|Investors in the Sun-Times are a low-profile group of civic-minded individuals|
Sure, I signed up for AARP—the American Association of Retired Persons—years ago, even though I wasn't retired and wasn't yet 60. The discounts alone seemed worth the pittance they charge for membership—or did, back when we, you know, went to restaurants and stayed in motels and stuff. Plus they seem on the side of angels when it comes to lobbying for health care.
They send out a sharp publication, the AARP Bulletin, printed on semi-glossy newsprint paper, the way certain trade publications used to. It has the brawny feel of Steel Pipe Quarterly or Chicken Husbandry World.
That said, I don't fall eagerly upon the thing when it arrives. The June issue, "THE NEW NORMAL" sat around for a while. But I finally flipped it open Sunday.
I've been thinking about how the ongoing plague will affect society, long term. Money is gone, obviously, both in the sense of funds, and coins and paper money. We'll finally get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill just in time for people to stop using currency entirely, the sort of cruel cosmic joke that America likes to play in these matters.
"WHAT COMES NEXT" is subtitled "EXPERTS PREDICT HOW THE PANDEMIC WILL CHANGE OUR LIVES." Experts! Say no more. Although, I'd rather read a piece called "How experts are wrong about almost everything all the time."
Still, pretty safe Sunday night reading. Our future seems to include lots of Purell but not many handshakes.
I can live with that. Then this popped up:
"...digital media hasn't been kind to the newspaper and magazine biz, but COVID-19 could bury it. Gannett, the largest owner of local papers, lost nearly 94 percent of its value between August 2019 and April—much of that since mid-February. Media analyst Ken Doctor calls the pandemic 'an extinction event' for print, as newsstand sales, subscriptions and ad dollars shrivel, and beloved columnists you've been reading for years quietly disappear."Come again? What was that last part? As bad as it is to get an unexpected foreshadowing of doom, directed to you personally, it's even worse to get it in the AARP Bulletin. That's like flipping through the Vermont Country Store catalogue, wondering whether you'd really ever order the Brown Bread in a Can or the Chinese checkers set, only to turn a page and be confronted with, "Neil's Head on a Pike," only $19.95. Very realistic looking.
Not that I consider myself beloved. Far from it. Nor reviled, really. More unknown, ignored, not-thought-about-much and beside-the-point, like every other columnist for every other publication for the past decade or two. I mean, I've got regular readers, thank God. But they don't love me. Okay, a few are obsessed in an unhealthy and probably pathological fashion. I wouldn't call that love. And though I read and appreciate certain columnists—Eric Zorn comes to mind. Or Leonard Pitts. Or S.E. Cupp. But I don't love them either.
And quietly disappear?!? How is that new? When columnists go, quietly is pretty much the only option. Given the hook by death, yanked off stage as if by a string. Even those blowing up in the most dramatic exits—think Bob Greene—still go with the smallest poof. Really, it's like a gasoline storage facility on the far horizon exploding: a muffled ker-flump and a little mushroom of flame and smoke blossoms upward and vanishes. Replaced in 30 seconds by a sooty plume. "Oh look at that." Then a minute later, even that's gone. Nobody is clutching at the air where we've been nearly a quarter century later. That's only for Royko.
Hard as that is to take, it's even worse if we're still alive, and the exit is orderly enough to permit a final ave atque vale column. Usually, our supposedly poignant, thanks-for-the-memories good-bye to all our fans is also the greater general public's introduction to our existence. They look up at the flash of our self-immolation. A theatrical flourish, a deep bow, making twirls with your paired index and middle fingers, a few passionate kisses delivered to the mirror, then gone. Twitter serves up the goodbye of Arthur M. Blainford, the Rock of the Metro City Gazette for 47 years. Some black-and-white shot of him arm-wrestling with Kenny Loggins. And you think: who? Wha? Sorry pal, I somehow missed every single word you ever wrote plus the fact you were alive. I wish I could flatter myself that I won't appear that way to anyone who actually notices when my time comes but—spoiler alert!—I will.
As for disappearing, you could argue that, with the internet, both nothing and everything disappears. Oh, everything you've ever written is there, swirling around in this snow globe of words the size of Jupiter. Accessible to anyone who wants it, 24 hours a day. Almost a mockery, since nobody knows and nobody cares, now that every single person is jabbering away full volume 24 hours a day. Columnists have already disappeared, lost in the constant roar. I wish I could convince myself otherwise but I can't.
So thank you AARP, thank you Ken Doctor, for alerting print to its demise. Yes, these are tough times for the newspaper biz. And Napoleon has escaped from Elba. Both are not fake, but both are old news. Old, perennial news. Both are always the case. Print is always dying, ever since Johannes Gutenberg went bankrupt and lost his printing press. I've been saying that newspapering is like the M.C. Escher staircase that goes down and down and never reaches the bottom for a dozen years now. If not more. Didn't the Chicago Daily News—the best of Chicago's four newspapers, remember—crumple into dust in 1977? Remember where the Sun-Times came from: two newspapers, the Sun and the Times, joining forces to better survive. In 1947.
All sorts of media are declared dead all the time—Napster spelled doom for recorded music, remember? Only to somehow revive and endure. Not to contradict an expert like Ken Doctor, who was confidently predicting in 2012 that there was no economic reason that the Tribune would still be in business in 2015. But everyone's crystal ball is cloudy. The Trib is still here, last time I looked. Yes, arms bound behind her and in a tumbril heading to a wooden platform where Alden Capital is whetting a big double-sided axe. But not yet submitted to the fatal chop.
Where there's life, as my people say, there's hope.
Remember, we were doomed too. Cowering on the floor of some luxe Trump Tower condo at midnight as our owner Michael Ferro, doublet unloosed, advanced upon us, rubbing his hands together, jaws slavering, eyes aflame.
Yet we were saved at the last moment, spared that final despoilment. And now we've found a new home, and new friends, and things are snapping and popping once again at the Sun-Times. Every time I look at the paper there are more reporters hired, unfamiliar names, new projects begun. Our rescuers who galloped up and plucked us out of Ferro's clutches stand like a stone wall between us and the storm rattling the windows of journalism. Our owners, a confederation of labor unions, civic minded individuals and Chicagoans whose love for their city is only matched by their bottomless bank accounts, got together and decided to keep the scrappy newshound in kibble to prevent Chicago from becoming some eternally rainy Gotham City hellscape where all information is curated by Mark Zuckerberg.
Sure, that could change in a day, or an hour, and you don't have to tell me that merely reporting a rosy outlook is asking for trouble, like a protester flipping off a cop off camera. But our credo is to call it like we see it and let the chips fall where they may, and that goes for good as well as bad. As somehow who has been through years when the paper was riding low in the water, waves crashing over the bow, star-flares exploding above the pitching deck, this feels like smooth sailing. COVID-19, the recession and the civic unrest has, as Ken Doctor said, made it harder to distribute the paper. People can no longer pick it up at newsstands that are no longer open on commutes they don't take to jobs they don't have.
But the news—credible, interesting, lively reportage of what's going on, plus thoughtful commentary from we liked-though-not-really-loved commentators—is more important than ever. We'll figure out how to keep it in your hands, somehow.
Things change. I bet there were plenty of folks in the cloth mask and hand sanitizer industries who were sitting around six months ago, glumly throwing cards into a hat and despairing whether business would every pick up. It did. News is no different. Our time has come in the past and will come again. Until then, what is it Henry V says? "All things be ready if our minds be so." The times whir, and we whir with them, at least until the final curtain falls.