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Thursday, March 26, 2009

North Cackalacky

For some time I’ve been meaning to devote a posting to North Carolina, an incredibly diverse state in many, many ways. Below shortly, I will do so, having mentioned the state thrice recently in reference to my search for the meaning of the term “pressing clubs,” in a passing mention of my annual visits there to Carol’s family reunions, and in a Wild Words exploration of the state’s “Tar Heel” nickname.

And there’s an overriding reason to bite into North Carolina – a metaphor that will become clear late in this post.

First, though, I can’t resist mentioning what seems like a brilliant little piece of economic theory and mischief, rolled into one.

Pie chart
This looks like something an economist would cook up. Why do I get the feeling that I’d find myself falling into the “1%” slice, whatever it stands for?
As you may well have heard, President Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, countless members of Congress, a screaming horde of TV pundits, and just about anybody else over 10 who draws a breath in the United States have come up with a prescription for fixing the struggling U.S. economy. None matches the other, of course, since economics falls somewhere mysticism and humbug. All the new theories have produced a wave of glazed looks across the land.

Sweet and Simple Stimulus

But thanks to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, clarity may be at hand.

“How Would You Fix the Economy?” the paper asked recently, and a reader, David Otterson in Largo, Florida, sent in a suggestion that’s staggering in its simplicity.

Otterson says America’s economic woes can be solved in three simple steps with something he calls “patriotic retirement”:

Step 1. There are about 40 million U.S. workers aged 50 and over. Instead of giving multi-bazillions of dollars to the same folks who wrecked the economy, give each of these older workers $1 million! That’s $4 trillion total – admittedly an awful lot of money. President Obama won’t put a total estimated figure on all of the various stimulus packages, rescue plans, loans, and purchases of “toxic assets” left over from the splurge of lending and spending, but others put it in that $4 trillion ballpark or beyond.

So Dave is working with about the right wad of cash.

Dave’s “patriotic” plan would get autos rolling down the line again. Somewhat more modern ones than these, no doubt
Step 2. Insist that each of the 40 million recipients spend part of the million bucks on a brand-new Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors car or truck. Presto. The U.S. auto industry springs back to life, and used cars traded in for the new ones are available to others cheaply as well.

Step 3. Require each of the lucky older workers getting the cash to either pay off his or her mortgage or buy a new house. That would put all kinds of money into the hands of developers, homebuilders, banks and other mortgage lenders, who can then feel free to lend to younger workers again in great numbers. Presto, no more stagnation in housing loans and home construction.

Overnight, the economy would be humming again. Unless the $1-million recipients bought huge, huge mansions and fancy sports cars, each would have plenty left over to spend on consumer goods, travel, gifts to their children and charities, college tuition for the grandkids, and so forth. New money would gush throughout the economy. Even if the older Americans who received these windfalls put some of the money into savings, that, too, would give banks and credit unions money to lend.

None of the cash in Dave’s plan would be shoveled from the government to banks and corporate fat cats that were caught spending some of the bailout money on extravagant bonuses, trips to fancy spas, sleek jets, and payments to foreign entities.

At last report, the U.S. Treasury Department still has an embarrassing number of vacancies near the top. What do you say: Dave Otterson for Deputy Secretary of the Treasury?

Wait, this just handed me from a colleague who’s a tad under 50: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!????”


Carolina on My Mind

Smokey Mountains
We think of North Carolina as a temperate to sweltering southern state, which it is. But up in the Smokies, it’s cool and refreshing – even snowy in the wintertime
No one ever thought to call North Carolina “Long Carolina,” but the name would certainly have fit. It’s 800 kilometers from its barrier islands, which elbow far out into the Atlantic Ocean, to the western tip of the state, high in the rugged Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, it stretches farther west than Detroit, Michigan, which is well into the Midwest.

Until Tennessee was carved out of it in 1789, North Carolina, which is shaped a bit like the pilot’s wings that airline hostesses used to hand young passengers when airlines were still giving things away, stretched even farther westward. All the way to the Mississippi River, in fact. Once one of the South’s most backward regions, “Carolina,” as its residents love to call it, as if South Carolina below them were a yokel cousin, is now the South’s most industrial and technologically progressive state.

Let me pause to explain the “North Cackalacky” title to this posting. “Cackalacky” is a slang, and lately somewhat hip, riff on “Carolina,” especially among the thousands of soldiers who endure basic training at Fort Bragg in the state’s woodsy midsection, and among glib radio deejays who just like the way “Cackalacky” clicks off the tongue. Nobody knows who first coined the term, but at least one North Carolina company that makes condiments has adopted it.

Delightful but Dismal

The swamp that straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border is dismal, all right, even in black and white
North Carolina is also one of the nation’s most temperate, scenic, and historic places – America in miniature in many ways. In this single state, one can visit a shoreline so fearsome that it is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” mountain forests so dense that not even a county road can be found for kilometers around, and a swamp whose very name, “Dismal,” says all you need to know about it. North Carolina is also home to exquisite colonial mansions and Civil War battlefields, tobacco and cotton fields, ribbons of superhighways decorated with dazzling median wildflowers, energetic middle-sized cities, and manicured research complexes the likes of which you won’t see again till you reach California.

North Carolina has grown so fast that its population shot past the traditional lions of the Old South – Georgia and Virginia – a decade ago. Almost twice as many people live in North as in South Carolina, helping to explain the smugness that North Carolinians exhibit toward their neighbors.

Tobacco barn
You still see plenty of unpainted tobacco barns throughout North Carolina
Yet at one time, North Carolina seemed the most unlikely southern state to prosper. Poor but fiercely independent Scots-Irish, Germans, and English Quakers staked out small, red-dirt farms in the piedmont plateau and later the mountain valleys, promoting a sectional divide against wealthier, eastern lowland planters. In 1785 there was even an attempt to create a new, breakaway state called “Franklin” in the Carolina uplands. The insurgents wrote a constitution that forbade doctors, preachers, and lawyers from being members of the legislature. (Not a bad idea, actually.) They wanted yeoman farmers calling their tune. Their leader, John Sevier, was hunted down, arrested, and charged with treason. During his trial in the mountain town of Jonesborough – now part of Tennessee – Sevier escaped, and nobody bothered to pursue him.

When Tennessee became a state, Sevier was elected its first governor! Cantankerous cusses, these mountain men and women, as I said.

Once Not Even a Nice Place to Visit

De Soto's Route
Hernando de Soto and his men started their expedition in Florida and wandered all over the South. They got only into the mountainous western tip of North Carolina, though, before heading west
North Carolina was first visited by Europeans in 1524, when a Florentine explorer in the employ of France paused along its Outer Banks but kept going. Two years later Spaniards, sailing northward from Santo Domingo, claimed the territory for Spain but moved on as well. Spanish maps included both modern-day Carolinas in “Spanish Florida,” though few Spaniards settled anywhere near. In 1540 the adventurous Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto tramped all through the mid-South on his way to discovering the Mississippi River, but he never so much as peeked eastward over the Carolina mountains.

So the mid-Atlantic fell to the British to colonize. Walter Raleigh, a wealthy London businessman and courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, financed and led an expedition to find settlement sites. Raleigh became famous in the United States, but not because of his brief visit here. Sir Walter Raleigh, the brand name of one of the nation’s most popular pipe tobaccos, became a running joke when people asked for it at the store: “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?” they would ask. What a knee-slapper!

Sir Walter Raleigh
Suave Walter Raleigh was a brilliant poet and ladies’ man as well as explorer. He once threw his expensive cape over a puddle to keep Queen Elizabeth from getting mud on her shoes
Raleigh and his crew got as far as Roanoke Island off the Outer Banks, found the native Indians to be hospitable, and sailed for home, bringing with them two “lustie men, the Indians Manteo and Wanchese,” and glowing descriptions of a “sweete, fruitfull and wholesome” land. Queen Elizabeth knighted Raleigh, who smartly christened the new territory “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

I know, we’re talking about North Carolina, but bear with me. North Carolina began as the wilds of a great big Virginia.

Soon afterward the first colonists – 108 men – arrived and found the Indians not so hospitable after all. They abandoned the place and sailed for home. A second band of settlers vanished without a trace, save for the word “Croatoan” carved on one tree and the letters “C-R-O” scratched into another. The Croatoans were one of the inhospitable tribes. Exactly what happened to the “lost colony” – a hurricane? a Croatoan massacre? a deadly epidemic? – has never been determined.

North Carolina’s official boundary stretched way across the country and even beyond. Never this far in reality, though
Virginia’s first permanent settlement would follow far to the north in Jamestown, from which colonization proceeded westward rather than southward. What is now North Carolina was not revisited by whites for more than 25 years. When it was, Charles I was king of England, and its new settlers, carrying his charter, christened it “Carolana,” the land of Charles. Remember that I mentioned how far west North Carolina once extended – clear to the Mississippi in the nation’s heartland? Well, that charter from Charles I gave its owners title to lands even farther – not just to the Rocky Mountains or California’s Pacific Coast, but all the way to “the South Seas.” Geographical understanding had a ways to go in those days.

Moving Up in the World

Biltmore Estates
There are many tours of the sumptuous Biltmore mansion, including one of just the “back of the house,” including maids’ quarters and the electrical system in the basement
I’ll mercifully condense Carolina history from that point: Another British king, George II, purchased most of the land in southern Carolina and turned it into another royal colony: South Carolina. Both Carolinas joined the revolution against the king’s rule and became two of the original U.S. states. North Carolina was twice stripped of many of its heartiest men – first in the nation’s great westward expansion, then in the unsuccessful Civil War rebellion against the Union in the 1860s. At about that time, North Carolina was mocked as the “Rip Van Winkle of the States.” It had no large port, one cotton mill, and only a handful of iron works, gristmills, and distilleries.

Rip Van Winkle
Like Rip Van Winkle, North Carolina seemed to sleep for years on end while states around it bustled. But when it awakened, it got real busy
Rip Van Winkle was a character in a Washington Irving story about a man who sleeps for 20 years, during which time, naturally, all sorts of things happened around him. North Carolina was a bit like that between its colonization and the 20th Century. Just to reiterate from that previous Wild Words entry, North Carolina’s nickname – the Tar Heel State – grew out of its backwoods image, since shoeless hill folk boiling sap into pitch and turpentine were known to amble home with tar on their heels. Already poor, North Carolina after the Civil War struggled to assimilate more than 350,000 freed slaves, who had been the working backbone of its economy.

Ready for Takeoff

But the 20th Century brought amazing transformations: the emergence of several collegiate academic powerhouses, including the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Trinity College (later called Duke University) in Durham; vast military training facilities that would be jammed with recruits in both world wars; the creation of a sprawling Research Triangle Park through the combined efforts of UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State universities; development of a renowned furniture industry in the “Piedmont Triad” of towns like Winston-Salem and High Point; and a surprising explosion of culture in “the coolest spot in the South” – the Carolina mountains around Asheville. Once a resort and rehabilitation town frequented by thousands of “summer people,” Asheville would eventually sport a thriving artists’ colony, imaginative Art Deco architecture, and George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate. The last was so magnificent that each year, its minions would concentrate on the lavish furnishing of just one feature: 16th Century Flemish tapestries one year, for instance, hand-carved wood ceilings the next.

Off to the east, so explosive was the growth of banking that bustling Charlotte now ranks behind only New York as a financial center. Of course, it may not be promoting that fact right this moment.

Wright Brothers
The Wright Brothers’ “flyer” was made of lightweight spruce and powered by an engine constructed in their bicycle shop. Not just getting the heavier-than-air craft off the ground was a wonder. So was stabilizing it in the air
There’s lots more that’s remarkable about North Carolina: 200-year-old historic districts in cities like Wilmington on the coast; championship golf courses; a memorial at Kill Devil Hills to the Wright Brothers’ launching of history’s first powered flight on December 17, 1903; and that Dismal Swamp’s “vast body of dirt and nastiness,” as the head of its first surveying party described it. Little wonder: his men were nearly devoured by the yellow flies, chiggers, mosquitoes, and ticks whose descendants still rule in that area.

Sugar Rush

Krispy Kreme
Here they come: hot Krispy Kreme classics. And there they go, sweetly sliding down the gullet
I’ve left out one great milestone: the 1937 founding in a little Winston-Salem storefront of Krispy Kreme doughnuts! These delicacies, often served hot right out of the fryers, became a southern institution and spread like wildfire around the world. In 2000, the company took its stock public, and people rushed to buy the initial offering at $21 a share. By 2004, the price had more than doubled, Krispy Kreme was reporting almost $100 million in annual profit, and the number of its shops had tripled to 400, as far away as South Korea. The company would take a severe hit when a “low-carb” [carbohydrate] diet craze swept the land, but “sliders” – hot, airy Krispy Kreme “donuts” that fairly melt in the mouth enroute to joining seven or eight others in the stomach – remain an indulgence for which I, for one, will long thank North Carolina.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse
One of North Carolina’s most-photographed attractions is the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks. It’s the nation’s tallest light station, and its powerful beacon can be seen 30 kilometers out to sea
In The Book of America, Neal R. Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom called North Carolina “the newest megastate.” That was in 1983, well before many of the business and cultural explosions that I have described had fully taken hold. Often overshadowed by courtly Virginia, enterprising Georgia, electrifying Florida, and eccentric Lousiana – and lacking a single magnet city until Charlotte got its big banks and a National Football League team – North Carolina snuck up on the nation’s consciousness.

A megastate it now is, but North Carolina has never let loose of its down-home culture, character, and cuisine.

Ich bin ein Barbecuer

Which brings me to a delicious final exploration – and I’m not still talking doughnut sliders. If you’ve hung with me this far, you’ll recall my early metaphor about “taking a bite” out of this intriguing state. Now all can be revealed: the bite is from a scrumptious North Carolina barbecue sandwich.

This is “peasant food” at its very best. It’s not hoity-toity luxury fare served at swanky clubs, but a delicacy straight from the hills. I can almost smell and see the smoke a-risin’ from a clapboard smokehouse as I write.

Holy Smoke authors
Here are the Holy Smoke authors – the Reeds on the left and McKinney to the right – in their element, before plates of barbecue. Despite their passion for barbecue, any time, anywhere, they all look fit
For a full explanation of this epicurean delicacy, I bow to UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed; his wife, the writer and harpsichord virtuoso Dale Volberg Reed; and their friend, William McKinney. The Reeds are stalwarts of the North Carolina Barbecue Society – a high gustatory honor – and McKinney founded a collegiate version while a student at UNC. The Reeds have also written about such other mouth-watering southern delicacies as grits and cornbread. But we must not digress far from North Carolina barbecue, about which the Reeds and McKinney have written a fat book called Holy Smoke. In it, they quote Tennessee farmer-author Michael Lee West as saying that North Carolina barbecue is “a noun, a verb, and an entire religion served on a bun.”

North Carolina barbecue
I won’t say that this is as fancy as a North Carolina barbecue joint gets, but they don’t get much fancier!
Notice that I carefully specify “North Carolina” barbecue, since outposts like Memphis, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; and mesquite-filled ranches of West Texas also claim barbecue superiority. There’s even something called “California barbecue” that’s liable to be slathered in exotica like Chinese hoisin sauce and lime. I’ll probably deny writing this when I post about these places, but their barbecue doesn’t hold a plastic fork to the stuff that slow-cooks in Carolina smokehouses and is served out of some of the plainest shacks in the land. So plain that the only place to sit is outside on a crude wooden picnic bench, if you’re lucky.

Doesn’t matter. Every splinter’s worth it.

It’s the Pits – and That’s a Good Thing

True North Carolina barbecue is made of pork, rarely beef. Pigs fare better in the hills than cows – at least until butchering day. The Reeds and McKinney tell us there are still more hogs than people in North Carolina today. That’s a lot of curly tails, since there are more than 9 million North Cackalackians.

Brunswick stew
This plate of North Carolina barbecue includes a bowl of Brunswick stew, made from whatever meat’s on hand. Out in the country, it can be squirrel or possum or rabbit, plus local vegetables
I wouldn’t say that North Carolina barbecue pitmasters wouldn’t let a catsup bottle on their property, but “ketchup,” as it’s sometimes spelled, is not as prominent there as in other varieties out west. Their speciality begins, unfortunately for the pig, with one that has been slaughtered, skinned, and gutted. Then it’s sloooowly turned over a low, open pit of hot hardwood coals and slathered, several times, with tart, vinegary marinade. The aromatic final product is then sliced or diced into little, forkable strands.

The authors quote the daughter of a Granville County tobacco planter who described her father’s “dipney,” the simmered sauce that he brushed, hot, onto the cooked meat:

“Daddy made it thus: Two pounds sweet lard, melted in a brass kettle, with one pound beaten, not ground, black pepper, a pint of small fiery red peppers, nubbed and stewed soft in water to barely cover, a spoonful of herbs in powder – and a quart and a pint of the strongest apple vinegar, with a little salt.”

I prefer my North Carolina barbecue piled upon a hamburger bun, then topped with coleslaw – a mixture of minced cabbage, salad dressing, and a tad of mustard – onto which I stage a squirt-fest of hot sauce made from even more vinegar and hot red pepper

BBQ. What Are You?

Holy Smoke
I’m not sure why the pig is looking so satisfied on the book cover, considering its destination on a spit. It is we, the barbecue diners, who will be smiling
Holy Smoke’s authors explore all sorts of conflicting possible origins of the word “barbecue.” They discredit my favorite one – that somebody “Frenchified” the practice of roasting whole hogs over hot coals, from beard – barbe – to tail – a queue. “Flagrantly fatuous Franco-poop,” the authors quote barbecue expert Smoky Hale on the subject. (Yes, of course, a barbecue man would be named “Smoky.”)

Every indication is that the word first appeared in Caribbean lands, French or otherwise. Holy Smoke’s authors quote the poet Alexander Pope as noting, almost 300 years ago, that “a whole Hog barbecu’d” was “a West Indian Term of Gluttony.”

Here is Smoky Hale again, in Holy Smoke: “Honest barbecue will survive all the assaults of women’s magazine food editors, asinine judges at frivolous competitions, instant experts, smoke blowers, media frenzy [please forgive me, Smoke’] and pop culture.”

The Reeds and William McKinney stuff their book with photos of humble “bar•b•cue” dives, explain how “barbecue” became an occasion as well as a dish, and set our mouths to watering with recipes – not only for barbecued meat but also for the Carolina sweet tea, slaw, and hushpuppies that go with it. What’s a hushpuppy? You’re one paragraph away from finding out in Wild Words.

Carol is not as big as I am on, shall we say, “rural food” that hasn’t been inspected by federal agents in white coats. But she tolerates the ritual that sets in every time I cross the North Carolina line. No matter the place or the price, I find me a barbecue place (“find me” being a southernism that my suspendered hosts seem to appreciate), set myself down (another one) and dig into two or three North Carolina barbecue sandwiches – heavy on the hot sauce. I’m not much on sweet tea, but I can nurse one cold beer with my barbecue and still drive safely. It’s a wonder, though, that the Cackalacky troopers don’t pull me over just to see what’s put that big smile on my face.


Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, with William McKinney, is published by the University of North Carolina Press.


‘Over Here, Mr. President’

One quick postscript to my recent observations on the moribund newspaper business. As media analyst Howard Kurtz pointed out in the Washington Post, it was ominously telling that, in his recent prime-time news conference, President Obama called on correspondents from the big broadcast and cable networks, plus representatives from outlets such as Ebony magazine and the relatively new Politico paper. For the first time in anyone’s memory, he did not recognize a single reporter from the top daily newspapers, including the Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.

First go circulation and advertising revenue, then influence?


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Chiggers. These are tiny parasitic bugs that lurk in the woods and weeds. They attach themselves to your skin, often around exposed ankles, and feed on the fluids in your skin cells. The enzyme that they inject causes little red welts that can itch for weeks on end.

Hoity-Toity. Haughty, stuck-up, much like an earlier Wild Word: highfalutin’. An old English verb, hoit, referred to romping around noisily – another form of showing off.

Hushpuppies. These are bite-sized bits of deep-fried cornbread. They originated as scraps left over after a country chef prepared pans of cornbread. Supposedly, the family hound would whine to be tossed some of these treats, to which its mistress would scold – you guessed it – “Hush, puppy”!

Windfall. Unexpected good luck, especially of the monetary sort. If your long-lost uncle leaves you a million dollars, that’s a windfall! The term may have originated in an orchard. When the wind blows a pear off the tree, you don’t have to climb up and pick it.

Yeoman. As a noun, this refers to a free person who cultivates his own land. (There doesn’t appear to be a feminine “yeowoman.”) In the adjective form, yeoman work is hard, prodigious effort.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dried-Up Ink

I’m hoping to hit the road in April and report to you from someplace other than this moldy office.

OK, it’s not moldy, and the asbestos was removed years ago. But winter, even Washington’s tame one, has that effect on you. Fortunately the fruit-and-vegetable vendor returned to his spot across the street this morning – an even more reliable sign of spring than a robin’s call or Carol’s reminder that the porch needs washing, the pansies need planting, and the sills need dusting.

. . . which are all good reasons to hit the road.

In the meantime, I keep shaking my head about what’s happening to a great American institution: the daily newspaper.

Dinosaurs Yesterday, Newspapers Today

Things have gone from bad to worse – or as cable-TV commentator Keith Olbermann would say, worse to worser – since I last lamented newspapers’ fate.

And worstest may not be far away.

This newspaper’s new online-only staff, which is one-eighth the size of the former newspaper staff, won’t need this big a building any longer
Already this month, the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer switched off its presses for good, replacing a 165-person news staff with 20 who will put out an online edition. And just 55 days shy of its 150th anniversary in the newspaper business, the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors entirely. Those two developments left Seattle, Washington, and Denver, Colorado, as America’s latest one-daily towns.

And there’s much more news in the world of print journalism – none of it good.

Things are dire – though maybe not yet this dire – for many newspaper employees across the country as their papers struggle to survive
Philadelphia Newspapers, L.L.C., which owns the venerable daily Inquirer broadsheet as well as the tabloid Daily News, and which is staggering under a $390-million debt load, filed for bankruptcy protection. And the Tribune Company, one of the nation’s most prestigious newspaper outfits as the owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy as well, hoping to try to find a way out from under $13 billion of debt. Count the Minneapolis Star-Tribune among the bankruptcy filers, too. The publicly traded New York Times has suspended stockholder dividends. The Gannett Co. is requiring its employees at the national USA Today daily newspaper to take a week’s furlough without pay as a bitter alternative to losing their jobs entirely.

I’ve already told you, in an earlier blog, about the travails of Detroit’s struggling dailies. Their story is nearly replicated by the acclaimed national daily The Christian Science Monitor, which will soon go online only, save for weekend and some special-occasion print editions.

And the Washington Post has eliminated its separate, award-winning Business and Book World sections, folding some – just some – of their contents into other parts of the paper. These were, the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander wrote, “wrenching decisions” by a “money-losing newspaper, mired in a bad economy.”

The Washington Post, once thought to be a “license to print money,” now a money-losing newspaper? Why, the U.S. stock market would have to lose half its value before such a thing happened.

Oh, sorry.

Printing Red

This is pretend strangling. The constriction of American newspapers is for real
All of this to try to stanch the terrible bleeding in daily newspaper revenues. It would take several blogs to cover the smaller weekly papers that are in desperation mode.

Buy-outs of the contracts of senior reporters and editors, elimination of costly national and international bureaus, and other cost-cutting measures can do only so much when readership and advertising levels are nosediving. Only mortgage bankers and car dealers have had a worse – worser? – month.

Sad times for the reporters and clerks and print shop grunts at newspapers. And for those who love their product. As Gregory E. Favre, a former top Chicago newspaper editor, wrote on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, “There is no easy way to say goodbye to the newspaper you love. . . . And worst of all is when the death comes quickly. When we don’t have time to prepare our thoughts, to really share last conversations and memories, to make sure the past is honored.”

Paper and breakfast
Reading the paper is a morning tradition that ranks alongside brushing one’s teeth. Note the apt first word in this A.M. newspaper headline: “HELP” !
This matters to the fabric of American life, if only to a shrinking generation of mainly older diehards who treasure the ritual of retrieving the paper from the front lawn, unfolding it with a flourish over coffee and juice or more circumspectly on the subway or bus, and reading their favorite columnists and the stories that the papers’ news editors have selected for their attention.

But others have elbowed the oldsters aside:

One is a cadre of young people, in the main, who don’t read newspapers – or much of anything in print. They believe there’s just no time, what with all the appetizing choices available on their computers and hand-held texting devices. They see
Who has time to read the newspaper with so many other communication alternatives available?

newspapers as cumbersome, dense with useless information, hopelessly behind the latest developments, and unconnected to their lives. It is, after all, their lives that matter, not what’s happening to anyone else. They want to read what they want to read, not what some “gatekeeper” editor puts in front of them.

Free paper
With more and more newspapers and online news available for free and thought to be eminently discardable, getting people to pay for the daily paper is an ever-harder sell
The second cadre is somewhere in the middle. Many of them still glance at the paper in the morning or read the free, advertising-laden handout papers before leaving them behind on the seat or floor of the train. They browse a bit longer through the fatter newspaper on Sundays, when time is more their own. But they rarely dig into long stories or explore sections of the paper that normally don’t interest them. And according to surveys and their own accounts, they pay little if any attention to the ads that support the enormous amount of money that’s required for a publisher to mount a credible newsgathering effort. These occasional, cursory, and casual readers, too, spend a whole lot more time checking various Web sites online.

Not Worth the Paper it’s Printed On?

It didn’t take long for advertisers to pick up on this, of course. They’re drastically downshifting their investment in the daily paper or moving their dollars entirely elsewhere. This can spell, and has spelled, doom to many a once-proud paper.

Newspaper carrier
Take a good look at this young newspaper carrier. He’s part of what looks like a dying breed
Readership groups Two and Three – the halfhearted ones and those that never pick up a paper at all – say it’s no skin off their noses. If the paper disappears entirely, there are plenty of other places to find news and information. Besides, they’ll save a few bucks that had gone to the newspaper delivery boy or girl, the street vendor, or the corner newsbox.

The problem for society, though, is that while wild-eyed opinion pieces fly back and forth in ever-greater numbers on the Web, and broadcast and online media will still chase the big breaking stories, who will have the staff and the finances – or the inclination – to do hard reporting legwork, investigate government and corporate misdeeds, probe the causes of seismic economic shifts? Who will have the institutional memory to dig into old crime stories or put together historical comparisons? Who will fund thoughtful cultural criticism, travel reporting, and in-depth sports coverage? Can a staff of 20 at the new, online P-I – the Post-Intelligencer – do all that?

Carol, who falls into the occasional-reader category, replies that she can find anything she wants online, and so can anyone. Chess puzzles, recipes, long stories about disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, right and left opinions of our new president’s performance in office, and on and on.

I’d pay the modest newspaper subscription price just to read in-depth coverage of my favorite sports. Might even pay for such stories online if I had to
Yes, but I contend that the mind cannot grow when one fills it with only the things it wants. I certainly do want to read about the latest twists and turns on Wall Street, details of last night’s Washington Capitals’ hockey game, and more information about a big plane crash from the day before. But even more, I also love to check out whatever the paper’s editors have chosen to lay before me.

Why They Call them Newspapers

Here are just five headlines from a single day’s newspaper the other day:

“A Silenced Drug Study Creates an Uproar.”
“Ringling Bros. [Circus] Hits Town as [Animal-Rights] Case Heats Up”
“Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy”
“Selection Committee Doesn’t Want Cinderella at the [National College Basketball Tournament] Ball.”
And . . . “With Punch Lines Instead of Headlines, ‘Ted’s’ a Great – Well, Good – Escape.”

How could I not be interested in that last one? Turns out, “Ted” is part of the name of a new television show.

It’s true that Carol could probably have found similar material among the 800-gazillion Websites online. But how would she have found them? Would she give them more than a glance on her computer screen? How could she easily mark them up, clip them, or set them aside for later viewing?

Town crier
Town criers are long gone, except on ceremonial occasions. Their modern-day equivalent of news messengers – the daily paper – is barely hanging on
Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist syndicated by the Washington Post Writers’ Group, posed it this way in a recent column: “How does the newspaper industry survive in a climate in which the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know? Or what it needs?”

“As others have noted, the Internet can’t quickly enough fill the void created by lost newspapers,” she continued. “In time, some markets simply won’t have a town crier – and then who will go to all those town meetings where news is made? What will people not know [emphasis mine]? In such a vacuum, gossip rules the mob.”

Video game
News, news, read all about it... on your favorite video game?
And here’s the worster of it: Parker adds that, gulp, news may soon be delivered by via video games.

(I wish I were kidding.)

Then, as she puts it, “forget blogs, tweets, and tags.”

In such a cultural abyss, newspapers would have already been long forgotten.

New Medium, but a Foolish One?

It is possible to get a coherent idea, as well as chips, on the table at a poker game. This is not my group, I should point out. These guys are better looking
One idea advanced in many newsrooms – and at my monthly poker game, where most players are journalists and one is a long-term Los Angeles Times correspondent – centers on those newspaper Web sites, which, as I have noted, are attracting more and more readers who say they’re too busy to sit down and read the print editions. “It was arguably a mistake [maybe a slowly fatal one] for newspapers and magazines to hand out their goodies to anyone with a computer screen” by launching Web sites that competed with themselves, the Post’s media writer, Howard Kurtz, wrote recently.

“[B]ut the culture of the Net was – and is – that everything should be free. The question now is whether that mind-set can be changed.”

The irony, as Time magazine has pointed out, is that newspapers have more readers than ever, counting those who glance at their Web sites. “The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news.”

The misguided idea was to assign top writers, editors, and photographers to the papers’ Web sites in an effort to join the “Internet revolution,” perhaps make some money from online advertisements, and cross-promote the daily printed product.

The last of these efforts clearly has failed spectacularly.

So at my poker table and elsewhere where journalists gather and tremble, the talk has gone something like this:

Charge money for newspaper content on the “free” Internet? Many newspapers are scared to try
“Yes, for sure, we should have charged for our content, even if it was just a little bit. But a little bit times thousands and thousands of readers would have added up and paid a lot of bills. So the only answer we can come up with is to somehow begin charging now. Readers won’t like it, since people are used to getting good content for free on the Web, but what other choice is there?”

Former Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson is one media luminary who supports what he calls “micropayments” for online newspaper content. Under his system, newspapers would put their very best work, by their top writers, online. Readers, in turn would pay a modest sum for articles that interest them, much as people buy their favorite sodas out of vending machines.

Presented with the idea of charging for online content, though, those at my poker table – especially after losing a pot or three and in a sour mood – lamented that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in. They say the only way to begin charging for Internet content would be for every paper – news magazines, too – to do so. If people wanted well-researched, carefully edited original reporting and nonpartisan commentary, they’d have no choice but to pay for it.

A Fatal Flaw in the Argument

Then, my pals would sigh, bitterly: “Of course, not everyone would agree to charge for their Web product. And so no one will.”

This was all especially interesting because the conversation, fixated on the future of news on the Web, seemed to concede that print journalism products were fated to financial strangulation and a slow death.

Don’t let Carol see this sign
Two days after my poker game, I was huddled near a space heater in my work shed, smoking a cigar and listening to a favorite local sports-talk show. Carol banishes me, or more correctly, the smoke, to the shed except on those monthly poker nights when it’s too cold to play on the porch. Then she tolerates the stench, rarely without comment and a not-so-furtive glance at the yellowing curtains.

To my surprise, the radio sports reporters – including Steve Czaban, who also hosts his own national morning sports-talk show, and Thom Loverro, who writes for the daily Washington Times here in town and knows firsthand the trouble that papers are in – got to talking about newspapers’ downward spiral. And Czaban came up with a rescue idea that was almost the exact opposite of conventional wisdom.

‘Help Yourself.’ So They Do

Steve Czaban, left, and Andy Pollin surprised me, and maybe others, with a provocative discussion about newspapers' future, of all things, on their WTEM sports show in Washington, D.C.
“Czabe,” as his devoted listeners call him, drew this analogy to what newspapers are doing right now: It’s as if a premier steakhouse had its chefs prepare bite-sized samples of its finest filets, sirloins, chops, and side dishes. Then waiters would put them on trays, carry them out to the street, and pass them out, for free. Passersby would, in fact, be encouraged to help themselves, on the theory that they’d love the food so much that they’d come right into the restaurant or make reservations for a full, paid meal.

Hey, here’s an idea for newspapers: Give away samples, like free slices of steak, in hopes of building readership. Oh, they’re already doing that on the Web
That’s an absurd business plan, of course, Czaban continued, with clear logic. Most people would just help themselves to the samples, say thank you very much, and move right along. The place would get few new, paying customers and, in fact, would soon go broke distributing the free samples.

Sound familiar, news executives?

Steve Czaban’s idea: Instead of scrounging for ways to get people to pay for newspaper content online, get out of the Internet business entirely
Instead of charging Web readers for newspaper content, which they would likely resist and certainly resent, and instead of just giving the content away as they do now, Czaban suggested that papers shut down their Web sites entirely!

That would force anyone who wanted the content that only a local daily newspaper can consistently supply to return to the printed product!

Loverro, co-host Andy Pollin, and listeners mostly responded that this was a brilliant idea in theory but would not work for one of two reasons, or both: • Someone else would jump into the void and produce an information-rich local news-and-feature Web product or • in cities like Washington that have more than one daily, the paper that held onto its Web version would “wipe up” and gain the loyalty of thousands of readers who were mad at the paper that pulled its online edition. That, of course, would mean that the competing paper’s strategy of eliminating its Web product had backfired terribly.

Czaban replied to the first point – correctly I think – that there might be meager attempts at producing new local, online information products. But nobody besides a big publisher has the staff or other resources to come up with original stories, reported from the scene, or to pay top columnists and commentators. Web sites, including blogs like Ted Landphair’s America, rely heavily on – read: steal ideas from – the hard work of newspaper reporters. They’re not going to do this hard work themselves. So, Czaban said, newspapers might as well at least get sales from their printed editions before everybody else packages the information electronically, not give it away online themselves.

Online ads
Online ads are nothing new to newspaper publishers, but they haven’t proven to match the income potential of the printed variety. Full-page ads would take the reader away from content, for instance
The second objection – that papers that kept their Web sites as their competitors shut theirs would “wipe up” – is trickier. Even buying the idea that eliminating the Web site would be suicide against local competition, the paper that gained all the new Web readers would not necessarily be celebrating. Its online visitor numbers might skyrocket, but that wouldn’t bring a dime into the printed paper’s coffers. Or perhaps help the online site much either, since ads on newspaper Web sites have certainly not been cash cows. And so, if survival of the printed newspaper was the goal, both papers – the one that abandoned its Web site and the one that kept its – might be slitting their own throats once again.

But Can They Hold a Kindle to Newspapers?

Well, look what’s on the screen of this new, handheld Kindle electronic reader: a newspaper page!
There is one other vision of newspapers’ future, advanced by none other than the sprawling Hearst media conglomerate, which just closed Seattle’s printed Post-Intelligencer. It has developed an electronic reader that’s much larger than’s popular new Kindle, which is designed primarily for books . I haven’t seen Hearst’s new reader, but I picture a sort of floppy X-ray-sized sheet of film where one can see an entire newspaper page and electronically zip through the entire “paper.” Of course I’d be terrified to set my hot coffee cup on it or let the cats anywhere near it. And how would I tear out an article to bring to work?!

Let’s see if I can summarize all that’s been happening and what it means for the future of daily newspapers. I’ll simply repeat a few phrases from this very posting. They won’t be pretty:

Discarded paper
Discarded. Will this soon be the word not just for this one paper but for newspapers in general?
“Shut down its presses.” “Closed its doors.” “Indebtedness.” “Bankruptcy protection.” “News – none of it good.” “Furlough without pay.” “Money-losing newspaper.” “Folding of entire sections.” “Terrible bleeding.” “Readership and advertising nosediving.” “Shrinking generation of readers.” “Hopelessly behind.” “Unconnected to their times.” “She can find what she wants online.” “News organizations are merrily giving away the news.” “Financial strangulation and a slow death.”

And if I may be forgiven one more gasp of horror about the last one:

“News may soon be delivered by video game.”

It all makes you wonder what they’re telling college print-journalism majors. If there are any, any more.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Circumspectly. Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.

Cumbersome. Awkward, unwieldy, hard to manipulate physically.

Genie. In popular fable, a genie is a powerful, often turban-wearing figure imprisoned in a bottle. Some lucky soul stumbles upon the bottle, rubs it, frees the delighted genie, and is granted one or more fabulous wishes. The origin of the word is less cheerful, however. In early African and Middle East cultures, genies were sinister spirits that took animal or human form.

Morose. Gloomy, sullen, dejected.

Ponzi scheme. An age-old grifter’s con in which investors are convinced to send the schemer considerable sums of money on the promise of lavish returns. Handsome interest is indeed paid, using some of the money contributed by fresh, eager new investors. But the crook is keeping most of it. Ponzi schemes almost always collapse when not enough new investors can be found, or old ones are tipped off to trouble and try to pull out their money en masse. They quickly find that there’s no money at all.

Town Crier. In a tradition brought from Europe, criers, employed by the community, would walk the streets of early America, often at dusk, carrying lanterns or handbells, calling out public announcements. These would often begin, “Hear ye, hear ye,” or the more formal “oyez,” which is still used to bring many U.S. courtrooms to order.

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