Gay Talese won’t go online, bless his ornery old-fashioned soul. He answers his phone like people used to (he’s listed in the phone book and it’s a land line, remember those? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!) and says “Hello?” and if you have a request he’ll ask you to please fax it to him, because, yes, Gay has progressed into the modern era far enough to own a fax machine, he doesn’t mind that particular whirring contraption, probably because it involves paper and the ringing of a phone…it’s like a Dixie cup and a string, only longer, looser, lighter than air, the connection invisible yet somehow tangible. He rises every morning and paws through the newspaper with the diligence of an obedient journalism student and checks his mailbox for letters with stamps on them (and there will be letters; people write to Gay Talese; I did when I was a young starry-eyed reporter; wouldn’t you if you were?) and puts on an elegant Italian suit and, often, a wide-brimmed hat to match. He walks the streets of his Upper East Side neighborhood with the gait of a go-getting reporter, because he still is one, and he presses his opinions on people with the passion of a high-school debate team captain, only with more grace, more wit, more aplomb. Yes, the man has aplomb.
You wouldn’t like being Gay Talese. It’s hard work and the rewards don’t seem very obvious to someone with a website and a password and high-speed Internet access, the ultimate vrooooom vroooooom vroooooom… Remember vrooooom? No you don’t, but that’s okay because Tom Wolfe isn’t New Journalism anymore, his old hats are old hat. Gonzo is the way of the world. Everyone writes in lower case. The world has abandoned traditional words and grammar in favor of shit that fits on a phone screen. Will u b there 4 a few mins? Meet u at ur apt 4 dinner? No time for apostrophes, my friend. Can’t be bothered with articles. Won’t. Fuck that. No point. By the clicking of our thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Meanwhile, Gay sits in his home office and contemplates the future and fumes that the rest of us, the young people among us especially, won’t read the goddamned newspaper, that we won’t get off our asses and talk to people and discuss ideas and consider the world. And of course he’s right, Gay is often exactly right about things, that’s the problem with him, he’s right and we know it and we feel bad at 10:15 p.m. when we already know what’s going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper from checking the website, so what’s the point of paying some guy named Oscar to drive in from Flushing to drop the printed version on our doormat? Is it just so we can hold in our hands the source of 63 percent of all our ink stains? The ink-to-news ratio in American journalism has dropped precipitously, and that’s not good news for those of us who don’t always wear dark colors.
See, this is how it goes when you’re a person of the twentieth century, which, let’s face it, you all are, but some more so than others. You like old buildings, you fancy old restaurants, you wear old shirts you can’t bear to throw away…you launder and plunder and plead and prod and poke and pilfer until you’ve re-shaped the world around the way it was, the way we were, the way it’s supposed to be. Everything is supposed to be something in the old world; nothing can just be. The new Richard Price novel is supposed to be good…well, sure, isn’t everything supposed to be good? Isn’t that the point of everything? No one sets out with the purpose of making bad things. But Gay, God bless him, wants us to distinguish between good and bad, old and new, right and wrong. He’s a rabid subjectivist; every move he makes, every breath he takes reflects a conscious choice, a decision. He turns the page of a newspaper because he wants to, he believes in the power of his index finger and licks it with anticipation at the next page. Yum!
Phenomena don’t just happen; they’re named, like children, and often with about as much logical sense as parents use when they call their little boy Branwyn and consign him to years of ridicule on the playground of life. But right now we’re in the middle of a phenomenon, and it needs a name, and Bill or Betsy won’t do. In the last, oh, six months or so, it has been stirring in the souls of men and women who consign themselves to cooking up theories; just look and you’ll see them, long-winded essays about speed and money and sex and Obama and what it means to have no means. It’s The Recession, Stupid; It’s The War, Stupid; It’s The Headline, Stupid.
But we need headlines, don’t we? If anything, there seem to be more of them these days, bombarding us with instantaneous conclusions and digestible facts in rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat doses, twenty-four tablets a day taken at the top of every hour and chewable, too. You can mix them with alcohol or drugs or coffee (especially coffee) and they’re good for you; it’s like taking your mind out for a little stretch to loosen it up, yoga for the noggin and it’s free, absolutely free, no need for a trainer or a gym, just a laptop and access to the Internet fast lane, so you can pass those slow suckers out for an afternoon drive and rubbernecking at the porn. Why pay for news when it’s everywhere, knocking down our door, begging to inform you of every development as it occurs? Gay knows what’s coming, and that’s why he’s alternately annoyed and afraid; it’s a world where no one pays and everyone plays, a universe of information and advertising coming at us through particles of air. Someday we’ll take a deep breath and our lungs will fill with the New York Times, that’s how easy it will be to keep up. But even now the naysayers must acknowledge that it’s happening, that this is the dawning of something; it is now readily apparent that no one with a shred of intelligence will soon fork over funds for a newspaper they can read at no charge.
Like most respectable phenomena, this one landed impertinently in our lives when we didn’t see it coming, in the form of a national obsession over a few disputed votes in Florida that might, just might, have changed the face of the present, had some lame-brained Supremes not bent the Constitution to their will. Who has dispelled the feeling of those days in November 2000, when we collectively forgot to work for weeks and instead turned, for the first time, to our computers for constant updates? No one could wait for the morning paper to find out what kooky Katherine Harris had done to keep political justice at bay; she was the Western world’s most dastardly deed-doer since Snidely Whiplash. We began the aughts as we ought: in front of a screen awaiting news of our future, as reporters roamed in just the way Gay wanted, up and down, up and down, up and down. Did you vote for Bush? Did you vote for Gore? What did you do? What did Jew do? It was Florida and we just couldn’t understand how a redneck Texan could kick Tennessee ass in a state of retired New Yorkers and angry alligators.
Less than a year later, jets rammed into skyscrapers in our home town and stopped the world dead in its tracks. And that’s when it really began, our insatiable curiosity for news every second, more news than we could ever afford to buy. A strange sound outside our windows and suddenly we wondered, what was it this time? What was that—another attack or a sonic boom or just another friggin’ car alarm? The computer calmed us down as we scrolled through websites in search of something familiar. We went on Safari, and combed the brush for the path to the open road. It took years to find our way back home.
And that’s where this story begins: at home. Not Gay’s unwired world, but our own homes, where we keep our laptops and our WiFi connections, girding for the recession and wondering how long we have left.
Gay gets the New York Times at home, of course, dropped off by 6:30 a.m. and left on his stoop so that whenever he gets up—and which of us doesn’t imagine that Gay gets up before we do?—it’s there, waiting in a blue bag to protect it from the elements, and God knows there’s a lot of elements out there, a periodic table full of them and then some. One imagines that he does the unthinkable, flipping through the pages one at a time, taking in the pictures from Myanmar and the Ben Brantley reviews and the Bob Herbert columns and all those little gems, too. That’s what you do, that’s what happens when you stir the Times into your coffee every morning.
But it’s changing, damn it to hell; that’s what got Gay going recently when his buddy Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the Times, came to him with a plan to turn the paper’s shifting fortunes into a documentary. “It’s about why the Times is having difficulty attracting readers when in my opinion it’s still a very good paper, and about the difficulty of convincing young people to read it,” Gay dejectedly told a New York magazine reporter in announcing the project, and it sounded highly plausible. Only a week earlier, we learned that circulation of the New York Times on Sunday had dropped a ridiculous, absurd, unbelievable nine percent from a year ago, meaning more than one out of every ten bagel-munching, coffee-guzzling, Arts & Leisure-loving looneys had ceased their practice of starting off the weekend with the Sunday Times sprawled on the furniture in a messy heap of prose. Travel, Real Estate, and let us not forget the Automobiles section. New Yorkers yearn for new cars just like everyone else, maybe even a little bit more because we don’t have a place to put one; we love the smell of Mazda in the morning.
Think about it. A nine percent drop in anything can make us ornery. Imagine a nine percent drop in muscle mass, or space on the subway, or caffeine consumption and you’ll get the picture.
But now imagine said nine percent of subscribers (a number close to 150,000) settling in on Sunday morning in front of their computers for the experience of reading the paper online, alternating the Week in Review with a Hulu video of last night’s SNL opening sketch, a game of Scrabulous on Facebook and an email or two or five. Starting to make sense? Of course it is; computers make sense. It’s no coincidence that we have one at home, one at the office and one in our front pocket. We need Fandango and HopStop and MapQuest. Krugman and Kristof can wait; they won’t tell us how to get to BAM from the Upper West Side, or the running time of Iron Man, or how the service delays on the IRT will impact our impending trip to Yankee Stadium. Everything is impending; no rest for the leery. No time. We’re late.
But what’s the problem, what’s the point? You’re getting bored. Restless. Articles in newspapers don’t last this long anymore. It’s free, you’re thinking, I’ll toss it and move on, I can always pick up another one later, read it online, catch the snarky summary on Gawker. Theories need to be one sentence or less, preferably one word or less. When Tom Wolfe named the Me Decade in 1978, it took him a billion words and it still didn’t make much sense except that it told us we only cared about ourselves, that was the takeaway. Everything needs a bite-sized chunk to carry around and share, a forkful of philosophy from a pu-pu platter of ideas on the lazy Susan of life.
So what’s changed between then and now? What’s the word? Tell me tell me tell me, you’re saying. You don’t want to wait for the movie.
The answer (and you won’t like it) is nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no Me Decade, no Free Decade, no E! Decade. Newspapers aren’t dying. Television didn’t destroy the movie business, movies didn’t destroy books, books didn’t destroy cave paintings. The sky isn’t falling and Gay Talese will get everything he needs via fax and the future isn’t going to be so bad, really, because it turns out the future is now, and nothing has really changed. You still use keys to open doors. Newspapers exist and will continue to exist, and reporters will continue to report, and articles will be read. Pay $1.25 and the New York Times can be yours, and it’s still the best deal in town; emotions unavailable in the online edition will still pour forth from its pages, thanks to the wondrous confluence of words and photographs and headlines and ideas. Or pay nothing and it will still enthrall and engage and inform; the New York Times will entertain even those of us who now prefer to read the paper standing up on the subway on a Kindle.
Still, thank God for Gay Talese; he’s the firm but benevolent father to us all, reminding us to turn off our computers and go outside and play, it’s a beautiful day outside, the sun is shining and all’s right with the world.