By Steven T. Jones; Photos by Caitlin Donohue
The relationship had become dysfunctional and dispiriting in those last couple years, as relationships tend to do after they’ve passed their prime, running mostly on inertia, nostalgia, and those fleeting moments when things still seem to be going pretty well, or at least better than the alternatives.
But at my core, I knew this relationship was doomed, and we discussed the possibility of breaking up several times. Strangely, it seemed to me the breakup would be harder on our community than on me personally or on her, so I took risks with our relationship and called out its flaws in sometimes reckless ways. I even began to cultivate new relationships, looking to ease my transition.
We might have lumbered along for a few more years like that, making each other miserable but staying together because it’s all we knew. After all, I’d been in this relationship in a serious way my entire adult life, and we’d known each other since I was a kid. So it wouldn’t be easy to just end it.
It was a momentous decision, and in the end, she made it. Yes, she broke up with me, although I’d been basically daring her to do it for years. It was shocking in its suddenness and finality, something she had been planning for months even as I worked to strengthen our relationship.
I’ll never forget that day, October 14, 2014, when we were scheduled for a serious sit-down to discuss our situation, and the numbing impact of the words that delivered the news: “Tomorrow’s issue of the Bay Guardian will be its last.”
My relationship with newspapers began very early in the mornings of my youth, folding copies of the Contra Costa Times and loading them into my paperboy’s bag as I listened to goofy DJ Dr. Don Rose yuck it up on KFRC, my fingertips and jeans growing dark with the ink. I’d ride my bike past the subscribers’ homes, stop, then chuck the twice-folded and rubber-banded vessel of information onto their porch, the thunk of the newspaper sometimes rousing their dogs to herald its arrival.
Later, in my high school years, I’d read the San Francisco Chronicle over my breakfast cereal, learning about The City and the world beyond and longing to move beyond my little hometown of Danville, which rarely rated a mention in that newspaper. But I still had the good old Contra Costa Times to cover my football games, and I even got a mention or two over the years and saved the clippings.
Still, I wasn’t really bound to spend my adult life working for newspapers, at least not yet. I didn’t really get the ink in my veins until college, after my first couple years of fucking off. Then I started working for the Mustang Daily, the student newspaper at Cal Poly, a school with a great graphic design program and an actual newspaper printing press right there on campus.
I loved to write or edit the day’s news and wake up to people reading it in the hallways, dining halls, or bus stops. And so I went to work for newspapers and never stopped, at least until the day of my breakup, when the San Francisco Bay Guardian was suddenly shut down and my 24-year professional newspaper career came to an abrupt end.
My relationship with newspapers, particularly proudly progressive dinosaurs like the Guardian, was probably doomed for years, even if I was determined to stick with it until the corporate media finally locked the doors on me and my ilk. Sure, there are other papers, as my friends remind me. But after beating up on the Chronicle and other bland mainstream publications for years, I don’t think they’d want me any more than I’d want to work for them anymore.
No, it’s over, and I’m trying to accept that, even as I find many of my relationships being affected by the end of my long love affair with newspapers. I’m a political journalist who can barely stand politics anymore, which just seems like a cynically rigged game. Yes, maybe it’s been that way for awhile, but at least I could stay engaged and interested when I was exposing that corruption in print.
The indelible nature of publishing on paper lent weight and permanence to my words. Once they were on the way to the printing press, there was no going back. Every deadline was a leap of faith in one’s own abilities, and the rigidity of that deadline (presses needed to run on time or the whole distribution system broke down) tested that faith and sometimes troubled my sleep. Shit, I’d suddenly think in the middle of the night, did I spell that guy’s name wrong?
But then I’d wake up in the morning, grab a copy of my newspaper fresh off the presses, and see my story come alive in a way that the words on my computer screen could only dream of aspiring to. Then, it was real. It would land on my porch or in a rack on my corner, and I imagined that happening thousands of times around town. In the office, I would hold a heavy stack of newspapers to feel the weight of all those words and then drop it just to hear the thud.
I appreciate digital communications, but I can’t help but feel a sense of impermanence in those stories, as if the whole body of knowledge on the Internet could get wiped away with the push of a button. I’ve already experienced no longer being able to find online stories that I wrote just 10 years ago, but luckily I still have copies of them in the yellowing stacks of old newspapers that I keep.
Newspapers set the agenda for our cities, laying out the issues that were on the table, and it was up to the readers and leaders to decide where they stood. It was a system that worked, and when it didn’t work well — such as when daily newspapers failed to give voice to marginalized communities or alternative points of view — then other newspapers came along to offer that perspective and fill the void. And that worked too, right up until it didn’t.
The rise of the Internet triggered the fall of newspapers. That makes sense on a basic level, given that we all now wield devices capable of delivering those same news stories to our eyeballs without using paper or going to the trouble of running presses and distributing bundles of newspapers.
It makes sense to me on a sensible, surface level, but not emotionally or in any deeper realm. I know what we’ve really lost and it’s tragic. The ones and zeros of this Digital Age will never add up to the inky whole of a thrice read newspaper with a circular coffee stain left on a cafe counter. In the parlance of the business press, that’s value-added, baby.
There have been gigabits of stories written about why it happened and what we’ve lost in this transfer: writing and writers were devalued when stories were given away for free and anyone could become a blogger, media companies began to expect bigger returns on investment, advertising revenues that supported full-time journalists tanked as new avenues opened up, new generations grew up without that thunk on the porch, and everyone’s expectations of immediacy accelerated to speeds that day-old newspapers just couldn’t keep up with.
It’s sad when relationships end, but I’m going to be okay. Maybe I’ll find some new professional relationships that just don’t require ink on paper. Life is long and we all move on. I can see the headline now, front page, above the fold: “Journalist Discovers Life After Newspapers.” Then, it’ll be real.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR On March 30, Steven T. Jones started a new job at the Center for Biological Diversity as a media specialist in its oceans program. He continues to do freelance journalism, including as a featured writer on a new crowdfunded online platform called Byline.