Reading the newspaper in a newspaper town

by Brian Clarey

I’ve spent the bulk of this week in my hometown of Garden City, NY, in the heart of Nassau County on Long Island.

Things are different up here.

People use their car horns with much more frequency, I’m remembering, and I’ve been flipped off more times this week than in the past year in Greensboro. It’s comforting, in a way.

And, of course, pretty much everything costs more in New York, starting with gasoline, which is creeping steadily towards $4.50 a gallon. People complain a bit, but the roads still snarl with traffic and you can’t find a parking spot anywhere.

The New York metropolitan area has changed since I left 20 years ago, before Giuliani made the streets safer, before the trustifarians and I-bankers made Manhattan inaccessible for regular folk and the hipsters moved to Brooklyn.

I saw people windsurfing and kite surfing in Brooklyn just the other day, off Coney Island within plain sight of the Belt Parkway, which in my antiquated view is kind of disturbing. These are strange times, indeed.

But they still spray graffiti on every available surface around here, still carry inexplicable affection for the New York Mets and still consider themselves to be the world’s foremost experts on pizza and bagels. A lot of them still smoke, even though cigarettes are like eight bucks a pack.

And people still read newspapers. Several of them. Every day.

My father is a fairly representative of New Yorkers his age. He begins each day with a run to the newsstand. To get the papers. He’ll pick up The New York Times, Newsday, the New York Post and the Daily News. He’ll take the Village Voice if he makes it into the city. He’ll grab a Long Island Press every week, reads avidly the Garden City News and Garden City Life, the two community weeklies that cover my hometown, and he still watches both the morning and evening local news, listening to 24-hour news radio in the hours in between.

When he and I talk about the future of the daily newspaper, he listens but doesn’t quite believe me.

He cannot envision, for instance, a world without actual newspapers, the kind you hold in your hand, tuck into your briefcase or take into the bathroom with you. A newspaper’s website means nothing to him – he’s 65 years old and he’s never been on the internet, never sent an e-mail, and only reads my articles after my mother’s downloaded them through her dial-up connection and printed them out for him.

He’s old school, to be sure.

While my parents have been getting their fill of the grandchildren, I have been spending some time in the apartment where they live, sitting in my father’s chair, watching his television and eating his snacks.

The front room is filled with newspapers, fresh ones each day that are regularly piled on a side table before a weekly dispatch to the recycling bin; there are generally several more scattered within reach of my father’s chair in various stages of ingestion.

My father doesn’t just read newspapers; he devours them. He reads most every local news article, though there is plenty of overlap in the New York tabloid dailies. He looks at box scores and studies league standings in the sports pages, no matter what season is running. He pulls out the TV listings and leaves them on his table, regularly consulting them throughout the day. He does the crossword puzzle, but only in the Times. I am pretty sure he scans the obituaries, and maybe even the classifieds. These papers not only keep him abreast of happenings in the area in which he lives, but they also help define the world around him. I don’t know what my father would do without his daily newspapers. I don’t know because I’ve never seen it happen.

I have heard from people who know about such things that daily newspapers are dinosaurs, that they must change their focus or die trying. I am acutely aware of layoffs, shrinking page sizes, shuttered bureaus and the mantra of “more with less,” things that are now a part of the culture at daily newspapers everywhere.

I have read that dailies will soon be free, and that eventually, in 35 years or so, that the print product will cease to exist altogether. I tell my father these things when we talk about the business.

He’s got a newspaper in his lap the last time I give him this forecast, spell out for him the dismal and declining state of the industry, reinforce the notion that the eyeballs are moving online and that’s eventually where everything will be, and that if he wants to continue to slake his insatiable thirst for news he better get with the program and spend a little time with my mother’s dial-up connection.

He still doesn’t quite believe me, or maybe he just doesn’t care.

“In thirty-five years,” he tells me, “I don’t think I’m gonna have to worry about it.”

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