Friday, June 5, 2009

The old order

Thirty years ago, David Halberstam published The Powers That Be, a book on Time magazine, CBS, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It was a look at “the kingdom of the media,” a realm that may not yet be one with Nineveh and Tyre, but which is certainly much diminished in wealth and power.

I have been thinking about the dwindling of that cozy world of the mass-market giants — the metropolitan dailies, the television broadcasters, the news magazines — since Tuesday night’s Abell symposium on the future of local news, sponsored by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Here’s an account of the proceedings by Joan Jacobson, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

The audience contained a majority of Sun people, and Sun alumni considerably outnumbered current Sun employees in attendance. Among Sun alumni there was a fair contingent older than I am. Because of the demographic — and I know that it is not seemly for someone of my age and propensities to mock cootdom — I suspect that audience responded to the panelists with a mindset informed by the world Halberstam described, not the world in which journalism now functions.

Two members of that panel earned my sympathy. The first was Monty Cook, the incumbent editor of The Sun, partly for just showing up. Many in that audience were clearly bitter about the successive reductions in the paper’s staff and scope, particularly the layoffs that occurred at the end of April. Their questions showed a profound skepticism about the company’s current attempt to straddle the print and electronic platforms, but he made his case gamely. I’m skeptical myself, because no one knows whether the new strategy will work; but I also know that no previous strategy has succeeded.

The other was Mark Potts, the blogger at Recovering Journalist. (If you read Ms. Jacobson’s article, you had better also read Mr. Potts’s account.) It fell to him to demonstrate, to even greater skepticism than Mr. Cook faced, that local electronic journalism is already beginning to take over the tasks that daily newspapers used to see as their monopoly.

There was a good deal of shaking of heads that displayed gray hair and male-pattern baldness. But I noticed from some of the subsequent Twitter traffic that that small-under-forty demographic in the audience found Mr. Potts to have made the most compelling points.

The old powers that be are being shouldered aside. They might yet adapt to a new and less hospitable environment, and they might be supplanted by newcomers, some of which have not yet even emerged. Looking backward, I think, will not serve those struggling to survive.

Antique writing equipment

This is a “Who cares?” post on a gloomy, wet weekday, so you might be well advised to skip it.

Despite all the writing with Microsoft Word on the computer — blog posts, job applications, e-mail, the manuscript of my long-gestating book on editing — the computer has not entirely effaced previous technology. I should show my children my Bud’s Research Paper Typing Guide.

It is a laminated second sheet to put behind a blank sheet in a typewriter. What shows through on the blank sheet are a black border indicating the top, bottom, and side margins; a vertical dotted line indicating the center of the page, and a set of numbers, 1-51, on the left to help calculate how much space to allow for footnotes. It bears many indentations from a Remington manual typewriter.

And it is about as useful as a shaker of sand to blot ink on the page.

The Remington is long gone, and there is a Brother electronic typewriter on a shelf that I haven’t used in years.

I have a Waterman fountain pen, fine nib, that I use for personal correspondence. Before I was laicized by The Sun, I used it to sign formal documents, such as performance reviews and pardons.

Pilot’s liquid-gel pens, both blue and black, have become a favorite, especially the 05 fine points, which are close to ideal for my cramped, precise handwriting. For paper grading: red for condemnation and green for advice.

I own a couple of Cross ballpoints, but their ink tends to blot irritatingly and get on my hands.

For making notes in books, Paper Mate Sharpwriter, Dixon SenseMatic, and Pentel mechanical pencils, which can be found all over the house, are handy.

While I make notes and sketchy outlines by hand, I almost never draft anything except by keyboard. Lowell Denton told me when I first worked at The Flemingsburg Gazette in the summer of 1968, “John Early, you’ve got to learn to write on the typewriter, because you’re never going to have the time to write it out by hand and then type it.”

I told you that this was a “Who cares?” post. If you’re still reading, you’ve only yourself to blame.

But if you’re keen to waste more time, you can comment on your own tastes in writing equipment.