MY WORD: For the ink-stained, this is wretched

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For a guy who started a journalism career writing for The Shelby News, the cutback in frequency of a daily newspaper feels like a loss.

By Jim Miller

I was first paid for my writing when I was 13 years old. The Shelby Newsadvertised for "correspondents" to cover activities at the eight local junior high schools. Because the major activities were sports-related, a phone call and my immediate hiring became an introduction to the world of print journalism.

It was the best call I ever made, not only because I would be paid the princely sum of 10 cents for every column inch of information I contributed, but it set me off on a career path that continues a half-century to this day.

Editor of the college newspaper, 11 years as a reporter and editor with two large metropolitan dailies and then a career that took advantage of my learned ability to communicate in print and in person. It all began at the small weekly newspaper in rural Kentucky.

And that is why I am saddened by the announcement this week that the Times Picayune in New Orleans will cut its 7-day print newspaper to 3 days beginning in the fall.

Similar rumblings are occurring all over the country, including at my first employer, the Louisville Courier-Journal, which has just lost two of its featured columnists who saw the handwriting on the small screen and moved to television.

But the C-J has not yet reduced its weekly workload as the T-P soon will do. In a city that just lost its only NBA hero, CP3, when Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers, it now faces TP3, when its newspaper of record will go off the record four days a week.

I understand the reasons that newspapers are de-emphasizing print and stressing digital. Print readership, which we used to call "circulation," is dropping across the nation, and the digital news organizations can get the "content" to its readers more quickly and in greater detail. 

Fewer newspapers during the week might even be welcomed in some quarters. As a former executive with the New Orleans Saints, I can attest to fits of personal indignation at something written in the print nemesis we called the "Times Pick-on-You." Those who work in the middle of the sporting bull's-eye have been subject to hindsight critiques of their best-laid plans and decisions since organized sports emerged 150 years ago.

A 6-column headline imparted a certain gravitas to the information that followed but will the same news on a PDA or PC carry the same import? Digital infallibility virtually will eliminate such legendary gaffes as the anticipatory "Dewey Defeats Truman"  headline in the Chicago Tribuneduring the 1948 presidential election. That headline was up there for 24 hours, a public record for all to see and some to savor.

Now, if an erroneous story is posted, a corrected version can be substituted "in real time," reducing the number who saw the earlier information. The public is better served by receiving the corrected information quickly, but have we lost a suggestion of vulnerability that contributes to our character?

I understand that catering to a shrinking clientele is not good business, which is why Advance Publications, which owns the T-P and other newspapers such as the Mobile Press-Registerand Birmingham News, made the decision. Its announcement said the three weekly papers will be bigger and contain all the features of the 7-day version. You won't miss a thing, they say, and their reasons sound like the customers will be better off.

But the explanations do not satisfy those in our community whose daily routine for more than a half-century has been the morning newspaper and a cup of coffee.

I worry about my dear mother-in-law, who at 85 starts every day searching for the latest Saints revelations on the T-P sports page and then works her way through the "less important" news.

Her four daughters and their husbands tried to pull her into the digital age several years ago with a Christmas gift of a new desktop computer. After several months of kicking and screaming through an unwanted voyage into a roiling sea, she quietly unplugged it and pushed it to the corner of her desk, like one might do a nibbled cucumber sandwich.

This fall, she will probably turn to one of the morning television programs for her news, but it won't be the same.

And what about the loss of the ancillary benefits of a printed newspaper that you can hold, fold and mutilate at will. As to the latter, I have carried a small pocket knife most of my life, primarily to cut out articles that interested me.

Soon my pocket knife will be utilized for its intended purpose only three days per week, while the other four days it will be devalued to such tasks as cutting open a stubborn wrapping or digging a piece of food out of my teeth. 

Despite those of like mind who have written letters to the editor and attended public rallies of indignation, it appears the move will be made anyway.

I admit I am an active participant in the digital wave. I write this piece on a 6-year old laptop that soon will blue-screen itself into a new Mac. I also do not know how civilized life existed on the planet before the IPhone 4s or the Kindle.

I suppose I will click on NOLA.com more than I do now, just to stay informed, and in doing so I will be spared the dirty elbows that came from leaning on the bottom of the printed page while I read stories above the fold. 

Never as neat or decorous as a gleaming iPad or PDA, print newspapers could be downright unsanitary. When I was a student at Shelby County High School, I would rip a page from the newspaper, stuff it surreptitiously into my book bag and then meet my buddies before class to make spitballs.

We would stick some to the ceiling over the teacher’s desk and laugh like drunkards when they would dry and begin to fall around her during class.

I defy the next generation of readers to try that with their preferred digital device.


Jim Miller, a native of Shelby County and a graduate of Shelby County High School, lives in New Orleans. His new book, Where The Water Kept Rising, is available at JWMillerSports.com or on Amazon.com.