About 20 years ago, I sat in the Oyster Bar in Stifft Station with a buddy who was a photographer for the Democrat-Gazette, chatting about family and work over Guinness pints. My shoe made a sticking noise as I tapped my foot on the old pine floor, and the smell of fried okra seeped into our clothes.
As we talked, a lean man with wire glasses stopped by the table to visit with the photographer who then introduced us. It was Ed Gray, the book editor for the paper.
He scooted me over and sat down to talk business with my friend. The business was lighthearted jabs at newspaper staff and a funny monologue about the future of the paper. Ed Gray was a character.
He turned to me. "What did you say your name is again?"
"And what do you do with your time, Steve?"
"I'm a high school history teacher."
Ed nodded. "What else do you do? I've never met a high school history teacher who didn't have a part-time job as well."
"I write historical descriptions of Civil War artifacts for a museum consulting business. It adds about 15 hours to my work week."
Ed nodded and sipped his drink. "I just got a new book in. Y'all come to my house."
We paid the bill, ambled across the creaking pine floor, and pushed on the steel door at the back of the Oyster Bar. We stepped into the parking lot next to a dumpster stinking with seafood leftovers. The three of us walked into the Capitol View neighborhood going from light to dark under the blue streetlights. After a couple of blocks, we climbed a few wood steps onto a porch and into one of the most fascinating homes I've ever seen.
Books populated every corner of the house. Neatly arranged on shelves, thrown into pinwheel stacks on the floor, strewn across seemingly every bare space. It was like heaven. A book-lover's version of the perfect afterlife.
Ed took us in and thumbed through a stack of books sent by publishing companies for review. I turned to admire the sheer volume of literature on display. He caught me looking while he thumbed.
"Yep, I get a bunch of books each day. Incredible, isn't it? They pay me to read books."
He held one with a green cover aloft, inspecting the title. He pitched it to me. "You teach history and you research artifacts. Want to review this book?"
I turned it over in my hands. It was Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, a recounting of the Pulitzer-Prize winning author's study of the Civil War and its eclectic impact on the 1990s. I was hooked. It had Civil War re-enactors, the last Confederate widow, a reconciliation town built in Georgia, and enough controversy and humor to keep a reader interested. In the end, the book highlighted the anachronisms that surround us.
I wrote a few more reviews for Ed Gray in those days; most books were nonfiction and easy to write about. I always enjoyed reading Ed's own reviews and I imagined him sitting in his home south of Markham Street reading books and typing away at his descriptions.
Soon, the paper did away with the Books section and no longer wanted local reviews. As the Internet picked up, the paper thinned out. The Gordian Knot of publications appeared--how best to engross local readers and keep the news business profitable?
Confederates in the Attic is a study in anachronisms. As the Democrat-Gazette continues to adapt and change in challenging print times, I can't help but think back to editors like Ed and the impact he had, God rest his soul. Will print newspapers soon be so out of place that they will perplex children in the way rotary phones do now?
I began reading the newspaper daily in fifth grade. My dad coaxed me into reading comics and I moved to sports and local news quickly. I don't start a day without a bowl of cereal, a cup of coffee, and a print newspaper in my hand.
But that'll change soon with the Democrat-Gazette's introduction of subscriber iPads.
I keep telling myself that I'm not that far behind the technological reading curve. I still travel to Words-worth Books in the Heights to pick out a hardcover or paperback that'll be ready for a pre-bedtime read every night. But I also have a subscription to Audible, the app that is the modern books-on-tape, and it provides me with a book a month. I read the tangible book at night and listen to a different one when I'm driving or on a run.
Maybe an iPad newspaper won't be so different. I'll keep reading though the screen in my hands won't feel the same as genuine newsprint.
Survivability is a difficult word to swallow. Gentlemen like Ed Gray, who lived in a sea of anachronisms, know this. They know that survivability requires that unique stroke where one hand reaches for the future while the other holds on to the past.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 06/01/2019
Print Headline: STEVE STRAESSLE: Future of news