Things we lost when newspapers died

Rob Morse, former metro columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. Photo: Mill Valley Patch, 2011

I am the product of an almost-extinct culture: newspaper culture. I got my first newspaper job at the age of 17, as a part-time copy boy when I was still in high school. I retired as a newspaperman in 2008. Most newspapers are now zombies, but fortunately two have survived and have even kept their souls — the New York Times and the Washington Post.

There are still newspapers in other cities and towns, of course. But their business model is wrecked. Their staffs are tiny. And whatever culture now exists in newspapers other than the New York Times and the Washington Post, it’s not newspaper culture. It’s something else, something more akin to tech culture and web culture, people who use the word “content” and who probably have never even heard the old word, “copy.” The lesser newspapers have little use for old pros and the old culture. Instead they want young staffs with tech skills, tech educations, and with an unquestioned belief that the future is in social media. Blech.

It was globalization, really, that killed newspapers. Wherever globalization happens, something local is lost.

The golden era of newspapers was rooted in two monopolies or near-monopolies that were wiped out by technology.

The first monopoly was that communications bandwidth was very scarce and very expensive. In the days of the telegraph, it was only the newspapers that could support the costs of gathering news and sending it over the wires. When telephones came along, long distance calls were very expensive, but newspapers easily made enough money to bear the cost. Later, Teletype machines, operating over long-distance phone lines (and later, the early satellites), carried the “copy.” In a city of any size, the newspaper had a room full of Teletype machines. (My job as a copy boy included the care and feeding of a room full of Teletypes. What amazing machines they were!) That room full of Teletypes was pretty much the only channel into a city carrying news about events elsewhere in the world. This monopoly slowly evaporated as the Internet was born and millions of miles of fiber-optic cable was laid.

The second newspaper monopoly was local advertising. Stores and businesses bought the “display ads.” But anyone could afford a classified ad. The classified ads were where everyone went when looking for a job, or buying a house or a car. Almost overnight, craigslist killed newspapers’ monopoly on classified ads. Other sorts of advertising moved to the Internet more slowly. But even by the time I retired in 2008, newspapers’ advertising revenue had collapsed.

The cost of subscribing to a newspaper was roughly enough to pay for the paper it was printed on. All the profit was in advertising. Though there was some competition — many cities had more than one newspaper — the pie was plenty big enough to divide two or even three ways.

For a while, it was not clear whether even the New York Times would survive. It did. I was very surprised that the Washington Post has survived, because I thought we had lost it. But the Post has survived. Those are the last real newspapers standing in the U.S., and I believe it was the demand for professionally reported news that saved them.

Unless you’ve seen a budget for big-city newspaper, you might be shocked at how expensive it is to gather and print the news. Once upon a time, even the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, where I used to work, had foreign bureaus. Now, as far as I know, only the New York Times and the Washington Post do. I’m going to list those foreign bureaus, for both papers, just to help make the point that a real news operation is very expensive:

New York Times foreign bureaus: Baghdad, Beijing, Beirut, Berlin, Cairo, Caracas, Dakar, Istanbul, Kabul, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, Mexico City, Moscow, New Delhi, Ottawa, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Shanghai, Sydney, Tehran, Tokyo, Toronto, and Warsaw. The Times also has domestic bureaus in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington.

Washington Post foreign bureaus: Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Dakar, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jerusalem, London, Mexico City, Miami, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.

Yes, as the Internet grew, a new niche opened up for online publications such as Politico or the now-in-decline Salon. Other online publications are mostly link aggregators that produce little or no “content” on their own, such as Huffington Post on the left and the Drudge Report on the right. But there is no substitute for a real newspaper. That’s why I have paid subscriptions to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are many niche sites that are worth looking at, but no one considers them worth paying for. And I think I’ll lay off of Twitter, which I find completely useless, no matter how “well curated” one’s “feed” is. Even if there’s a needle on Twitter, it’s lost in a globalized haystack.

My larger point here is that as globalization and globalized technologies killed newspapers, things that are local were lost. It’s easier now to find out about a fire at Notre Dame than a fire in your own county. Yes, local news weeklies are still around. But they’re lucky if they can afford even one reporter, and most of them fill their columns with stuff they can get for free, such as “neighborhood news” sent in by the elderly, or rubbishy little business features that they get from “partnering” with self-serving entities such as chambers of commerce. There is a frightening scarcity of coverage of local news anymore, particularly local government. Even state government flies under the news radar most of the time in most places. I live in a news desert where local news is concerned, and the odds are that you do, too. When I look at the web site of my last employer, the San Francisco Chronicle (, I am disgusted by what I see: fluff, food, technology, and traffic. It’s not a newspaper anymore. Even Politico now covers California politics better than the Chronicle does (not least because an old colleague from the Examiner and Chronicle, Carla Marinucci, now works for Politico).

But as I write this, I’m more in a sentimental mood than a grouchy mood. And that brings me at last to Rob Morse.

It wasn’t just local news that newspapers used to bring us. Most newspapers also had a local columnist. Some newspapers had a very good local columnist. (In larger cities, they were called metro columnists.) Local columnists helped to give a newspaper its personality. When collective grouching needed to be done, the columnist would lead the grouching. When local celebrating needed to be done, they’d lead the celebrating. In times of collective grief and trauma, they would provide collective therapy. I remember morning rush-hour buses in San Francisco creeping down Market Street, and virtually everyone who didn’t have to stand and hold a strap would be holding a Chronicle, reading Herb Caen. When Herb Caen died (in 1997 at age 80), all the church bells of San Francisco rang for his funeral. The Examiner’s metro columnist, Rob Morse, wrote, “We’re on our own now.” Indeed we were, and just look what has happened to San Francisco since 1997. Herb Caen had once written, “One day if I do go to heaven…I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'” These days, I think Caen might prefer heaven.

Caen was a relentless extravert. He was always out and about, relishing the social status that his job gave him. Over at the Examiner, Rob Morse was an introvert. His columns were very much grounded in San Francisco life, but Morse was a ruminant, not a butterfly.

Morse and I were friends. He would often come and sit in my office, where he could escape the din of the newsroom, and talk with a fellow ruminant. Often his thoughts would be about whatever was in his next column. He was a touch awkward and tentative in conversation, frankly. But in writing he never was. Morse was among the very last of the great metro columnists.

I’m not the only person who wondered what happened to Morse after he took a buyout and vanished. In 2011, more than three years after I left San Francisco, the Mill Valley Patch, a little online publication, carried a piece with the title, “Rob Morse, Please Come Home.” I sometimes ask former colleagues if they ever hear from Morse, but no one ever does. He lives a very private life now, I think.

I live a pretty private life, too, and in a much remoter place than Mill Valley, California. Until my trip to the U.K. last year, I had not even done any traveling after I left San Francisco. One of the things I found shocking, whether in airports or on the street, was that these days everyone has their face in a phone almost all the time (and never a newspaper). There must be some kind of local life in those phones, but I don’t think it’s a community life. I don’t think there’s anyone in all those phones who leads the local grouching, or the local celebrating, or who provides group therapy for a group as large as a city. I don’t think there is anyone in those phones for whom all the church bells of San Francisco, or any city, will ring someday.

As Rob Morse said, we’re on our own now. Are our phones really that compelling? Or are they a poor but addictive substitute for something that has gone extinct?

Sometimes I ask myself, as a thought experiment, what I would do if I had a magic button that, if I pushed it, would take us back to the days of Teletypes. I think I would. We’d still know what was happening in Moscow. We’d still know that Notre Dame is on fire. But a now-lost local world might magically reappear.

Magic always moves on …

Above: From an Armistead Maupin status update on Facebook

So Armistead Maupin is leaving San Francisco. For those of you who have read his books (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, etc.), this is a big deal. That aura of myth and magic around San Francisco was partly created by two very important writers, both of whom published in the San Francisco Chronicle (from which I retired in 2008).

The other writer, of course, was columnist Herb Caen, who died in 1997. Both Maupin and Caen loved San Francisco passionately. Both wove webs of magic around San Francisco’s places and people. Armistead Maupin’s magic was a more personal magic, contained in the lives and loves and heartbreaks of the characters he created. Caen’s magic was more extraverted. It was largely to be found in places — bars, eateries, hangouts — often lurking in the fog. Caen once said, “One day if I do go to heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'” Caen’s magic was easier to find. Even visitors could find it, just making the rounds, living well, soaking up the atmosphere. Maupin’s magic was much more elusive. For Maupin’s magic, you had to have a life, even if that life wasn’t what you always thought it would be. And you had to have people in your life who understood how to help each other create magic out of everyday materials.

The center of the universe

I have thought a great deal about a magical power that writers have. They can cause the center of the universe to move. Pick a setting, any setting. It might be San Francisco. It might be a shack in Mississippi. It might be a beat-up old car rolling down a highway in Tennessee. It could be a hospital room. It could be a back yard in suburbia. It could be an imaginary place, out among the stars. But wherever that place is, if a writer can tell a true and beautiful story in that place, then that place becomes the center of the universe.

There is a wonderful line in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is a bored, dreamy teen-ager, living with his step parents, doing chores on the desert planet of Tattooine. One day two droids show up — R2D2 and C3PO. While Luke is repairing the droids, C3PO says, “As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure what planet I’m on.” Luke Skywalker replies, “Well, if there’s a bright center of the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

To feel ourselves far from the center of the universe contains more existential pain than we ever admit.

But what Luke Skywalker doesn’t suspect is that, at that very moment, he is at the bright center of the universe. That is because a true and beautiful story is being told — Luke’s story, partly — but Luke doesn’t know it. It’s a secret for only the storyteller and the reader to know. But a good storyteller also knows some things about the reader that the reader doesn’t know.

It has been my good fortune to have known lots of good writers. One writer I knew back in the 1980s, at the time he published Ender’s Game, is Orson Scott Card. He used to say that the key to the best stories, to the truest stories, is that the storyteller is telling the reader’s own story. But the reader, who is unable to tell the story himself, doesn’t know it.

That was certainly true of Armistead Maupin’s stories. Maupin showed people a whole new way to live — simple, sweet, kind. He taught people how to not be too hard on themselves, or on each other. In his stories, the most ordinary events could contain a world of meaning and bring us to tears. His stories changed people’s lives.

When we are the center of the universe, we feel happy. We feel that life has meaning. Orson Scott Card would say that this is why people are so hungry for stories. Stories — good stories, at least — help us find our place in the universe. When we can’t do that, we become depressed, miserable. It’s hard to find meaning in our lives.

A friend from my San Francisco days now lives in Sacramento. He has to deal with a recurring sadness: He is having a great deal of difficulty creating magic in Sacramento. He pines for San Francisco. As any writer knows, settings do make a difference. Some kinds of stories just can’t be told in some kinds of places. A shack in Mississippi is the natural setting for only certain stories. The same is true of San Francisco. Stories certainly could be told in the suburbs of Sacramento, but to find that story may require a very difficult existential struggle. When we feel ourselves beaten down by that struggle, we instinctively turn to storytellers for help.

Most psychologists would say that living too much in the imagination is not healthy, that human beings function best when they are well-adapted to their actual environment, that excessive mythologizing can even be kind of dangerous. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I have long understood that I was happiest when I felt surrounded by magic, even when sustaining that magic required a certain level of delusion. That was one of the reasons I moved to San Francisco, more than 20 years ago. I could no longer sustain a sense of magic where I was. I needed a change of setting if there was to be any hope of finding magic.

To leave San Francisco is frightening, in a way. One has fears and dreads about what kind of magic — if any — exists outside of San Francisco. I remember telling my sister, when Acorn Abbey existed only in my imagination, that I wanted a place that felt as though magic was possible there. Settings matter. One feels one’s setting in one’s everyday life. Other people might feel it too. It’s possible to create magic alone. Magic also can be a co-creation. Even groups can create magic, though group magic is likely to be unstable, because people change, and people come and go. San Franciscans have created a powerful magic, as a group. But in 1997, when Herb Caen died, a powerful source of that group magic was lost. As my friend Rob Morse wrote in the San Francisco Examiner the day after Caen died, “We’re on our own now.”

And now San Francisco must make its magic without Armistead Maupin.

Just don’t forget: The center of the universe can be absolutely anywhere. It’s all in the story you tell.

Postscript: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is being made into a movie starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford. It will be released in 2013.

My neighborhood in San Francisco

Let’s take a little walk around my neighborhood in San Francisco — partly because it’s an interesting neighborhood, and partly because there are some architectural and landscaping elements that will work in the country.

I live at Park Hill on Buena Vista Avenue East, facing Buena Vista Park.

The house in the photo below is one block up the street from me. A friend and I call it “Fancy House” and use it as a rendezvous place when we’re out walking. The house seems to capture everyone’s imagination. At Halloween, Christmas, and Easter, its owners put up decorations that are WAY over the top. The house is noted for that, and people drive through just to see it.

Fancy House:


It’s not gothic, but it has a lot of the same elements as the gothic revival cottage that I plan to build.

For example, the steep roof with flared eaves:


Dormers and bay windows:


But look what’s missing from the bay windows, a terrible omission!:


There’s no corbelling under the bay windows!

But one block in the other direction, check out the fine corbelling and brackets on this Spanish mansion across the street from Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Luxembourg:


Most bay windows would have an extremely unfinished look without some corbelling. The corbelling above is masonry, but something similar could be executed in wood and would make a good corbel for my gothic revival cottage.

Here’s one other neat detail for a house with a dramatic façade and steep roof. A finial at the peak of the roof. This house is nextdoor to Danny Glover’s house and the Crosby, Stills, and Nash house. In the Southeast, the finial could be executed in copper and double as a lightning rod:


A couple of other things while we’re walking around. What a nice way to treat a stump — put some sod on it. The stump is in Buena Vista Park:


Attaching climbing roses to tree trunks could never be a bad idea. The roses and the palm trees below are recently planted and don’t yet looked very established, but give them time:


And if you can afford a fancy dog waterer, go for it!


Here’s where I live. Park Hill. It used to be a hospital run by an order of nuns — St. Joseph’s Hospital. It appears in the Hitchcock film “Vertigo,” and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was converted to condos in the mid-1980s.



The lions in the photo below are on the fourth floor. My apartment is just above the lions on the fifth floor. Note the four-story-tall magnolia grandiflora — always in good taste! And by the way, there’s even some honeysuckle across the street in Buena Vista Park.


Some people might now be thinking, can I take the shock of moving from a fancy neighborhood in San Francisco to the end of a gravel road in Stokes County? Consider the French. There is Paris, and everything else is la province. The French esteem la province, love farms and farming, and les parisiens have a place in la province if they can possibly afford it. In France, there is no huge political and cultural gap between Paris and la province. We urban Americans look down on our provinces. That’s dumb. Or, en français, quel dommage — what a pity. If we Americans loved our provinces the way we ought to we’d stop paving over our remaining farmland. We’d have a great deal more respect for, and knowledge of, the people who grow our food. And most important, city people and country people would have some common cause, and would be more at home on each other’s turf. I say let the country people learn to love San Francisco, and let San Franciscans learn to love the country.