I cut off an old friend today

I ended a lifelong friendship today. I canceled my local newspaper subscription.

And it breaks my heart. I feel like a traitor to a cause I have embraced since I was a kid. Or maybe it’s a feeling that I wasted my life on such a passion. Or maybe I simply felt a fool to think that risking my life to cover wars and disasters would mean something.

Oh, I still believe in the power of smart newspapers to do good. But in the end, it wasn’t about the diminishing, biased, poorly edited content of my San Antonio Express-News, but about an increasingly overpriced product that was, sadly, no longer necessary to a lifelong newspaperman’s household. If they couldn’t keep a reader who desperately wanted them to succeed, how long can newspaper exist as we know it?

paperIn this case, the house of cards tumbled down when the cost of a subscription exceeded the actual cost of buying a paper off the newsstand every day. What brilliant MBA publisher thought of that?

The circulation clerk made a brave effort to keep us with several discounts, but one cheaper month doesn’t cut it.

“You have to understand that our costs are rising,” she said.

“Yep,” we said. “So are ours.”

So we are now, officially and for the first time in a long journalistic life, not supporters of the local paper. That’s hard.

One of the great moments in my newspapering career came when I was delivering free papers to anybody we saw on the devastated streets after Hurricane Rita hit our town. I remember pulling up to the curb where an elderly man was standing in his wrecked yard looking at the pile of debris that engulfed his house.

It turns out that he had once worked for a newspaper a long time ago.

The old newspaperman clutched his paper tightly. He asked me how we did it, and he couldn’t keep himself from spreading out on the flattened sidewall of his garden shed to see what was there. He was as proud of this particular paper as I was. It was not only a fat package of useful information; it was a historical record of the past 10 days and a symbol that we’ve survived. All of us.

I handed out a hundred newspapers in my neighborhood that morning, and everyone seemed grateful to see life coming back. But the most important paper I gave away was the one I gave that old newspaperman because, in the end, it was probably more important to him to know we had protected the newspaper—and maybe the whole idea of a newspaper—to which he’d given much of his life. So that one paper was worth delivering. It told me I had chosen a life worth living. It convinced me that telling stories was a way to make things better. It made me hope there would be others who’d come after me who’d feel the same way.

Now I’m not so sure.