by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - March 23, 2009) A zephyr is a gentle, warm western breeze, airy, passing, refreshing, almost insubstantial, and a befitted word for the publication that Jim Stiles launched twenty years ago, in April 1989, out of Moab, Utah, The Canyon Country Zephyr. Here I am, sitting in my decade-old La-Z-Boy Classic -- the cheapest of the lot, made of 80% polyurethane, 15% polyester batting, and 5% polyester resin treated batting, manufactured in Michigan, USA -- reading glasses perched on my nose, holding in my hands with a tad of sadness and nostalgia, and yet a splash of joy, Volume 20, Number 6 -- the last paper issue of The Zephyr. Jim Stiles, certainly forced by hard times and generalized trends, has decided to take the big leap on to the Web and abandon the print edition. So, as of April 1, 2009, Fool's Day as Jim pointed out with a wink, The Zephyr will become The Zephyr. The worthy, thoughtful, and iconoclastic content is not going to disappear after all. We'll just have to get used to the new delivery. Still, the ink-on-dead-trees newspaper will be missed.
The Zephyr came to my attention about two years ago, thanks to our in-house retired biologist, anti-warrior, unrepentant environmentalist who likes to call himself a varmentalist, Martin Murie. Martin had sent me through snail mail a copy of the April/May 2007 issue, which was devoted to the scourge of war. I read it from cover to cover and was impressed by the quality and the creativity of the publication. (Full disclosure: Martin has been contributing to The Z for years. In that issue, his essay, "War: A Recent & Personal History," should be required reading in all high schools of these (dis?) United States of America. I also learned then, from an Editor's note, that 62 years earlier, in April 1945, Martin had been seriously wounded in Italy during WWII and had lost the sight in his right eye -- something that Martin has never dwelled upon as he, with extraordinary humaneness, continues to raise peoples' awareness in regard to the planet's ecological challenges that our human policies, ideologies, habits, and shortsightedness have created.)
I don't precisely recall, but I must have said something to Martin about the positive impact that issue of The Z had left upon me, for two months later I received the next issue. Jim Stiles had subscribed me gratis pro Deo. Since then, for the past two years I have been reading his output cover to cover.
Having once written lavishly about Jim and The Z in my June 18, 2007, Blips #52 there is no need to repeat myself. I am really glad that the man whose challenging and cantankerous voice has been thundering for two decades, "stop the world, I want to get off" -- though as Seneque once said, nous ne saurions nous plaindre de la vie, pour la raison qu'elle ne retient personne ("We ought not complain about life because it does not hold anyone back") -- is not falling silent and will keep taking head on the so-called progressive environmentalists and the many powerful groups of developers who peddle their snake oil of limitless growth in the pursuit of greed. But, again, I'm saddened by the demise of the print edition.
It may seem paradoxical, even contradictory, that someone who's been publishing a Web-only magazine for 13 years and has always refused to create a dead-trees edition (all the while impoverishing himself), can lament the disappearance of yet another print publication; someone, who like many hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of other people, has had the opportunity to access news and resources at the click of a button (and a little patience) that were undreamed of a couple of decades ago. It's been often remarked and commented that the Web is as revolutionary an innovation as the printing press was in the 1440s; that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the WWW in 1989-1991 is our modern Johannes Gutenberg. In a short 20-year span, a new world of communication has emerged that is both profoundly transformative and unsettling. I'm not sure we fully grasp these amazing changes. Younger generations who have grown up with the Internet and the Web not only take those changes for granted, they are moving forward at an extraordinary fast pace with new means of communications (cell, "social networks," blogs, and other tools, which I am unable to comprehend). Sociologists and psychologists are finding out that at a time when we have become increasingly connected through the Net people feel more and more isolated (I certainly do) -- cf. the many discussions about the advent of a different human species, the Cyborg.
But, to stay within the scope of this article, while we hardly comprehend these transitional times and have little idea of what the future holds in store, the transition itself is decimating the news business. Papers all over the country and the world are reducing their output and their staff, moving to the Web, or simply folding altogether. In the past few months and weeks, The Washington Post decided to cancel its weekly Book Review section and shrink its business rendering; the venerable Christian Science Monitor is ceasing its print edition (with the exception of a weekly edition) and moving to the Web, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced recently, laying off in the making about 145 people out of a staff of 165. Last month, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News closed doors and went out of business, as scores of other newspapers have done. They are falling by the wayside, victims of a new reality and economic circumstances.
Newspapers in times past were dependent on readership, wealthy patrons, or idealists going bankrupt. Then, in the second part of the 20th century, they became increasingly dependent on ad revenues. Wealthy patrons still do exist for niche and ideological publications (e.g., Rupert Murdoch and the Weekly Standard) but they cannot, or are not willing to finance local and large-readership-based newspapers. Readership is dwindling as younger generations are jumping to the digital world. The last sustenance, ad revenues, is in free fall due to the state of the economy. So, from Le Monde in France to The New York Times in the U.S., and all over the world, newspapers are bleeding. The NY Times had a 48% decrease in revenues during the last quarter of 2008. The corporation itself, NY Times Co., is drowning in red ink to the extent of $1 billion. This development is repeating itself as far as the eyes can see. Obituaries for newspapers have become commonplace. Let's move on to the new world, critics say.
Perhaps it's the way to go, but I am constantly reminded of the bumps and conundrums on the way forward. First, all the Web outputs of newspapers are wholly dependent on their print editions. Second, business models on the Web have yet to come to a credible fore. (I should know: It simply does not pay. If it were not for our personal sacrifice, old-hand retirees, and younger contributors who try to make a name for themselves, all offering their work for free, Swans would not exist or it would turn out as another left-centered and poorly edited personal blog.) Third, I suppose, we are facing a generational gap, or bridge, between the past, present, and future. I am not sure the bridge will be painless and the gap bridged.
I am constantly reminded of how dependent I am on print publications. A friend (David Saslav) asked some time ago what were my sources of information. I replied with a long list that covered the world -- some of them were digital but the bulk of the resources came from Web sites that were dependent upon their dead-trees publications, from The New York Times to the French Le Monde, the St. Petersburg Times (U.S.), the Dawn (Pakistan), the Diario Público (Spain), the La Repubblica (Italy), La Prensa (Argentina), the Jornal do Brasil (Brazil), Outlook India (India), the National (Abu Dhabi), the Guardian (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany), Sign and Sight (Germany), Pravda, (Russia), Haaretz (Israel), and on and on, including small journals like Monthly Review, Harper's, the NY Review of Books, and more, and more, and more. Here where I live, in the boonies -- a place that values ignorance -- I am able to reach out to that incredible amount of knowledge. Note, however, that all these sources of news and intellectual challenges are there thanks to their dead-trees publications. The Monthly Review, worthy of anyone's time ten times over, would be unavailable but for their print publication. Sure, people say the future is digital, but the present doesn't confirm it. Actually, it proves otherwise. Without patrons and ad revenues, one only survives through sacrifice, and, worst of all, cannot bring a wide perspective to readers (visitors, consumers, etc. -- you know, humans with a brain, if that's not a disappearing species). The business model is simply not there.
Many will disregard these concerns and jump to "The Daily Me" that Nicholas Kristof examined in his NY Times column of March 19, 2009. More and more people reading only the views they espouse, all the while taking typos and poor grammar for granted -- copy editors having been thrown by the wayside -- and accepting facts that have not been double-checked, leaving the whole more segregated and uninformed. More and more people will be sitting in front of their little (or big) screens with themselves as only companions.
That last point rings a bell to me. When Jan, my companion, and I sit on a Sunday morning at our dining room table with a copy of The NY Times we are together sharing the paper, able to share a story at a moment's notice, and with great ritual, share the dominical omelet. (You did notice the repetition of the word "share," didn't you?) We don't talk much to each other. We go through the paper, here and then saying, "you need to read this," whether it's a Sunday Styles (a favorite section of hers) piece or whatever I fancy. We take the paper and organize the sections in the order we like to read them. I put aside the Sports and the Week in Review for me. On top of the remaining stack, you'll find the Styles, and the front section below, and Business, Arts & Leisure, Travel, the Magazine, and the Book Review, and whatever, in this exacting order. Same ritual, week in and week out. We sit next to each other, pouring through the pages and eventually share breakfast. We may even watch the Sunday morning news shows. We are together. Now, to get the Sunday paper, one of us has to drive down to town -- a 7-mile round-trip to a store. If the store's attendant is not yet in, we slide an envelope with a $5 bill under the door. When they are open, we say hello, tend the 5 bucks, and wish the attendant, a fair and beautiful lady, a good day.
Problem is that on some Sundays, the paper is not delivered. The designated driver, either Jan or I, comes back disappointed. Now we are left with each of us sitting in front of our respective laptops in separate rooms of the house. Have you ever experienced the difference between reading the print edition of a paper and the same digital output? Both of us are disheartened. Both of us are on our own. And both of us cannot go through the rendering by simply turning one page and section after the other. We've both lost the tactile and sensorial senses, and we do not share much of anything any longer, as we each struggle with the browsing of one digital page at a time, according to the wont of our Internet connection. And, of course, we cannot revisit an article the next day or beyond without going through a painful search.
It may be a generational thing. I'm pushing 60 and Jan 48. Print papers have been a forestay of our intellectual making. Certainly, the next generations will figure it out and they too will have an intellect fathomed by their own habits. One can only hope that these habits won't drive them further into entropy. Meanwhile, the challenge remains: How do you have quality publishing on the Web that is financially sustaining, entailing many points of view within one digital publication, and easy to use?
Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee will come up with a new invention.
Meanwhile, this Sunday we did get The Times but, darn it, I had to finish this article and put the edition of Swans to bed. I had to pass on the pleasure so that you may print the content of Swans on your own printer!
Welcome to the new digital Zephyr. May life be kindhearted to Jim Stiles, my fellow traveler.
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