About You and About Me

Posted December 3rd, 2008 at 7:26 pm (UTC-4)
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I have a few things on my mind for this post, but I want to begin with a survey of sorts.

Ted Landphair’s America has been up for a couple of months now, long enough for you who’ve checked it out to form an impression. As you see in the blurb next to my autumnal photo above, I’m hungry for your feedback.

So far there hasn’t been much. That could be a good sign of satisfied “customers.” Or it could reflect indifference. Nature abhors a vacuum, and I fret about indifference.

So please take a minute if you can, click on “Comments,” and answer a few questions. I’ll keep it to just five of them:

Hay bale
Do Carol’s, and others’, photos enhance the reading experience of Ted Landphair’s America?

1. Do you find the American life topics and the writing compelling enough to read the posts all the way through? (Many other blogs are shorter and chattier. I find that I get “on a roll,” and before long, I’m several pages deep into a topic.) Do you stick it out or bail?

2. Do you like my “Wild Words”? Are they useful, or do they just take up space?

3. Have you recommended Ted Landphair’s America to others, or would you?

4. What suggestions would you make to me, Carol, and my Web guru Anne Malinee to improve what you see?

5. How might I better involve you and other readers to make the blog more interactive? While I have a lot to say about America, this is not a monologue. You and your comments and stories and experiences matter to the success of Ted Landphair’s America.

Rescue Plan for Newspapers?

I have a couple of observations about my field, journalism, as it’s practiced in America. They are prompted by worrisome developments.

News boys
In 1910, when this photo was snapped in Buffalo, New York, even kids could make a modest living selling newspapers. Buffalo was a three-daily town then. It’s down to the Buffalo News today

If you’ve read or listened to my Only in America essays on the Voice of America, you know that I’ve written frequently about our nation’s troubled newspapers: troubled because fewer and fewer people are reading them.

Or I should say subscribing to them. Lots of people still read them at the office or check out their online editions. But true circulation numbers are dropping at even the nation’s most prestigious papers.

Publishers can see it plainly and painfully in their diminishing revenues. While money from subscribers and those who drop coins in news boxes is a small part of newspapers’ income stream, circulation numbers matter. That’s because the advertising rates that a newspaper can charge are based on the number of people who are buying the paper and are exposed to the ads. Newspapers with declining readership not only cannot raise rates, they also must sometimes cut them to keep advertisers from going away.

The local daily newspaper or papers – and many cities had two or three, published morning and afternoon – as well as a few big TV and radio stations once dominated the media spectrum. They hogged the city’s advertising dollars. But advertisers and readers now have a zillion and one options, including many online and on cable TV, that have pecked away at papers like the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” Even newspapers’ old, reliable money-makers like classified ads are shriveling in the face of online competitors such as eBay and Craigslist.

Growing desperate, publishers have tried all sorts of triage measures to hold onto readers and promotions to attract new ones, including:

  • starting Web sites and blogs of their own to cross-promote their brand and their star journalists;
  • making wholesale staff cuts, especially by offering contract buyouts to older workers to get them and their high salaries to go away;
  • reducing national and especially international news to a few briefs buried inside the first section, and instead writing like mad about the local scene. The theory is that this is one coverage area in which the networks and cable newshounds can’t or won’t compete;
  • closing bureaus or teaming with other papers, even longtime rivals, to keep the shell of a presence in Washington, New York, and fewer and fewer world capitals;
  • adding pizzazz to their graphics, shortening stories and sentence length, showcasing glib writers in coverage of hip music and club scenes, as well as sponsoring endless reader contests and polls;
  • merging with other newspapers and with big TV and radio operations. This helps corner the market on advertising dollars and presages still more slashes in staff. Invariably, it’s the employees of the purchasee, not the purchaser, who are soon looking for work.
This is “Newspaper Rock” in Utah, where early Indian cultures left symbols in this petroglyph, or rock carving. Were those civilizations still around, would anybody be reading Newspaper Rock any more?

Panicky newspapers have sought other “efficiencies” in their efforts to survive as well, down to publishing on cheaper newsprint. But nothing has seemed to stanch the decline.

No More Ink-Stained Wretches?

The near-to-last step – short of giving up and closing their doors – is to abandon paper papers – that is, tactile printed editions. No less eminent a paper than the century-old, daily Christian Science Monitor recently announced that in 2009 it will become an online product exclusively, though still offering a weekly print edition and – in a classic sign of our times – “daily e-mail editions,” whatever that means.

“The paperless newspaper now a reality,” screamed a Chicago Tribune headline, in reaction.

That paper knows something about the dire straits of the newspaper business. The Tribune Co. has taken over, downsized, and slashed bureau staffs of the venerable Los Angeles Times, the Sun newspapers of Baltimore, and other, smaller papers. “Journalism at its best,” the Tribune Co. Web site describes itself. Its staff, one of whom regularly lightens my wallet at poker, would choose less salutary words to describe what’s happening.

Good Old Days

“The original opening of the TV show ‘Lou Grant’ began with a bird in a tree,” wrote esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal. Then “the tree was chopped down, the wood turned to paper, paper was delivered to a publishing plant. Newspapers came off the presses, were delivered, read, and then used to line a bird’s cage.”

That was 31 years ago: quainter times, as Rosenthal observed. Noting that the Christian Science Monitor had finally concluded that printing daily newspapers is simply too costly and that only online news seems to appeal to younger readers, Rosenthal stated the obvious – though eloquently:

“[The Monitor’s decision] is a test case to be watched intently by anyone who enjoys flipping pages, or at least need something for the bottom of their pet’s cage. . . . There’s an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it vibe in the news business lately.”

Morning Paper and a Cup–a-Joe
This Tupelo, Mississippi, fellow enjoyed reading his newspaper. But a lot of Americans don’t hold the paper in their hands any longer, unless they’re picking up their computer monitors

I’m one of those page-flippers. A devoted, doting reader, I treasure and prolong, when possible, moments over breakfast spent reading the details, background, and analysis that dogged reporters and insightful newspaper writers and editors have carefully constructed. It doesn’t matter if I’ve watched every “breaking news” development on television the night before. I want to know more, in depth, and with a writer’s flair and photographer’s eye. I love choosing which stories to read, which to come back to, which to circle or clip or save, and which to slip unread under the parakeet.

(We actually have three cats and thus no parakeet. But you get the idea.)

My children “live” on their cellphones and hand-held text devices. They watch some news on TV, and they check out news sites on the Internet when something is amiss in town or the nation or the world. A couple of them still get the newspaper, mostly for the sports or the political columns or the advertising inserts.

One of my daughters, though, doesn’t read the newspaper at all.

Read All About It! – But Quickly

Carol falls somewhere in between. When she’s not shooting photographs, she’s on the computer, perfecting them. While there, she checks online news sites habitually, and the TV picture flicks in the background. The sound goes on when something’s breaking.

But Carol, too, enjoys the morning paper. The difference between us is that when the juice and coffee are gone, so is she, while I move to the couch to meander through the front, Metro, Style, and even Business sections that she has only skimmed. She doesn’t crack the sports section. I devour it, metaphorically.

I don’t know if Phil Rosenthal is right that we’re seeing the end of the media world as we know it. But I’m sad about newspapers’ decline because I edited high school and college papers and worked for great local and national newspapers.

This woman is “reading the newspaper,” 21st-century-style

And I worry that the decline in readership that has led to the slow financial starvation of America’s newspapers is eroding our literacy, citizenship, imagination, curiosity, and preparedness. We’re in real trouble if today’s definition of “being informed” is “checking my messages.”

We’ll Miss Your Toothy Smiles

The second, shorter, media observation is prompted by a New York Times report that “across the country, longtime local TV anchors are a dying breed.” Times reporter Brian Stelter cited several examples of veteran news hosts who’ve been booted out in cost-cutting measures. Local TV stations, it seems, have been wounded in the Internet onslaught as well.

This . . .

“When the anchors depart, they take decades of experience and insight with them,” Stelter wrote. They are replaced by oh-so-attractive, obsessively groomed, endlessly cheerful young people who are taking their next step from nowhere to somewhere to anywhere, up the media ladder. They are “talking heads” who get and give their worldview from a teleprompter.

This does not mean that the old, expensive, less-pretty faces were lions of journalism. Many were just more comfortable

. . . not this, is the smile that cost-cutting TV executives are looking for

news readers. But comforting figures as well: old shoes that we liked and trusted, who got out in the community and usually cared for it, knew how to pronounce our towns and street, and knew who the mayor was two terms ago.

Like the old-timers kicked to the curb over at the paper, they have had their day. Youth has been served and will now do the serving.

But what will it serve, and with what depth and understanding?

Know Your Globe
Taj Mahal Hotel
Mumbai’s magnificent Taj Mahal hotel in better days. Who will soon forget the tragic sight of flames shooting from its rooftop, and gun-toting terrorists silhouetted in its grand windows?

After all that high-horsing, it’s humbling – given my professed love and passable knowledge of geography – to admit my own ignorance about a famous place: one of the world’s largest cities. As the terrible events in Mumbai unfolded last week, reports mentioned – as if everyone surely knew – that Mumbai was India’s financial capital and a bustling port.

Well, I did not know this. In fact, I sheepishly admitted to myself, I had never heard of the place!

Never heard of a metropolitan area of 19 million people. Never knew that India’s thriving “Bollywood” film industry was centered there.

And somehow missed the word that Mumbai is the former Bombay.


In calmer circumstances, my VOA Hindi Service colleagues would have explained, effusively, that Mumbai, the world’s largest city proper – let me say that again: the largest population within any city limits anywhere – had reverted to its Marathi-language derivation and away from its British colonial name – twelve years ago.

Twelve years ago! People still drink Bombay Gin. Bombay jackets remain in fashion. But, absorbed in my own country and life, I had completely missed the fact there hasn’t been a Bombay in India for more than a decade.

An American Prism

There are embarrassing lessons here: One is that American myopia and conceit are uninformed, foolish, and potentially dangerous. Another, especially for one who writes about America, is that we should not leap to assumptions about others’ degree of knowledge about our country – even among the educated. If I, that satisfied newspaper reader described earlier, did not know that Bombay had been ordered stricken from maps twelve years ago, can I assume that you know there are two American cities named Kansas City, or that New England is in the upper-east corner of our nation, or that Delaware and Idaho even exist?

Union Station
Kansas City, Missouri’s, restored, 1914 landmark Union Station has now features shops and a vintage-train exhibit. And it is once again one of Amtrak’s busiest stops

My editor, Rob Sivak, a soothing friend who rarely grouses, is forever grumbling about the need for “context” in all that we write. Snappy writing earns style points and deserves approbation, he concedes. But of what value is style if our readers and broadcast listeners aren’t sure what, or where, we are talking about? Americans know Kansas City because of its sports teams, its barbecue, and the old song, “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.” But do even most of us, let alone others, realize that “K.C.” is two cities of the same name – the larger in Missouri, the smaller across the Missouri River in Kansas?

Have people in Paraguay or India heard of any Kansas City at all?

The next time that I sputter to Rob that of course everyone has heard of Kansas City or Phoenix or Buffalo, a single word will put me in my place:


I Could-A Been Skiing!

For more than a week now, I’ve been working at home, not on job-related business but on a comprehensive database for a Web site that will showcase thousands of Carol’s photographs.

Here’s an early image of the dastardly spreadsheet, before the ordeal of entering SKUs and ASINs and such began. I had a bounce to my step then: energy, hope. Now I’m a shell of my former self

It has been a revealing – and exasperating – experience that leaves me with profound respect for computer programmers and the drudgery they endure. Their mind-numbing work, I learned all too intimately, is a recipe for a nervous breakdown for a free thinker like me. We all enjoy the fruits of their efforts in resplendent Web sites full of catchy words, beautiful photographs, and tempting advertisements. But “putting them up” takes a steel-trap mind and the concentration of safecracker.

On a computer spreadsheet, I crafted more than 10,000 lines of scintillating descriptions for Carol’s photos, which the Web considers to be products like garden tools or men’s socks. I carefully copied and pasted sinister little product SKU and ASIN codes, whatever they are, into columns among the 100,000 active cells on that sheet.

Don’t nod off. This gets worse.

Behind the scenes lurked still more code called HTML. My long-suffering Web wizard, Anne Malinee, explains that HTML, short for HyperText Markup Language, is a programming lexicon of symbols, formulas, and jargon that, it appears to the uninitiated, takes secret grips, passwords, and exceptional legerdemain, to interpret and untangle.

On my spreadsheet, which directs what finally shows up on the Web, every jot and tittle must be flawless. Ted Landphair, travelin’ man, had become Captain Computer, data-entry drone.

In one, just one, of my 100,000 cells, lurked a hidden imperfection: an extra space at the end of a number. Spaces, I’ll remind you, are invisible. Can you blame me for missing it late one early morning, if such a timeframe makes sense? Captain Computer has seen a lot of late early mornings.

Thanks to that single evil space, at heart-pounding moment of launch, all that appeared was a yawning white screen.

Perseverance Pays, But Ages You

I was ready to fly to Seattle, burst into Bill Gates’s office, and demand an explanation. But calmer heads prevailed and the errant space was detected – not by me, that’s for sure.

I think I’ll create a repository and call it the Errant Space Museum.

It was “publish time,” take two. Newspaper folks note: the Web people have even appropriated your term. They’re doing a lot more publishing than you are these days.

Victory was ours, champagne flowed, and Carol’s site, if not Captain Computer, is now live.

Ah, the beach in sunny Waikiki, Hawaii. When the spreadsheet ordeal has ended . . . maybe. Dream on: Carol has thousands more photos to put up

So that’s how I’ve spent my winter “vacation.” They say it’s therapeutic to take a break and do something mindless: cut the grass, walk the dog, get your hair cut. I do not, though, under any circumstances, recommend assembling a Web site database as that diversion.

While I get back to nouns and verbs and adjectives, I joyfully, with profound admiration and gratitude, turn the foreign languages of HTML and SKUs back to Anne.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Approbation. Warm congratulations and approval, especially from an official source such as your boss. Praise is nice. Approbation could mean a raise!

High Horse. One gets on his high horse to opine grandly on a topic, as if from a position of certitude. The word dates to the Middle Ages, when the tallest horses were used in battle. Apparently your lance would strike higher into your opponent’s mail. That’s not his stamped letters. Mail, or maille, was his armor.

Joe. No one’s certain, but calling your morning coffee, especially, a “cup of Joe” may go back to 1914, when a mean-spirited U.S. Navy admiral, Josephus Daniels, banned wine in officers’ quarters and stipulated that coffee would be the strongest libation allowed. Or maybe those wine-swilling officers had slurred the term “Cup of Java,” dating to the days when much coffee came from the Indonesian island.

Jot and tittle. Every minor detail. A jot is the little cross-mark on the lower-case “T,” and a tittle is the dot on a lower-case “I” or “J.” These are two words that never seem to be apart. Just as one never sees a nook without a cranny, one always attends to every jot and tittle. And jots always first for some reason. I wonder what would happen if we fixed our tittles and jots instead for a change?

Legerdemain. Skill and adroitness. The word is taken from the French léger de main and from the world of magic and illusion, where it refers to sleight, or lightness, of hand.

Pizzazz. An energetic personality. Flair. Pizzazz is an asset to television stars and infomercial hosts, but all that bubbliness can be annoying.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


December 2008
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