Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reading Newspapers - A Lost Art in America?

stack of newspapersI watched Obama's inauguration with two American friends in Kolkata. I think we watched it on BBC because we didn't like the commentary on CNN or something. All of a sudden, the news presenter mentioned Howard Dean. Both of my friends passively asked, "Who's Howard Dean?" Shocked, I stared at them for a moment and asked with my accusatory tone, "You don't know who Howard Dean is?" I didn't wait for their response, "He's the chairman of the DNC, which is like the governing committee for the Democrats."

"Well how are we supposed to know that!" was my friend's reply. Then she said, "We have three people here and the only person who knew about Howard Dean is a non-American. That just tells you how much we know about our country..." Sometimes it is true that people outside America know more about what's happening in America than the average American. We often joked about how rickshaw wallas in India read newspapers everyday and knows what's happening around the world. For some taxi drivers in Kolkata, they make it a habit. Even if they can't read in English they'd read the newspaper in Bengali. There would be boards on the street with papers posted so that people who pass by or folks who can't afford them can read. Usually these are posted by party cadre of a particular ward.

For those taxi drivers who can, they would read the paper in English. In the beginning it surprised me to see an English paper in a cab, but later it became almost a norm. It's also one of the ways I can identify whether the taxi driver is from West Bengal or new from Bihar -- a state in North India that has the most migrant workers. Never mind how accurate or not the paper is, what matters to them is that they learn how to read, practice their English, and are in constant contact with the world at large.

I made my dad subscribe to New York Times and the Nation when I was in high school. It was one of those things I just had to do as a nerdy, goodie-two-shoe student council kid. But my paper reading habits have been really bad since I left New York (and I'm no longer 'goodie-two-shoe'). I have a feeling my attention span is also shorter -- thanks to social media. I still read NYTimes, but it's all online. I'm trying to get back into the habit of reading newspapers but it's been tough. We subscribe to two papers here -- Times of India (which I don't really like but it has Soduku, and a relatively reliable schedule for movies), and Economic Times (because that's the only paper that seems to edit their stories, and it has Dilbert and the exchange rates). I'd also recommend Hindustan Times. I'm more into magazines because I like the style of writing. I prefer in-debth coverage to run of the mill regurgitated press releases. I've heard more than once from folks who write press releases of how "journalists are lazy" -- well you should come here and really see to what extent it can get. Case in point: a recent coverage of the American in Delhi blog. The reporter almost copy-pasted an entire post and did no leg work. She wrote whatever it is that she found on that blog. The blog isn't hard to find, it's #1 on Google for... you guessed it: "american in delhi".

As of April this year, according to New York Times, circulation numbers have been dropping in America. It's because of budget cuts and the fact that people are moving online to read papers. One thing about online reading though is it's up to the user. They'd choose which sections to see via email or RSS feed and completely disregard other sections. News is more funneled and gets viewed only when it becomes popular. It's up to to the user now to figure out to what extent they want to know about the world. So if you just follow popular celebrity news, you might be an expert on Michael Jackson but won't know what the heck ASEAN is or even think Burma is a province of China. (Oh believe me, I've come across those people more than once.)

I don't blame them. I don't usually get mad either, I just find it funny. Occasionally I'd retort, "Well, it's almost like a province of China." (But that's an inside foreign policy joke.) I also have my own weaknesses -- just because I know who Howard Dean is doesn't mean I know every famous or semi-famous American. I don't know all the governors in all the states. I also wouldn't be able to identify American Idol contestants or winners. An average American might be able to identify Linsay Lohan from a mile away. I wouldn't, whether she's naked, clothed, running, walking, sober or high. I can't even spell her name right the first time.

What about you? Do you still read physical newspapers or does your life revolve completely around the Internet?

Photo by: DRB62

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