by George Ball
From time to time a blog “seeds” a following blog with a new idea or thought. Last week I touched on ‘La Dolce Vita’, a movie that prominently featured the “paparazzi”, which were new at that time. Media conglomerates mushroomed after World War II across Europe, fueled by new technologies of inexpensive daylight flash bulbs, fast rolling film, and emerging economies protected—or better liberated—by allied occupation forces. But since ancient times, Europe has had a vigorous community news culture.
When I briefly lived in Germany, I noticed everyone in the small city knew everyone else and the media was formal and discreet—public was one thing, private another. This made perfect sense: what’s the point of telling people what they already know? The “familiar” was often just that—large, extended families. Thus, the daily news was mostly regional: southern Germany and then, as available and urgent, national news. The nearby city of Frankfurt had an excellent newspaper. But my German language skills were in their infancy. News in English about the US was non-existent. I came of age at a time when expats in Europe would roam the streets looking for a recent copy of the International Herald Tribune. A “new” copy depended on the one-day rhythm of the wire services. Satellites? What satellites?
Germany was a long way from home, and eventually I gave up caring. A very wealthy friend talked to his mom and dad almost every day. “The President is in hot water.” “So?”, I said to myself.
I became concerned about the Soviets in East Germany, aka the DDR, at that time in the grip of Erich Honecker, a brutally effective puppet dictator with an arsenal of nuclear missiles hidden behind a medieval-looking wall. This fascinated me. Friends and I used to inspect it with cheap tourist binoculars on trips to West Berlin. It was hard to imagine a wall to keep an entire nation imprisoned. I was young and naive. The effect was skin-crawling. German friends told me the “guards” were snipers and professional assassins. It looked weirdly quaint. It was small and lethal—dressed to kill.
“Press” refers to the old gravity-based printing presses, which no longer exist. Nowadays, like a touch of Brownian motion, the ink is run so thinly, quickly and lightly you can hardly see impressions being made on the newsprint. Glossy magazines contain photographs printed electronically in ways I cannot comprehend, much less describe. Weight is so minimized that it’s hardly an issue.
Some think the word “press” refers to the actual pressure of crowds of reporters on an object of newsworthy attention. This seems a logical definition, given the swarming hordes of paparazzi-like media. Journalism (even the word seems hollow today) has ironically come under scrutiny by the media itself—a typical post-modern theme. What is “reality”? “Nothing is new” is becoming “old”, and that shift is “making news”. How many political and celebrity scandals can we stand? A lot, according to the internet. Our fascination with them seems to be born with each generation in a slowly crumbling media world. (Or is it “evolving”?)
Today’s tawdry 24/7, Moloch-like media was not always the norm. Our new transnational corporate domination of the press reflects a European model. The difference is culture and intelligence. Europeans read more, have higher vocabularies and better language skills. Sorry, but these are the facts. They can cope with discernment better than we can. This is unfortunate.
We used to have a superior, freer media to Europe’s. Diverse, too. Our newspapers numbered in the many thousands, not the few hundreds. Today, several major US cities have no daily newspaper—New Orleans being the most notable. Many more have only one: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta, et al. Others may have two, but they are owned by one company, such as my new hometown of Philadelphia. Still others have a second paper that is so small that it makes little impact on its community. The Boston Herald comes to mind, poor thing. This trend toward homogenized news is a response to television, radio and the online media. Small, local newspapers are disappearing.
It is obvious that the instantaneous “classifieds” making up most of the revenue of the online media and the consequent collapse of newspapers—and especially magazines—are smothering the “old media”. This is tragic for the US, its people, civic institutions, churches and schools. What is next? Books?
Why were thousands of small town and city newspapers—Chicago had 4 major dailies in my childhood, one with 2 editions for morning and evening—so successful? So vital, sensational and fascinating to read? It wasn’t only that you could hold them in your hands, and read the print in reflected light. It was also because the overwhelming majority were owned by locals, and all were run by “naturals”. Newspaper staffs consisted of quick, intelligent, verbal, nosy people who were phenomenally capable of building close personal relationships with two essential groups: the police and fire departments.
Reporters focused like laser beams—and face to face—on the people essential for community health: police and fire, which now includes EMT, since traffic accidents comprise the majority of publicly visible events or, in some cases, tragedies. House and commercial building fires have become so rare that fire departments have shrunk in size, but not in importance. My hometown newspaper was owned by the retired Fire Chief. Firemen know every square foot of their communities. Also, ambulance companies have emerged as secondary news sources.
On the other hand, police forces have greatly expanded and become extremely sophisticated. The invasion by drug dealers and, consequently, home invaders and street thugs, have put the nation’s thousands of local communities on “red alert”. God bless anyone in a uniform.
Relevance to gardening? Imagine if the weatherman reported the conditions several hundred miles away. “Honey, let’s switch the channel and find out what the conditions are in Kazakhstan.”
Gardening is the police and fire departments combined: we need to know the conditions of every square foot of our yard, the pests and predators in both the garden and immediate neighborhood surroundings. Speaking of the weather, we actually have to be amateur meteorologists, at least with respect to the few hundred miles surrounding us.
Garden press? Better reinvent itself quickly. “Don’t just do something, stand there”, seems to be their motto. Ironically, that’s good advice if you are taking time to plan your reinvention. Do a retreat with your editors or bosses. Or at least have a cup of coffee with them. But it might be too late to plan. It seems, to me at least, that the garden media is following no plan, no model, no logic. Try police and firemen as a model. Or graft yourself to the weather department. “Localism” is a good starting point.
Finally, it would be great to see a new phenomenon—swarms of eager photographers and reporters gathering around a new flower or vegetable for 2013, as if it were Anita Ekberg. (Stay tuned.) We could nickname them, “poppyrazzi”.