12 February 2009

Got News? (part 2)

At many times in my life I've had two or more subscriptions to daily newspapers. I moved to Chicago in 1994 and despite the four addresses in two years I always kept my subscription to the Chicago Tribune. I loved the Trib - it seemed serious, it had heft, it was folded the right way, it had a great sports section, it had a challenging but reasonable crossword, and it had enough content to last on long commutes (though for the hour-forty-minute one-way from Buffalo Grove to Watertower I did bring a book for the trip home). Front page, Sports, Tempo, the rest, every day, in that order. Many nights after work or over lunches Kim and I would do the crossword together at Flapjaws, which sadly is no more, across from the Loyola Law School. (Chicago would be a great "you can't go back" column, but much of it would be, well, not family fare, let's say. Flapjaws - that's a loss. Cheap, good, adjacent to campus, not too smoky, and the waitstaff knew me and had my grilled cheese and fries order in when I'd walk in the door.)

Then, after a year in Chicago when I was thinking of where my next move was going to be, I subscribed to the Key West Citizen, looking at want ads, rental costs, and what local people were talking about. In part, reading the letters to the editor in the Citizen made me think that maybe the place wasn't the liberal, gay friendly, socially laissez-faire, libertarian paradise I'd thought it might be. I looked elsewhere, taking a subscription to the Eureka, California, Times-Standard. You can learn so much about other communities by reading their newspapers, particularly if those communities are smaller and the paper is any good at all. Yes, nearly all small town papers buy a bulk of their "news" stories from the wires (AP, Gannett, etc.), but the local stuff is the good stuff: what bond issues are proposed and which ones pass? What is the school board fighting about? What's the local perspective on zoning, land use, transit, and marijuana laws (it's Humboldt County, after all)? How vibrant is the civil society? Arcata/ Eureka would be a great place to live someday, I'd say, based on all of this. The paper sure was good, and the people who wrote for it and to it struck me as my people.

But I didn't move to Arcata then since I needed to make a little money; I moved to Nagoya, Japan. I subscribed on landing (well, on first full pay packet which was February 1st, 1997) to the business-friendly and bloodless Japan Times, and after a while I switched to the Daily Yomiuri, mostly for the better comics, the fantastic and tortured use of the passive, the easier (i.e., American) crosswords, and the reliably great front page stories on crimes committed by gai-jin.

It was then I was exposed to the Guardian Weekly, which was brilliant - my British mate Roy had a subscription and it would come once a week on onion-skin paper (which I had never seen before), and it carried news stories we wouldn't have heard any other way. (This was pre-internet, remember, or more accurately pre-wide-spread internet access, cafes, etc.) There were the football tables, of course, in which I learned to manufacture interest (after many questions Roy assigned me to follow Everton as their fan base was moderately Irish Catholic and working-class), but there was also robust reporting on European and U.S. issues. It would get passed from teacher to teacher, and we'd feel a little less removed from home.

I returned from Japan to Los Angeles and began my continuing affair with the LA Times, what I think of as one of the best papers in America. It really troubles me that the Times is now owned by the Tribune Company; however good the Trib might have been in the mid 90's when I lived in Chicago, the last decade has been really tough on it. In O'Hare on my way home from the Inauguration I picked up a Trib - print media is still unequalled at capturing historical moments - and I was shocked at just how bad it'd become. The writing was glib, callow and chatty, with no heft at all; I felt like I was reading a mid-level high school paper with far too much nosiness and too little newsiness. It's sad; Chicago certainly deserves better. I'm very hopeful that's not a template for their other publications. Otis Chandler wrested the Times from a Republican party mouthpiece without even a reporter in Sacramento into a respected news-gathering source with a global reach. Maybe some rich Angeleno will come to the rescue; Tribune Company ownership isn't the answer.

When I moved to Honolulu, a two newspaper town, I read copies of both dailies and took a subscription to the Honolulu Advertiser, what some at the University of Hawai`i sniffed was "the most accurately named newspaper in America." It didn't strike me as that bad, to be honest; the local reporting and columnists were very solid, and it held local elected officials' feet to the fire when they needed held there. I switched to the Star Bulletin for three months because it carried "Get Fuzzy" on it's comics page - yes, that's the real reason - but once that subscription expired I switched back to the Advertiser. The Star Bulletin was unreadable; even my roommates complained.

I didn't have the money while in grad school to keep a Guardian subscription, but I did keep up The New Yorker which Arnold had given me for Christmas in 2000 and which I've kept to this day. I look forward to every issue, and while some people to whom I in turn have given subscriptions complain that "it's like an assignment" given its density and frequency, the in-depth reporting on random topics (like the piece on Lynne Cox, the long distance swimmer, as one of many, many examples) really gives the reader a sense that he or she has learned something new. Due to the vagaries of mail delivery in Hawai`i I would go three weeks without one and then get three at the same time. It was maddening, but then there were enough long haul flights that I could get through them on my way to the West Coast.

I moved back to L.A. from Honolulu, renewed the Times, kept the New Yorker, and picked up the Guardian again. After Katrina I took a subscription to the New Orleans Times Picayune, a great American institution that was needed more than ever by the city it served. Did my one paper/one year subscription make up for the 30% drop in circulation the T-P had suffered? Nope, of course not. But I learned a lot about what was and wasn't happening in New Orleans, and I learned other ways that I could help, and maybe I contributed in a small way to that great city's recovery.

In addition to the Times I renewed my subscription to the Guardian Weekly , and I could now figuratively lay it side by side with U.S. papers. The gap between what was reported here in the U.S., even in sober, responsible news outlets, and what was covered in the international press was shocking, even for someone who had lived abroad for two years. It's asking a lot, but I think every American who has the means should take a subscription to an international source as well. There's so much we're not hearing.

In my favorites I've got the Bangkok Post, Japan Times, Le Monde (Paris), The Straits Times (Singapore), and the Johannesburg Star. I'm a news junkie, and I know that not everyone will have the time or inclination to read as much international press, but I learn so much about how America is viewed in the world and about what issues our media is not covering that I find it really worthwhile.

And now I have L'Actualité (if Time and People had a French-language love-child it would be L'Actualité), a lovely gift from Celeste (a BrensLeftCoast reader - thanks, Celeste!). I don't fully understand each article of each issue - I don't have the French chops for some topics and the music reviews are impenetrable - but I do my best to plow through them. It helps keep my French passable, teaches me about things happening in Québec, Canada, and France (and there's more coverage of all things France than that of anglophonic Canada), and shows me how intensely interested and informed other nations' citizens are about American politics and culture. They also talk about race in America in very direct terms that we as Americans eschew, and it was fascinating reading L'Actualite's coverage of the November elections.

And it's tremendously useful when I fly - noise reduction headphones and a foreign language magazine go a long way to preventing fellow travellers from talking to you.


Celeste said...

Another entry?! You are becoming a bona fide blogger. Well done. ;

Lots about this entry grabs my attention:

1.Glad to hear that you are still enjoying L’Actualite!
2.Funny you should mention the Chicago Tribune—recently, Oprah busied herself heaping praise all over its Obama coverage. While I have never actually read the Chicago Tribune, I did agree with her that the pictures they chose for some of their covers seemed exceptional.
3.Although I only subscribe to one newspaper (The Globe and Mail, whose main glaring fault is that they don’t carry Get Fuzzy!), I am doing my part to keep the magazine industry afloat. I should be too embarrassed to admit this, but I subscribe to the following magazines: Canadian Living, Vanity Fair, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, The Walrus, and Toronto Life (which comes bundled with a free subscription to Fashion magazine—which tells you about the quality of Fashion magazine). For one year I also accidentally subscribed myself to L’Actualite. (One should not be too hasty when filling in second language forms! Lesson learned)

Ellie said...

I read The Guardian Weekly when I lived in Japan too! It became tradition for Anita, Blenda and I to sit at our table and try and finish the 'quick' crossword. We rarely managed. I don't regularly read a paper now, although The Times is usually sitting on our coffee table (that's the paper my hubbie writes for). We have a subscription to The Week, which I do read - you can read it in about an hour, it's a news digest with articles from many different UK/foreign papers.

Unknown said...

2005. . . I remember when we had an overnight layover in London between Sicily and the US. I was watching the BBC in our hotel room and was flabbergasted. I yelled at Jason, "Why don't we hear about these things in the US?"