I gave my own version of the winter holiday story the other day, before a gathering of writers, editors, and ad sales and production people. It was a little sacrilegious — alcohol was involved — and it may not have gone over quite as well as I had hoped. But it got me thinking some end-of-the-year, out with old, in with the new thoughts about this profession that has also become my calling.
First the Christmas story, as edited by me, not suitable for Sunday school or for children nestled snug in their beds.
My version begins in cave man days, when some wise man or woman becomes conscious enough to see that the light of each day is dwindling. That person does some calculation, and figures that in another 60 days or so the earth will be plunged into total darkness. At about that time another clever fellow, maybe not so smart, starts rubbing two sticks together and invents fire. Fires are lit all around cave-dom and the days suddenly started becoming longer again. It’s a miracle.
But no great event is truly great for the ages unless it gets lionized in a story. So that’s where the early writers and editors came in, crafting tales of wise men on camels, babies in mangers, shooting stars in the silent night, and similar legends to accommodate a wide range of religious beliefs.
But there still needed to be some unifying force to bring together all these disparate stories. Something to turn the holy days into the holidays. That’s where the ad sales and production people came in (and still do as this part of this most amazing story of all continues to evolve). They created the special day that embodies all the traditions in one: Black Friday.
So there it is, the gospel according to Rich.
Irreverent as my retelling is, there’s nevertheless a glimmer of piety to it. The truth is that even a heathen such as I dreads the darkness and finds comfort in the light. And from time to time we all need some reassurance that the dark days will end, and that a dawn is coming.
In my holiday story I give the media or its appropriate equivalent in ancient times credit for celebrating the light. Today, one might argue, the media seems to dwell in the dark. The Newtown shootings have been portrayed as the embodiment of a society gone bad. Yet I looked at the coverage in the immediate aftermath on Friday night and saw a father mourn his young child and yet acknowledge the loss also felt by the family of the killer. If that’s not a point of light in the heart of darkness nothing is.
The media has railed on so long about the fiscal cliff that some of us want to jump off it first. But there’s light even there. If our economy does go over the cliff nearly everyone will see a small decrease in their take home pay the first week in January. But then Washington can still act to restore the tax cuts for the vast majority of us, and make it retroactive. ADP, the payroll processing people, will get rich.
The darkest stories of all being promulgated by the media are about the media. Print is dying, if not already dead, as we have been told over and over. Newspapers cut costs by cutting staff, and then cut more costs by cutting the days of the week they publish. Then they wring their hands and wonder why they keep losing readers. Some have given up expensive print editions altogether to disseminate their content solely through the free medium of the Internet. A great idea, but no one has figured out how to make any money from online content.
Fortunately I have been around this cave long enough that I have already witnessed several resurrections. I started out in journalism as a summer reporter with the Binghamton Evening Press in 1965, went to Time magazine after college, and then became a freelancer. I was in the Time-Life Building on the day in 1971 or so when the weekly Life magazine was shut down (it was later revived as a monthly).
At that time everyone was talking about print being dead. But since then I have made a career almost exclusively for print publications that were all born after that first notice of print’s demise: People magazine, Money magazine, New Jersey Monthly, and — starting in 1984 — U.S. 1, which is now part of Community News Service, which started in 2001 or so.
So now we have another round of progressively darker days. This is different, the doomsday prognosticators say. The Internet has changed everything.
But maybe print publications will change to adapt to those new days. Maybe newspapers will admit that they are no longer the mass medium of choice for readers and advertisers seeking to reach them. Maybe they will transform themselves into a premium product. The New York Times now charges $2.50 for its daily edition; $5 for the Sunday edition.
Some might argue that the newsstand price is reaching the breaking point — if the price went to $3 who would ever pay it (especially when you can get most of the news for free on the Internet)? Others will see it differently. A case in point: you can buy a bottle of pretty decent wine for $8. Or you could stop by the bar near your office after work and pay $8 for a glass of the same wine.
Maybe the light for print comes from the world of sports. When baseball games were first broadcast on television, team owners saw empty (and dark) stadiums on the horizon. But eventually they saw the light. Now fans are ginned up by more — not less — television coverage of their favorite teams. The fans flock to the stadium, paying astronomical prices for not only tickets but also hot dogs and beer, to bask in an environment that is part museum, part cathedral, and part rock concert venue.
How can newspapers possibly emulate that business model? For one they can provide their most inquisitive readers with additional forms of content — a public forum connected with an in-depth story on an engaging topic; a book created out of a series of articles in the paper; a printed piece that takes the place of a program at a public event.
The opportunities are great. Lots of us are already rubbing sticks together in hopes of creating a spark or two. All it takes after that are those writers and editors and sales and production people. And, of course, a little bit of faith.
I wish all of you a festive season of holy days and holidays, and a very bright new year.