Philadelphia Metropolis

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Reading the Newspaper

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Here's how I screwed up my arrival in Philadelphia: I didn't get a newspaper subscription.

That probably sounds anachronistic. We're into the second decade of the 21st century, and newspapers are dying. Philadelphia's daily newspapers, which are just now emerging from bankruptcy, aren't leading the death spiral but they aren't exactly healthy.

What's more, newspaper subscriptions cost money. And when I arrived in Philly in the summer of 2008, my wife was about to have our son. Money was tight. So for the first time in my adult life, I dispensed with a newspaper subscription and instead filled my Google Reader with RSS feeds from Philly.com and local blogs.

I didn't realize, until much later, what I was missing. A newspaper, it turns out, is far more than the sum of its news, sports and feature stories. There's also the ads, the obituaries, the 150-word briefs about barely notable events in neighborhoods around town. These things give you the flavor of a community as much -- maybe even more, some days -- than the stories with the big headlines. And those little items are usually missing or hard to find in the firehose of an RSS reader.

Man NEwspaper.jpgThe Internet has always seemed miraculous to me, a tool that widened my horizons and made it possible for me to engage the wider world. I grew up in rural Kansas during the 1980s: we only saw the New York Times once a week, a single Sunday issue delivered to our local library by mail, usually on Wednesday or Thursday. The cable system in my community wouldn't carry MTV because of its bad influences on youngsters. We weren't quite hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world -- we had "The Cosby Show," like everybody else -- but trends and clothes and ideas were often slow to find their way to us, if at all.

The web changed my life. Suddenly, I was reading the Times and the Washington Post every day. I started listening to radio on the Internet, discovering great new bands and tunes on KEXP from Seattle. And I even began to abandon my television: thanks to the advent of Hulu, I could watch the shows I wanted when I wanted -- and with fewer commercials to boot.

So when it came time to move to Philadelphia, we got rid of everything that would help us connect with the world immediately around us: the radio and the television and the newspaper subscription. Our computers would work for all those things. Right?

What I found out is this: The miracle of the Internet is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. The curse of the Internet, it turns out, is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. It's easy to avoid the local culture. In my eagerness to abandon the provincialism of my youth, I forgot that you can only live where you live.

Just 15 years ago, your media diet was largely dictated by where you lived. If you read a newspaper, it was the local newspaper -- and maybe a bigger, regional newspaper for a wider perspective. If you listened to the radio, it was a local station -- even if it delivered national content, like NPR -- with traffic reports and weather and even local wacky DJs. And if you watched TV, you couldn't help but come across your friendly local TV weatherman.

In fact, it was the friendly local TV weatherman who helped me start to see what I was missing. It was only after the fact that I heard about the December 2009 retirement of Channel 6 weatherman Dave Roberts. I watched the YouTube video of the farewell a few weeks later. And as I watched WPVI's studio fill up with Roberts' colleagues and family, I realized that I'd missed out on a moment that many Philadelphians had shared together.

Media consumption is no substitute for getting out into a community, walking the streets and getting to know people. To know a place you really have to live there, not just read about it. And my own personal decisions aren't going to reverse the fragmentation of  the audience and the migration of information to the web.

For now, though, immersing oneself in local media is still an excellent way to jump-start the acclimation process. In the last year, I've started afresh in my efforts to know this city: I pick up a paper with regularity -- usually the Daily News. When I listen to the radio, it's often WHYY or WXPN or WKDU.

Not coincidentally, I think, I've also gotten to know the people in my neighborhood a little better. We have more to talk about: the Phillies, Carl Greene, Ed Rendell's retirement plans. And what I've found out about Philly is this: I like it a lot. I even like it enough to get angry about what happens here sometimes. I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to buy a newspaper.

 

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