometimes Italian, with enthusiasm if without competence. I was collecting odd numbers of periodicals from around the world, in any language, to study how they were done. I landed a job as a copy boy on the Globe & Mail (or, Mop & Pail to the insiders). By seventeen I’d reached the summit of my journalistic career, as Women’s and Social Editor of the Bangkok World. It has been downhill from there.

I mention all this by way of Lenten extenuation. Really this addiction to printed matter (or digital, now that I’m reduced to that) began by the age of three, with a fascination for the letter “g.” (A pair of spectacles turned sideways?) I taught myself to read on that account, but should have stuck to books. Journalism has proved a monstrous waste of time, and in the course of the last six decades or so, it has become, physically, very ugly.

My favourite newspaper was the “Fernausgabe” (i.e. foreign edition) of the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung — dull, grey, and ridiculously well-informed. (Then not now.) When men landed on the moon, they kept it off the front page — except an “Inhalt” reference to a longish piece about engineering for lunar gravity, on their “Forschung und Technik” page. There would be more current reports in subsequent days: the newspaper would wait until they were available, rather than print extravagant, sentimental fluff.

They employed more foreign correspondents than the New York Times; and far more specialized “stringers.” All seemed to be learned, and were often allowed thousands of words on obscure topics. The editorial staff was compensatingly small and overworked (I saw the inside of their office once). They did not “shape the news” like American editors; the writers shaped it for them.

An example from memory was a marvellous piece on cinema advertising in Cairo, revealing a guild of talented billboard painters. It offered a glimpse of artistic ideals and temperaments within this exotic bubble of commercial illustration. But if one read attentively, it also foreshadowed transformations in Egyptian society.

Pieces like that might appear somewhere in the Internet today, but we will have to look for them specifically, with some genius for search terms, and no confidence in their authority. Such articles seldom made the papers even then, yet as I say, there was a newspaper that ran them, the plurality of whose readers were German-speaking businessmen. And five paid subscriptions went into the White House, as one of their correspondents once boasted to me; and as many into the Kremlin, where the inmates also “needed to know.”

When the philosopher and scholar, Hans-Georg Gadamer, died in 2002 (at age 102), the good old NZZ devoted eight full (ad-free) pages to his life and thought. I remember this as a last hurrah. It was soon after that the paper was “updated,” to incorporate colour splashes, and progressively strip away whatever remained of unique value. It is obviously desperate to hold a few “modern readers,” who want their news “lite” and frothy.

It will become a sleazy tabloid, living off faded pretensions, like the Times of London; or it will become extinct. For in the absence of intelligent readers, there can be no intelligent journalism — in print, or anywhere.