The San Francisco Chronicle just finished a 144-day retrospective of its first 144 years. It was fascinating and fun, but it also begged a question: why celebrate 144 years? Why not wait for 150? Is there some special, local significance to 144?
No. It's just that the Chronicle may not survive to 150. It's not even guaranteed to make 145.
The death of print surely isn't as imminent as many people are expecting. Cultural phenomena never really die quite as quickly or completely as they're predicted to (with the possible exception of harem pants). But the fact that the Chronicle, one of the dozen or so biggest newspapers in the country, the newspaper I grew up on, is essentially running its own obituary has driven home to me that an era really is passing. The transmission of urgent information via ink and pulp was just a step, just a bridge, just a moment in history.
That hadn't quite sunk in when I started working on this book, but it's coming clearer than one thing I'm writing about is the zenith of paper media, the top of the parabola when newspapers and magazines were the most powerful sources of knowledge, ideas, and change in this country. The story of the newspaper moguls—Hearst, Pulitzer, McCormick, Patterson—has been told many times. A lot's been written about the shiny-paged magazines that set the intellectual and cultural tone of modern America, and ever more is being written about the cheap, fat fiction magazines known as "pulps." I get to touch on those stories, but I also get to plunge into terrain that's rarely been explored—the strange and sometimes heroic story of a group of publishers who drove a wedge into the edifice of old American culture and pried until it cracked wide open.
In 1920, when the first tabloid and the first "true story" magazine were beginning to take off, radio was still experimental and the young movies still mostly played it safe. New ideas about politics, sex, religion, health, and ways of life had to be disseminated on paper. Old distribution monopolies were breaking down, maverick distributors were opening the market to wild experimentation, and the newsstands that popped up like mushrooms on the street corners and in the smoke shops and candy stores of American cities became bazaars of new images and stories and social movements. Things we take for granted now, like movie-star gossip and pop psychology and inspiring tales of personal courage and pictures of women in swimsuits, were created then, nearly all at once. And they changed the way people saw the world. The way they connected with one another. Magazines were the cutting edge of modern culture.
All of which I get to write about. Right now, standing at the brink of the ink-and-paper era, looking back over decades-deep piles of pulp. Another reason that procrastinating on this book may be turning out to be the best thing I could have done, because when I started the thing I hadn't realized yet how close to that brink we were.
It's unnerving to watch the Age of Print fading. But there is a sweet, sad joy to looking back on those forms that seemed like they would last forever.