Cities and Newspapers

In Harpers, Richard Rodriguez writes about the decline and really the end of newspapers: Twilight of the American newspaper.

Rodriguez discusses the history of The San Francisco Chronicle, formerly The Daily Dramatic Chronicle. The story of the Chronicle, Rodriguez says, is also the story of the Gold Rush city:

“The city very early developed a taste for limelight that was as urgent as its taste for red light. In 1865, there were competing opera houses in the city; there were six or seven or twelve theaters. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was a theatrical sheet delivered free of charge to the city’s saloons and cafés and reading rooms.”

From the example of San Francisco, points out that American newspapers are about cities:

“In truth, the noun “newspaper” is something of a misnomer. More than purveyors only of news, American newspapers were entrusted to be keepers of public record—papers were daily or weekly cumulative almanacs of tabular information. A newspaper’s morgue was scrutable evidence of the existence of a city. Newspapers published obituaries and they published birth announcements. They published wedding announcements and bankruptcy notices. They published weather forecasts (even in San Francisco, where on most days the weather is optimistic and unremarkable—fog clearing by noon). They published the fire department’s log and high school basketball scores. In a port city like San Francisco, there were listings of the arrivals and departures of ships. None of this constituted news exactly; it was a record of a city’s mundane progress. News was old as soon as it was dry—“fishwrap,” as Herb Caen often called it.”

To some readers this may be an apparent observation, but it was a revelation to me. Rodriguez explains what has changed:

“In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.”

“We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.”


In an interview with New American Media, Rodriguez discusses the decline of the San Francisco Chronicle.


One thought on “Cities and Newspapers

  1. That was a great perspective. I think it’s very astute of the author to look at the causes of our switch to digitalism rather than assigning blame to inanimate objects.

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