Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Start Spreadin' the News (The Jewish Week, April 15, 2009)

by Joshua Hammerman, Special To The Jewish Week

As a devoted technophile, I should be delighted by the new wave of Web 3.0 options for information sharing: the proliferation of blogs, social networks and video streaming, and the increasingly collaborative nature of online journalism. But with newspapers rapidly going the way of the dinosaur, I’ve become more sentimental lately, waxing nostalgic for the old-fashioned printed word.

There will likely be a time, not too far off, when even Twitter will seem verbose, and when the Kindle, Amazon’s cool wireless reading gadget, will seem cumbersome and old fashioned. No doubt my grandchildren will have news-gathering devices implanted directly in their brains so that they’ll be able to bypass reading altogether.

They will be the poorer for it. True, a newspaper might be environmentally inefficient, messy, bulky, smelly and best for lining birdcages and training puppies. But that’s all part of the charm.

One of the highlights of my stint in journalism school was when, while interning at the Daily News, I had the pleasure of seeing a complete stranger on the subway reading an article with my byline. The next day, when I saw that same page, shredded, on the platform, I was reminded of the fleeting nature both of fame and of news itself.

Years ago, someone had the brilliant idea of imagining what a Jewish newspaper would have looked like back in ancient times, and “Chronicles: News of the Past” was born. The three-volume set, beginning with Abraham and ending with Herzl, was my all-time favorite Chanukah gift, combining my passions for Judaism and journalism. Their Exodus headline is a classic: “We Quit Egypt Today!”

Imagine Moses Twittering: “9:30. Arrive at Red Sea. Egyptians giving chase. Oy vey.”

It’s just not the same as “We Quit Egypt Today.”

Newspapers organize our lives in a manner that cannot possibly occur online. Much like the Passover seder, there is a beginning, middle and end. There’s a front page, containing the day’s top story (the Exodus), followed by some sidebar features, lending depth and perspective (the Four Children, Ten Plagues), an interview with some rabbis in B’nai Brak, and an op-ed by a wandering Aramean’s son. Then, tucked neatly in the back pages, the soft news: a lengthy Food section, the comics (featuring a little goat) and assorted columns and editorials about wiping out our enemies, beckoning Elijah and, at the very end, the travel section, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

We read every Friday evening in Psalm 96, “Spread the news each day, of God’s saving help.” Shabbat is itself found on the back page of Creation, reminding us that real life is lived not in the banner headlines, but tucked away in the small print. The front page tells of war, famine and corruption. But it is in the back sections where salvation can be found: the weddings and bake sales, the deaths and births, the song of life that never ends.

For 2,000 years the Jewish people lived quite nicely on those back pages. Now that we make the headlines more often, we need to remember that, at its very core, Judaism thrives most in these everyday happenings. We live in the Living section, create in Arts and Leisure, dream our own dreams in the Classifieds, spin the tales of our heroes in Sports — and then confront our own mortality in Obituaries. Letters to the Editor are actually newfangled prayers, public pleas for salvation, far more effective than a fax to the Kotel.

In these days of instant global communications, there is something quaintly inefficient about a paper’s delivery. We’ve lost the human factor almost everywhere else (except for getting gas in New Jersey), but here it remains. True, the idyllic “delivery boy” is no more. That bike-riding teen has been replaced by an adult, in my case an immigrant, who swerves wildly in his jalopy, chucking papers out the window, in a desperate attempt keep his family fed.

The New York Times guarantees delivery by 6:30 a.m., a deadline that hasn’t been met, in my experience, since the Carter administration. Since I have to leave for school drop-off and morning minyan at 7, a late paper presents a problem.

I’ve tried everything from calling the 800 number to scribbling a note on the guy’s Christmas gratuity check. Yes, the slaves in Egypt had to wait four centuries for their deliverance, as compared to my 15 minutes, but darn it, I want my news to arrive on time. So I started calling daily, to complain and to be reimbursed.

On the second of March, the region woke up to several inches of snow. Naturally, I was not going to be so cruel as to complain on this nasty day. But when morning turned to afternoon and no Times appeared, my impatience got the best of me. So I called.

The next day a scribbled note fell out of my newspaper, saying, “Wy you call? It sno. They no pay me.”

I felt badly, but my Pharaoh-heart soon hardened again. He got what he deserved, I thought. No paper — no pay.

Four days later the temperature churned up to 60, the snow banks melted and I saw, peeking out from the bottom of a bank that had been ploughed closest to the street, the corner of a blue bag poking its way through the gray snow like spring’s first crocus. I haven’t complained since, having conquered my inner Pharaoh, and I’ve come to appreciate that what’s “fit to print” is also worth waiting for.

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