Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Placeness of Peaceness

Living in dense city neighborhoods has its adaptive challenges. Everywhere one looks, there is a hard-surfaced structure, either hovering above in your airspace, staring straight into your windows or squeezing you laterally and literally. Sometimes it feels as if you are living in restraints, a less-soft straitjacket cutting and impinging, always at right angles and with sharp edges. It’s just the fact of being in an overbuilt environment. And besides the concrete canyons’ physical oppressiveness, depending on the human inhabitants sharing this constricted space and their self-awareness or awareness of others, the claustrophobia can be exacerbated by annoying behavior. And noise. Not only caught in a vise, but held there while being pelted with decibel levels that could otherwise compel one to give away national secrets to any enemy nation.

There seems to be some law of balance or, rather, imbalance, that the worst, loudest, most out-of-control morons will end up across the street from the quietest, privacy-seeking individuals. What are the odds? And in certain situations, it can be but it isn’t always the result of a long-standing, seething, political or religious dispute, or a national boundary. And other times it is simply that he shows up on one side of the street and you are on the other, and his presence is intolerable because he keeps making it known, constantly. There are such people living in dense city neighborhoods who, like four-legged animals, mark their territories – territories they don’t own, by the way. They do it the same way, with urine, or they do it by tossing a trail of their daily junk food trash, also with intimidating vibes and with the sounds of their voices. So the squeeze can be, besides spatial, also aural and physical in the sense of body language. Much of this behavior is self-destructive in origin but can end up taking entire neighborhoods with it if it is permitted to continue or flourish. This, in the extreme, is gang behavior. But it is also the precursor of neighbor-violence.

In this city, in far worse sections, there have been people killed over disputes and misunderstandings, sometimes even misidentifications, or wrong words, wrong actions, wrong place and time. Some deaths are accidental, others are purposeful, most are a result of rage and of feeling the kind of helplessness and hopelessness that comes as a result of seeming to have no other recourse. Sure, there are battles over boundaries that happen in the suburbs and in large tracts of rural landscapes where one might think that if there is land aplenty, there is a more generous spirit. Not. But it seems that the urban environment with its visible limitations and dense over-crowding causes more anxiety and the probability of it multiplying exponentially toward a crescendo more often. For many people living in these in-your-face tight packed places, there is a desire to live anonymously, to not make eye-contact, to come and go secretively, to stay inside, to keep the blinds closed. It is a kind of denial of the reality of the place, a distancing for self-preservation, a coping mechanism; it is definitely a tough challenge to be open and trusting of so many vying for such a small piece of turf. It is not ideal. But the covert behavior of those in denial set the empty stage for those with overt actions, those who want to control and muscle and “own,” to fill the void, as in a takeover.

The noise, the relentless yakety-yak and shouting rise sharply above the pervasive din of the usual city sounds: car engines starting, doors slamming, alarms beeping on, alarms beeping off, trucks rumbling by, alarms sounding off when the truck vibrations are too intense, dogs barking, alcohol-elevated voices being delivered from lowered motor-functioning bodies, circling anxious cars desperate for just one last parking space (or trying to score drugs), the blinkety-blink blasting tune of the ice-cream truck, blaring “music” from passing cars that sometimes stays for a while and drowns out other noises, people hollering from one corner to the next – as if the cellphone had not yet been invented. Oh, yes, and there are also the cellphone ringtones; who can possibly receive that many calls, especially when the receivers seem to be hanging everyday, all day, with everyone they know? There are more assaults, trust me. It makes a person with keen hearing dread the open-window season, since all of this can already be heard through double panes of glass.

What I yearn for is elbow room, breathing space and no faces in my face, day in and day out. No one invading my turf and everyone else’s, whether physical or airspace. An absence of shouting and profane voices – did you ever notice how often the loudest mouths have the least to say? It is that way on this street, and generally in this country, that the volume is inversely proportional to the content.

My quest is to find the placeness of peaceness. Maybe it doesn’t exist in the city. I have been seduced by the idea of community, of shared resources, of clearer distinctions and manageable sizes. But what I find, after nearly three decades, is uneasiness, uncertainty, misconduct, lines drawn, social contracts broken. It is no longer detente I seek – it is a kindly and peaceable kingdom.

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The Fickle Times: Transitions

Anyone who lives on earth experiences seasonal changes. Their extremes vary according to distances from the equator and/or the poles. If you are paying attention, things are in flux: there are temperature variations and differences in the amount of light/dark, there are changes in foliage, animal behavior, weather – all affecting activity and mood. Most of us are invigorated by spring, we just can’t help it; as if we are going through some kind of new growth as the rest of nature is.

The temperatures have been too warm and sunny too early for this time of the year and this causes nesting rituals among birds working in a kind of frenzy. They have been at it for well over a month: the chattering, the erratic flying to and fro, singing and fluttering. And then, just as quickly, one day the warmth halts, temperatures drop, cloud cover returns. The silence resumes, the silence of winter hasn’t fully let go. The quiet is palpable. Winds pick up, it is cold again and the birds have disappeared. Where do they go on such days?

It is these transitions of seasons and of weather that are special to me. The fickle times, when you think all has changed rather abruptly, but it is still in the process of changing. We are reminded of just a month or so ago, not so very long looking back, but how quickly we forget when we are warmed by the sun. Seduced, really.

It is that fluctuation, that instability and changeability, that creates a placeness. It isn’t found in the lingering seasons so much as in the fits and starts, these transitional periods, the combination of beginnings bumping up against endings. The contrast between the two and the intersection of “I am here” and “here I go,” just for the momentous joining of two opposing forces, a kind of cosmic tug-of-war.

The air has a chill, the sun is nowhere to be seen, there are cherry and apple blossoms shivering in the wind, tulips bend their thin stalks over toward the ground. It is yes and it is no. The natural forces are struggling to see who will win today, a game of strategy. I walk along blooming flower beds and I pull my coat close together to keep out the cold wind. Two days ago there was no coat. There is indecision all around. Already a robin’s eggs have fallen to the ground since there are not yet any dense leaves to hold the nests in the branches.

This contrast of pushing and pulling, warming and cooling, starting and stopping creates a physical presence from the air and light, a space where we can see ourselves caught in the flow, making us aware.

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A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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(News) Room with a (Rear) View

The room stretches half a football-field’s length ahead, it is dark and I am alone in it. Here and there, around me, are the telltale cigarette-tip-red dots and cool-blue glows of electronic equipment on desks, waiting to be switched alive. One can feel the thrumming of the HVAC system as it rolls fetid air through huge and dirty ducts that hover over the room from the low ceiling.  It is a Saturday; we don’t publish a Sunday paper, so this, the newsroom, is abandoned. But, lately, it’s seemed abandoned even at the height of the day and the heat of the chase. A place that can accommodate maybe 150 workers – and once did – now is home to only about a third of that, and, what with varying shifts, there are times, especially at night, when there are so few people in the cavernous space, and all spread about like blindly sown seeds, that we joke sometimes that we could all carpool to work. In a Smart Car. With the latest buyouts and layoffs freshly sliced into our hearts, it is hard to believe that the few remaining reporters, editors and graphic artists will be able to put out a metropolitan newspaper on time every day. And it is, occasionally, hard to believe that we will exist long enough to get used to the new normal. 

How long one has worked for this newspaper determines the ghosts one sees when one is here, in the quiet, in the dark. A newspaper, for its success, depends on the voice it projects, and the diversity of voices that appear on the pages. But the voices that readers don’t ever hear – the voices of the copy editors joking with each other and grumbling about the horrible stories they have to save, the voices of reporters on the phone trying to cajole facts from reluctant sources, the voices of clueless editors and administrators trying to sound sincere while mouthing corporate platitudes or uninformed and ill-used journalese – the voices that inform the decisions that end up as the words you read (if indeed you are reading them these days, which, of course, is the problem) are getting weaker and thinner, less assured, and are fading away. Some may not consider what we do in making newspapers as art, but there is an art to the smoothly functioning, at times inspired machine that drags raw materials from thin air, pounds them into shape and extrudes them out the door in a polished package. At some future time, in some museum, that defunct item we call a newspaper might be displayed in a case and looked upon as a work of art, the way Toulouse Lautrec’s posters, once commercial come-ons, are now seen. Maybe not. After all, they didn’t use his posters to wrap fish and line bird cages.

At times, in this room, I feel like Jonah, except that it is not a whale that I have been swallowed up by and am in the belly of, but rather a dinosaur. In fact, we in this business are dealing with conjoined dinosaurs: the print newspaper format itself, and the newsroom where it traditionally has been created. I won’t go into the decay of the daily, which is well documented elsewhere ad nauseam and is a perfect-storm confluence of misunderstanding, mismanagement, confusion and irrational exuberance about the digital realm. But what is also falling by the wayside are these grand newsrooms, once teeming with ideas and with colorful people full of those ideas. With so many folks rubbing up against each other, the friction often sparked exciting results: a critical mass of skepticism, cynicism, witticism and idealism. The newsroom went through evolutionary phases – from the smoky, feverish, wild and untamed “The Front Page” days to cool and distancing insurance-company-like corporate reinventions (some blame print journalism’s decline on the banning of indoor smoking, and the frowning upon by bloodless management of visible signs of alcohol misuse) – but it was always a place that could become a mess quite easily, piled high with handouts and food scraps, and swirling with contorted workspace and equally twisted personal relationships. But now, with reductions in the workforce, and the selling off of old newspaper office buildings, and the digital and mobile and work-at-home capabilities of the new enterprise, the vast newsroom, which often seemed like a cross between an asylum and Grand Central Station with desks, is a money-eating anachronism. 

And, so, this room that I am in now, so appropriately and symbolically silent and dark – this basement space that once held mighty printing presses before they were moved to the suburbs and the bosses (whichever bumbling or sinister iteration of them it was at the time) decided to move the editors and reporters from some lofty floor in the building to this now unvacuumed mite- and mouse-infested dungeon – is to be abandoned before summer, slated to feel the developer’s work crew and ultimate conversion to a residential and retail-space future. We few, we unhappy few, we band of dysfunctional brothers, will be moving to a much smaller space in a building that itself is a relic of a gasping industry: the department store. Where once this news operation and all its attendant sales and support services took up 13 floors of an iconic structure known throughout the region, now two newspapers – once bitter sibling rivals, now sharing the same bunk bed – will be shoehorned into one floor that at one time might have been where one went to purchase lingerie. Irony upon irony: It is the demise of department stores, and loss of the big advertisements that they used to fill newspapers with, that is at the root of the financial collapse of big-city newspapers … and, now, the one invalid is inhabiting the other.

I am sure, considering the millions of dollars that are being tossed at this new workspace, that it will have fine lighting, fresh carpeting and all the modern amenities, and it will, by comparison, show the current place for the NIH-alarming germ-pit that it is. But it will, almost certainly, be another stop on the road to homogenization. With each successive modernization of quarters, the newspaper product itself has become concomitantly colorless. Clothes make the man; newsrooms make the paper. Once I worked for what was then called an “alternative” newspaper, a weekly that was created with somewhat less than the extension of journalistic excellence in mind; indeed, the owner – who also owned the town’s slick and thick and superficial city magazine – came up with the idea of this new venture because he wanted an advertising venue for those businesses that couldn’t afford the rates in his flagship publication. In other words, this new newspaper came into being solely for the publisher to snag the dangling dollars of low-rent operations; we, the writers and editors, were to be, from the get-go, mere filler. It’s always that way – publications are, first, businesses – but it’s rarely so blatant; there is usually the pretext of providing readers with exciting reading. At any rate, the owner gathered a staff, and this staff – snookered into thinking that they would be able to do something good – wanted digs that reflected their idea of the enterprise: an alternative paper should be in alternative offices. We wanted a loft someplace, with (this was decades ago) old standard typewriters, bare floors, brick walls, crummy lighting and the feel of gritty, old-timey journalism squeezed through a Village Voice-y filter. The only thing we didn’t think of was a Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze outside the offices, but that’s the atmosphere we wanted to work in and the image we desired to project. Instead, the owner spent lots of money to lease fairly fashionable space and to decorate it with the most neutral, cool, patrician accoutrements one could imagine. The newspaper, unfortunately, came out the same, and died an ignominious death. Lesson: Newspapers take on their surroundings, like camouflaging animals. Not that art can’t be made anyplace, but sometimes a certain kind of art needs a certain kind of place. Our new place may turn out to be too nice for doing what we do; journalists can be seduced by anything, even a free meal, and, subliminally, the workspace can be a seducer and defuser of creativity. 

New owners of our paper have made all the usual noises about the future, and hope, and commitment, and hands-off integrity, and blah-blah. They have bought the product; they have inherited the plans for the move into the new, snazzier offices. We can’t stay here, in this big, long and barren room – it’s been sold out from under us by the previous owners – but, if the new owners had any sense, they’d keep us away from the new place, and find us some déclassé dump and let us thrive there. And we could pretend to be not the “information workers” we have been forced to become but honest to god newspaper people again, for as long as we have that privilege.

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