Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Going Postal, Gone

I set aside blogging for Lent, and am going to pick it back up. The practices that we engage, if they are alive for us, change over time. There's nothing unusual in that. Living things change or they die.
Which brings me to a wistful coincidence. I me Bob Woodward two weeks ago; and I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post one week ago.
I met Mr. Woodward at a fundraiser for the River School, on whose board a friend serves. I thanked him for his reporting, and mentioned that I'd been reading his work since I was a young adolescent pouring over microfiche in the basement of the old Chattanooga public library. He struck me, in person, as the consummate reporter: asking endless questions about where I grew up, where I live now, what I do for a living. It was easy to see how he gets people to tell him things that are supposed to remain unsaid.
Of course, he is far removed from the days that he camped out on people's front steps at night trying to get them to spill the beans about Watergate. (Although he did mention that 8:17 p.m. is the best time to knock on a door.) These days he lives at the center of the Washington media establishment, and has been accused often of being no more than a stenographer for the political powers that be. Joan Didion called his writing style "political pornography."
Listening to his "reporter's war stories" a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that Didion missed the mark a bit. Woodward is not so much letting his readers get an intimate look at the private thoughts of political actors so much as he is letting those actors offer unblessed confessions.
We all want to tell our stories, whether they happen at the center of great events or way over on the edge of the empire or beyond. Woodward serves as a kind of secular priest who listens to the stories with no promise that his confessional booth is bound by a sacramental seal. That he's planning to tell the world doesn't matter. People just want to tell their own stories in their own words, and Woodward has provided a blank page for the telling for forty years.
I am neither a passionate fan nor critic of his work, but I do find the Woodward phenomenon interesting, and he does, in person at least, tell a good tale.
But I do not have to pay the Post to read it, nor get the ink on my own fingers. It's all -- or almost all -- available on-line, which is why I finally joined the ranks of digital news consumers.
There is some sadness in this for me. I've been a daily paper reader (and, as an adult, usually a subscriber) for almost 40 years. But the Post delivered to my driveway in recent years is a far cry from the one that I read as a visitor to DC a quarter century ago, and even from the one we first subscribed to upon moving to the metro area almost eight years ago.
For all of the obvious reasons, the print version of the Post has shrunk considerably. It don't think the daily Post of 2011 is much larger than the Chattanooga Times daily of my youth.
Woodward spoke briefly of efforts to strike a deal with Google that would, presumably, have helped the Post's bottom line, but he did not go into any details about his views on the future of news other than to say that the deal with Google fizzled.
One can, of course, see the dim outlines of the future of news, but nothing is clear beyond the looming death of the daily print edition.
When I told Woodward I am a Presbyterian pastor, he said something kind about the calling, and we traded a few light lines about Calvin, depravity, and grace.
I left thinking that we're not in dissimilar boats: we're both called to listen to other people's stories, to bear them, in some sense; and we both work for institutions in the midst of huge transformations with uncertain futures.
But he's obviously way better at finishing his books!