I shouldn’t need an iPad to enjoy my Big Mac

So, it’s been almost a month since I posted anything here, which is easily the longest I’ve gone without writing something, and is a far, far cry from the first month when I posted every day.  That said, I’m astounded at how much of my regular traffic seems to have continued in my absence.  I hope that doesn’t mean people were visiting the site over and over, and repeatedly finding nothing to read.  With luck, it was an opportunity for bored regulars to check out some older posts they may have missed.  Some nights when I’m lonely, I still think about the café girl who stole my heart.

Well, I would if I could remember anything about her.

I’m posting today because I intend to complain about something, and seemingly no one else in the world (or, at least, in my world) has the slightest empathy.  So, I thought I would simply post about it here, where my devoted regulars will apparently keep visiting the site for a month even without any new content.  I think my odds of finding a sympathetic audience are therefore bigger here than anywhere else.

So, print media is a dying industry.  This is hardly a new or clever observation, and the phenomenon has been happening for some time.  Much as video killed the radio star, the proliferation of free, casually available online information and entertainment has rendered newspapers and magazines increasingly anachronistic.  As someone who works with words for a living, I suppose I should feel saddened by the slow painful death of traditional print media, but my experience working for a newspaper was pretty miserable, and so part of me is happy to see the entire industry twitch and spasm like a whale feebly resisting its last moments under the scorching sun on a San Diego beach.

That was a long-winded way of saying that my investment in the print media industry is not especially deep.  I do, however, have one occasion for which I must absolutely, necessarily, have a newspaper or magazine of some sort: eating fast food.

I like junk food.  I once had a lovely $750 dinner at one of the premiere restaurants in the country, and while it was delicious (and a very nice experience in its own right), I enjoyed the food only slightly more than I would have if it had been Taco Bell.  I’ve written before about my deep-rooted fondness for McDonald’s.  Fast food is cheap and tasty, and if I’m hungry and have a few dollars to spare, in I go.

But, I have a very specific ritual for this.  I go by myself, I get a comfortable booth in a corner away from crazy people, and I read a newspaper.  It doesn’t have to be a major metropolitan paper; I’m usually quite happy with a free municipal paper.  It’s a chance to catch up on local issues, and as long as the paper has comics and Savage Love, I’m a happy camper.  I eat my junk food, I read my paper, and the circle of life is complete.

However, it’s probably no surprise that free local papers are the first victims of the winnowing of print media outlets.  You’d think that local news would be less easily replaced by alternative information sources, but the transition away from actual newsprint has also resulted in a centralization of news on a more national level, and so people who get their news online are also less interested in local news in the first place.  The end result of this is the recent disappearance of several of the free local newspapers that I would enjoy while scarfing my Five-layer Beefy Burrito.  This has been a long time coming, and most of the papers I read have been gradually reducing the quantity and frequency of their editions; a prominent local paper with “daily” in its name was going to press only once a week before it finally withered on the vine and halted print publication entirely a few months ago.  But, because I don’t eat junk food every day, and because there have always been several papers to choose from, this reduction never affected me before (and therefore, I didn’t care).

But, now that several local papers have disappeared entirely, and the rest are on reduced printing schedules, I am often finding myself with nothing to read.  This afternoon I spent twenty minutes wandering to every paperbox in the area, trying to find one that actually had a newspaper in it, and not a homeless person’s sleeping bag.  Hunger eventually drove me to just take a copy of the local “news in Asia” paper, which was good enough but certainly felt a little like scraping the bottom of the barrel; the persecution of the Falun Gong movement is interesting, but not exactly local.

So, now that the withering of print media has finally had a palpable effect on me personally, my annoyance makes me care, at least enough to complain on the internet.  This is admittedly not an especially high standard of investment.

The fact remains, though, that there is something fundamentally… undemocratic?… about not being able to read a free newspaper when the mood strikes, and it’s especially disconcerting that local news is probably the biggest victim in the movement towards online newsmedia resources.  Now, there are options.  I could, for example, spring for a “real” newspaper, costing a buck or two.  Or, I could lug around my laptop, or splurge on an iPad, so that I can access the online news content that is partly driving the dearth of newsprint in the first place.  But, those things cost money, and diminish the spontaneity of accessing information on a whim.

Oddly, the proliferation of free online news resources has actually led to news being less available in some quarters, requiring investments in cash or technological infrastructure before the information becomes accessible.  I look at the people in those fast-food restaurants, and many don’t seem the type to spare a few dollars every time they want to read a newspaper (and most are definitely not the type to carry an iPad or e-reader).  As information becomes more accessible to large segments of the population, certain communities are nonetheless marginalised by the changes in informational infrastructure, much as improved roads help only those who have a car or can afford to take a cab.

I know what this means for me: it means that if  I get junk food too often, I’ll be stuck reading the current issue of Auto Buyers Weekly while I eat my Big Mac.  Or, I could just break down and  buy an iPad, and read the digital versions of my disappearing newspapers (at least until that last gasp at financial solvency fails as well, and even those disappear).

It’s obvious, however, that not everyone at Taco Bell has the same resources as I do.  What it means for some of them is that they simply won’t know as much about what’s going on in their community.  And, maybe they don’t care, and read the local papers for the comics and sex columns like I do.  But, at least the information used to be available if anyone wanted it.  Now, they have to pay to get it.  That strikes me as one of the less laudable consequences of the move towards “free” online information.  The internet might not be as democratising as people like to think.

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