Paper Plates

The newspaper and magazine industries continue their steep slide into oblivion.  At risk, literally, is the public square, since newspapers emerged a couple hundred years ago in order to deliver the news—and often rules and regulations—individually to the newly literate and urban citizens who used to receive it from the town crier, or read it on placards in the neighborhood and village centers.  We see its relic form in today’s supermarket bulletin boards.  However, mass media—radio, film, television and computers—broke the newspaper’s monopoly on the debate among the educated, enlightened and informed.  No one can take the place of a big city newspaper editor and his staff.  When they go, the world goes.  And, unbelievable as it seems, newspapers and magazines are going.

This isn’t merely a nostalgic loss recalled in a daydream.  This nightmare signifies the collapse of an intellectual order that accompanied the rise of the printing press in 1440 and not only ushered in the modern forms of scientific discovery, democracy and free speech, but also fostered public education, literacy and upward mobility, particularly in the US, still the world’s most hopeful beacon of wealth, health, personal fulfillment and happiness, if not the only one.  Anyone emigrating from the US to Europe?  We take free speech for granted.  Foreigners don’t.

The internet threatens not only to shatter this benevolent order—this real intellectual world—but also to prevent any new or evolving one to emerge, since its virus-like replicating quality prevents inquiry, thought and orderly discussion, replacing them with a chaos of dull and addictive ephemera.  For example, as difficult as it is to accomplish, it is much easier to publish a correction in a newspaper than on a blog or journalistic website.  In the predator-filled worldwide web, a “correction” breeds new versions of the original mistake, as occurs regularly on Wikipedia.

Consider slavery.  I believe that slavery would not have been abolished, had not the newspapers—as well as hymnals—been allowed to flourish.  Today’s international scourges—illegal drugs, child abuse, illiteracy, pornography—are not attacked by major editorial voices on the web.  Indeed, several of these plagues are spread by the internet.  Imagine if the web had replaced newspapers in the 1830s.  Slave trafficking would’ve boomed rather than been held up to intense scrutiny.  And now, what pulpits have we?  What news bureaus?  Perhaps churches, temples, mosques and synagogues will replace our newspapers, or provide a welcome and helpful parallel.  Daily devotions alongside local news, obituaries and crossword puzzles. 

After all, what is the purpose of knowledge?

Last week, three young people were gunned down five blocks from my office in the middle of the night outside a bar.  Few at our busy office got any news of it until a couple days ago.  Yet all we ever hear about—day in and day out—are the petty crimes of people in “the public eye”.  I, for one, am concerned exclusively with critically wounded teenagers a few blocks away.  That I wish to know about, and in great detail. That’s my “localism”.

Take gardening knowledge. Who’s doing what to whom, with whom and when?  And it better be either old or rare.  Who really cares?  Yet, how many tomatoes fruit on one plant or vine, on average?  How many pea pods off a single vine?  How many green beans?  How many bell peppers fruit off a single plant?  How many cukes off one plant?  Anyone ever notice how many seeds are contained in an average $3.00 packet of lettuce seed?  Last week at my local big-name supermarket, Boston lettuce was $1.75 per head, and it was a sorry looking thing.  I wanted to buy it out of pity.  (Also, for the first time since the early 1970s, the parking lot was almost empty on a weekend afternoon.)

Is the fact that a typical Boston lettuce seed packet contains 800 seeds relevant to today’s public debates about poverty, hunger and health?  How about a discussion of the importance of public transportation—heard much about buses and light rail on TV or radio in the midst of $4.00/gallon gas and the Big 3 bailout?  Not even the newspapers have had the time—or presence of mind—to bring it up. Forget about news websites as well.  They’re too busy competing with the newspapers. 


This entry was posted on Thursday, December 4th, 2008 at 10:51 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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33 Responses to “Paper Plates”

  1. Marian Moody said:

    Your comments about the death of newspapers is so true. It saddens me every day. No one I know reads the newspaper every day. They think listening to the news or reading the internet will give them all the news. All they are recieving are sensational headlines, and not the entire story, and certainly not an unbiased viewpoint.

  2. Marie M. Merzon said:

    Dear Mr. Ball, I too regret the demise of GOOD newspapers. I define GOOD newspapers as those which provide more news and less opinionating and bias. The problem is that each generation is becoming more and more immersed in the immediate fulfillment that comes from finding “the answer” with the quick click of a mouse. Little thought goes into the search for answers and that precludes the desire to read to the bottom of the column. Children who are encouraged to seek out answers from parents and teachers who engender curiosity will read newspapers, the others will be satisfied with one line news blips. I appreciate the fact that you are sharing your thoughts with others.
    Marie Montone Merzon

  3. Marilynne VenJohn said:

    Interesting reading-I have just returned from Europe. Nearly all the places we visited had small gardens. People value their fresh food.I was there 27 years ago, then we were advised to never drink tap water and all water was bottled in the restaurants. Now that is not the case. I had heard they didn’t like Americans, everyone was friendly and nice. Of course that is not the case in France. We were there when WAMU hit the dirt, lots of news about the state of finances here in the US. Most people were very sympathetic about this news.
    Our daily paper here is slow about printing the news, and if there is something contraversial(sp) going on, we can get the scoop on it 2 days earlier from another paper 125 miles east of us. Some of our hometown news is never printed. I only take this paper for the grocery adds now. Such a sad situation.
    Just a note about seeds. More and more seed packets do not contain what they say on the label. I have heard this is because the workers don’t know English. The same goes for 6-packs of flowers and veges. It’s pretty disgusting when you buy a 6-pack of peppers and they turn out to be all jalapenos. Well, I’ve bent your ear long enough, but some times I long for the days when things were what they were supposed to be.

  4. Jackie said:

    Americans do move to Europe, they call themselves expats. They enjoy the quiet life style, the daily markets of fresh produce, the safety one feels after closing the operating shutters. Schools are built for the community and children walk to their regular and sensible schedules, 9 to 5 with a healthy lunch served (no choice, just good,fresh food),playtime outdoors. The police is there, nearbye as they are required to live in the area that they service. Housing is provided and the shools/police /fire department is the community,serves the community,looks out for the well being of all the citizens.
    No mention of church.right? It’s there to fill the needs of those who whish to attend,the line is drawn.No “service” is expected, no membership, no social function, it’s a church!
    There is time to work in the garden, to walk the dog, to visit the pub and discuss the last book read… No car riquired, all is within walking distance.
    What made me leave this beautifull life? Why do I hear gunshoots nearby on saturday night? Why is produce so expensive that most people don’t even consider the option? What has made me love this wild land for the last 40 years and will probably keep me here intil I die? Ask me, I will tell you what is here and not in Europe, you will be surprised.

  5. Carolyn Hannan said:

    You are so right! Lately all the media does is hysteria. No facts. No comparisons. No 2 sides to anything.

  6. Carol said:

    I think you are correct about the internet. It has many good constructive uses, but there are also just as many negative uses. Porno is one and i don’t think they are doing much to restrict it in truth, they are just playing lip service to scratch the surface.

    One cannot count on the Media with what they report on TV. They are in the Governments and the politicians pockets. They say what they are told to say for the most part. There is alot that we are NOT told deliberatly. It is only through getting involved with activists sites that i found some real unhealthy truths about wat is REALLY going on, and its not what people think. Unfortunately we have been lulled into a by media of course a gameshow, soap opera and dancing with the starts lifestyle to keep our attention away from whats really happening around us. We are constantly bombarded with these types of things by tv and by internet. Its not accidental.

    Well, one good thing about the newspaper decline is that it will save some trees maybe. There has been massive amounts of trees cut from the envioroment to make paper products, and have you ever seen the waste that comes out of every office in paper. Its not used wisely, especially in Gov. Buildings and elsewhere. That in itself may be a good thing, and slow the global warming.
    It is our job / duty to not let them lull us into a hypnotic ignorant state so we don’t see what is going on around us, to keep a vigilant eye on the media and government happenings. Its also our duty to investigate and report when we come across somthing that smells rotten. I have written to media to congress and sent many mailings out to those i know to catch their attention. The Internet media is a good source for INSTANT sucess with the aspect of being able to reach out to many within an instant, and each one reaches will reach many more on their list. You can cover a lot of states in a matter of minutes by e-mail of information at a critical time when taking action is needed so i would never want to see the internet interupted for that reason. People have a choice. We can be entertained without letting ourself be hypnotized into idiocy. I think the newspapers will still be around but in a different format, but there will always be those localized papers of some sort.

    The newspapers can now be viewed on internet and that is the reason for their decline in volume, but there is nothing as good as having it in hand with that morning cup of java. Not quite the same reading it online i agree.

    In fact the internet is so good that congress and government would like to shut it down to try to keep us ignorant, and silenced. We have uncloaked too much of their ill doings and they are standing exposed and needing to account, and none the happy about it either. Due to assistance of the Internet media it allowed thousands of people the ability to connect on important issues and flood their e-mail and phone lines in congress telling them to stop what they are doing, and bring them to account.

    Save the trees, and keep the news moving at the fast pace with intenet, although newspapers still have their place, but getting info sent by e-mail to our local papers, media when discorery has happened at lightening speed is also what people should be doing to secure our freedom of speech, and our rights that they are slowly chipping away at all the ammendments to change them into their own laws, and none of them are to our benefit. Sad but true, and they will succeed if we sit back and do nothing and let them. So keep the news moving no matter what means you have to use,and maybe using all of them at hand at the same time is best.

    Well, i guess i got off on a roll with more than one wanted to hear. A good day to all.

  7. Patti said:

    I appreciate your comments and view. I am of the age where I still prefer written media myself. Yet, the internet keeps me informed of news more quickly, allows me to sift thru it, and I wouldn;t have the benefit of your comments without it. Keep writing!

  8. Gabe said:

    Interesting that your lament is published on the Internet!

  9. Having been in the information business since the mid-sixties, I’ve seen all of the changes. In the mid-eighties I saw (and predicted) the modern system, because I realized that information was not dependent on the medium so much as the matter of the medium: we changed from moving molecules to electrons.
    The latter move is cheaper and easier, and — more importantly — anyone can do it. In the prior information industry, we had to train and educate our informants. That is no longer necessary, and as a consequence much of what’s put forth is dreck. Much, but not all.
    Therefore, we should not cry havoc just yet. As an industry watcher, I feel the time for local publications has come (again.) The electronic media, by its vast bulk, cannot serve the local municipalities well. Carefully considered, MySpace and FaceBook and the like are really no different than the newsletters that proliferated in the seventies, small press books in the twenties and thirties, and magazines during the nineteenth century. The demand for information will not abate, and — if history proves anything — out of this new manner of moving information will come methods and phrasings of lasting value.
    The ephemera of any day can produce “The Black Cat” and “Far from the Madding Crowd.” The unfortunate moment for us is that we live in the middle of the muddle right now. Soon, people will shut up and, although it won’t die, Facebook will get outgrown. There’s still “The Onion” doing good stuff, and most every dramatic show on television these days wipes the old forms of drama off the consciousness.
    People will always garden, because it’s a good thing to do; yet few garden well. People will always read, because it’s a good thing to do; those who want to read good stuff will find those who can write good stuff.
    Lastly, as a writer, I know that writing good stuff will also happen, because writers write on purpose. The reward of producing something fine and fitting is also fine and fitting.
    Don’t despair because things ain’t like the old days. Even the old days weren’t.

  10. Tamara said:

    I’ve stopped watching the news, and reading the newspaper. Theres nothing to here or read.


    Learning is an acquired skill. Professor Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) says, we as a species first learned to read about 2000 years ago, and our brains were configured by that skill. Letters are abstract symbols that not only open up whole worlds to us, but let us build on those who went before us. The digital world may reconfigure the brain neurons of our progeny drastically altering their world.

  12. Mary Kramer said:

    Wow – You must have truly been moved by the killing of those teens. Good for you. I believe there is more common sense and decency out there just waiting to be heard. Thanks for the rant.

  13. bob said:

    I am in agreement. thought the web is good for something things it is changing how we interact with each other and how ideas and info is spread.
    as i type this my parnter is in the same room and we are both on computers and not talking. . . .

  14. jzr said:

    Oh, the times they are a changin’! It is frightening yet I sense something new in the air. We are in for a wild, difficult ride and just maybe the horror ahead will have a silver lining of sorts … people being responsible for themselves, growing their own food and slowing their pace. Maybe public transportation and bike lanes for those of us who choose to peddle will become a reality. Maybe the focus of today’s news will be less about OJ Simpson and our agonized pop culture. As for my local paper, I hope it will become literate again … something I’m interested in reading and learning from.

  15. kathy gay said:

    Maybe with the recession in full swing, this coming summer will be a great time for you to teach people how to plant a small garden which will help feed their family. I never knew there were so many seeds in a lettuce packet..that’s amazing.
    I’ve given up watching the news because they deliver what they want us to hear not the facts. Journalistic writing leaves a lot to be desired. Also, the weathermen of the 60’s gave better forecasts than we get now with all that sophisticated equipment.
    But this is the season of hope. Babies are born and new hope comes with new birth. Somewhere out there are people who care and want this world to be a better place. Just keep on believing.

  16. Candy Clark said:

    I hope you are wrong about newspapers. I love to read the local news and do everyday. I subscribe to the newspaper and enjoy it every morning with my coffee. As for seeds and gardening. Love that too. I think these pleasures will be around for a long long time. Best, Candy

  17. Erna said:

    That was a great essay–goes along with the apreciation of the best things in life–gardens, art, etc. But digital resources preserve gardening information, photos, newspaper archives (NY Times online back to 1859) and brought together a force of millions of people who are longing for a change in the state of our union. And I can save NY Times articles in my Times File. I can read newspapers from every state and foreign countries. I can garden listening to recorded books and download MP3 books free from my library. But thanks for supporting the unique power (and pleasure) of newspapers.

  18. ellen ward said:

    Thank you! I really enjoy everything you write. I work at the pocono farmstand and nursery in tannersville,pa.I try to read my emails every night.Many get deleted before they are read ,but never yours.Love your style.please continue.
    Ellen Ward

  19. SusanK said:

    What a thoughtful column. Newspapers are, indeed, the backbone of modern civilization. To see them die it to see us slide into decline. They must change to survive, but not, I hope, too much.

  20. kaye dyer said:

    Trust me the newspaper is leaving the scene.
    Rocky Mountain News in Denver must be the first in
    this area. So sad.

  21. Tillie Boyle said:

    I subscribe to several magazines,I love my magazines.
    I used to love my newspaper,until it all became political news and even then only what the powers that be allowed. I want all news. local, international,recipes,market and department store ads,coupons and local gossip just like the newspapers used to be,

  22. Lynn said:

    Hello George,

    While I appreciate your lamenting the demise of the newspaper in favor of the web, I can’t help but think you sound like every aging person who fears for the future in light of technology, and longs for the “good ole days.” Certainly letter-writing replaced traversing the countryside to communicate, the typewriter replaced hand-written correspondence, the telephone replaced neighbor to neighbor contact, and the television, well, if ever there was a sign of a society’s demise….
    Every generation experiences the fear you cite; your comments reveal the proverbial generation gap.

    In and of itself, that’s okay (and to be expected as all of us age and become less connected to generations to come), but you’ve really overstated the concern in saying “No one can take the place of a big city newspaper editor and his staff. When they go, the world goes.” The world? I couldn’t disagree more.

    The world-wide web connects people in a way no other mode of communication heretofore has. Barack Obama’s brilliant and strategic use of the internet and e-mail is but the most recent example of this phenomenon. Thirteen million people received daily updates about the campaign and Obama’s policies and agenda via e-mail from Obama, Michelle Obama, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, and Joe Biden. I was on that list. Not only did I feel as if I were personally contacted and included in the political process, I had access to information about domestic and international concerns I would never have had in depth even if I read the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the New Yorker regularly (which I do), and listened to NPR at all times in my car (which I do).

    The beauty of the web is also that, with a little judiciousness and a healthy measure of skepticism, one can find information about anything in seconds–the relationship of food prices to poverty as you mention, the future of transportation, what is happening locally, etc.–if one wants the information. For people hungry for knowledge like me, the web is simply addictive. A friend asks a question I don’t know the answer to, I search it. And not only do I have the answer, I have, with careful consideration of all of the information presented, links to additional information, and additional information from those links. No newspaper can give me that.

    Finally, while I too, feel nostalgic (it is nostalgia, after all) for the end of the newspaper era, communication via the internet is better for the environment and the planet. Sure, it will take some getting used to to receive our information on a flat screen, but as all things progressive, we will adjust. The internet reflects a changing and evolving population, just as technology always has, and as technology always will.

  23. Sonna said:

    Sometimes i feel like the whole world is going crazy, then i read “in the paper” or on the webb,there is still a chance, some people do care. There is still a chance for my great grandson to grow up, not in the world i did, but hopefully still civilized. THANKS!

  24. Dan said:

    I just think of how much paper is used everyday and how many trees are used in the process to make the newspapers that people don’t read. I personnlly don’t get any newspaper for that reason. what we need to concenrate are efforts on is getting rid of is plactic bags. Thanks Dan


    I should have written that “We first learned to read about 2000 years before the common era.” Sorry about that. RJD

  26. Jon said:

    Thank you! I applaud not only the common sense nature of your thoughts, but the tencity with which you attack what I believe are the all too common changes of today.

    Thank you again.

  27. john hobson said:

    Hello George,
    You letter is Right on the money, I would like to hear more of your views and a quick summery of what was written . I was forwarded this by a good friend who knows I like to be informed on subjects as these.

    Thank you
    John Hobson

  28. e schrag said:

    Thank you !!!
    I’d never thought of that. As the rest of the world runs blindly off the cliff – I treasure books, magazines, and newspapers.

  29. Rose said:

    Thanks for the report on the death of newspapers it is sad that some people see it as just another casualty. Lynn, sounds like she resides in the “ivory tower” never mind the rest of us who still beieve we still need the “press”.

  30. Lynn said:

    Wow! You certainly hit a nerve, George. This is a good discourse about the demise of print media, and it’s happening right here on line. I still read newspapers; I just do so on the computer. Every major publication, and many local hometown papers, are on line. That means any of us can read local papers, regional papers, national papers, and international papers if we have the time. I certainly could not afford to subscribe to all of them in print, yet have access to any of them–more news, not less–at the touch of a keyboard. Could it be that people aren’t really seeking out the news they claim to crave?

  31. Sherry Paisley said:

    Amen! My own daily newspaper gets smaller and smaller–both in content and physical size. But I’ll continue to read it as long as its published.

  32. ...don said:


    I think that what is being lamented is the loss of the editor and research staff, not the medium. The Internet gives you access to a lot of data, but how much of it is real information. How do you separate fact from fiction. The web needs to develop a good way for people to judge the honesty and accuracy of the communications that blanket the globe in a matter of seconds.

  33. Bill said:

    I am disconcerted at the shortsightedness of so much of this column. How is it that the internet gets blamed for spreading pornography, but the printed media do not? How is it that a physical paper that takes a minimum of 24 hours to print a correction, and can take days, is “better” than a web columnist’s article? Such an article posted on the web receives almost immediate readers, comments and creates an author’s opportunity to respond – which the good one’s use to immediate advantage.
    I grew up in a 3 newspapers delivered daily house. Weekly newsmagazines, sports and literature magazines and special interest publications all arrived periodically as well. I was educated and entertained by them all.

    And now I still get some of the old standbys, but the web plays an increasingly large role in my daily information gather. It is hard to believe that for me it has only been around for 10-11 years! It is still a toddling news medium and I look forward to its future growth and evolution.

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