Saving Newspapers, Part 2

Dumbing down newspapers is a self-defeating strategy.

Until very recently, much human technological development was driven by people instinctively seeking quality, not just in their own lives, but in their work, because fine craftsmanship in any field is a statement about the human dignity and worth of manager, worker, and customer. Our lives are made of time; work is often what we use that time to make, and money is the fungible medium of exchange: when maker and customer each offer value given for value received, they honor the time—the lives—of all involved. To offer little or nothing is to rob the maker, just as to offer garbage is to rob the customer, and both are acts of contempt for that portion of their lives that went into making and selling the product, or earning the money to pay for it. For this reason, I, a great scavenger of used bookstores, have come to regard it as a moral imperative to buy books new whenever possible, because buying quality creates a market for quality.

But if you don’t know what quality is, you lose your ability to appreciate it. My friend K., a fine horsewoman who I suspect (never having made use of her professional services) is an equally fine nurse, collects sewing machines. (Her husband C. is also a nurse who built, by hand out of scavenged wood, a wonderful weekend cabin six miles off the power grid; when he tired of hauling diesel up for the generator, he decided to create his own solar bank. C. explained to me that I, too, could also create such a solar bank, and that it would be economic to do so.) The pride of her collection is a Singer from about 1910, all black enamel and gold and red decals, gleaming like jewelry, in its original fine wood cabinet with graceful ironwork gears to transfer power from the treadle to the needle. Nothing about this machine is not beautiful, including the stitches it sews: K. explained to me that unlike modern computerized machines, it can only sew a straight stitch, but because the internal gears are machined to finer tolerances than modern ones, its stitching is more precise, even after a century of use. She loves old manual typewriters for the same reasons: the precision of their manufacture and their ability to do only one thing extremely well.

But appreciating fine sewing and printing, like fine writing, is very difficult to do if you are drowning in a sea of garbage. For one thing, quality simply becomes hard to find and so, whether you are a producer, a consumer, or, as most of us are, both, your senses become dulled by a constant diet of coarseness. You lose the ability to appreciate fine work and understand why it can cost money, just as you lose the skills needed to make fine work, or manufacture the tools used to create such work.

This is why dumbing down newspapers is a race to the bottom that amounts to no more than industry suicide. If people do not have good writing available on a daily basis in their local newspaper, perhaps the single thing most people are likely to read and to lead them into exploring other writing on a huge variety of subjects, they will lose the ability to appreciate it. Editors, I have come to believe, must take the lead in explaining to their readers what is at stake in newspapers written for their readership as if they are citizens with a stake in the Reoublic. They must say this loudly, clearly, and constantly, or they will destroy their market, and that in a time when people need more than ever ready access to good writing that speaks to them as if they are citizens.

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