I was at the kitchen table Sunday morning with my New York Times, each section separated, coffee poured, ready for my ritual immersion in one of my favorite two hours of the week. My daughter walked in.
She looked up from her iPhone, eyed what was obviously a puzzling scene, and asked: "Why do you still read newspapers?"
It was like she was looking at a colonial times exhibit at a museum of natural history. I might as well have been churning butter.
I could have grasped a teachable moment in the importance of community connection and informed opinion. But that really wasn't her question. She was asking why I was consuming my information in such a ridiculously outdated way.
I've been caught, it seems, in the passing of an industrial era.
In an age where the world is on smartphones, it's hard to argue the logic of a business model where the product is made of dead trees and gets to my door through a complex, carbon-spewing supply chain. It's hard to see the future of that model through the haze of a paradigm that, mid-way through the last decade, began to seriously rattle and smoke.
So here I sit, at my kitchen table, under my daughter's questioning gaze, living in the past, telling her: "I don't know. I just like newspapers."
But here is my question and America's problem. If not newspapers -- what?
This is not a question for conceptual debate. It's real, and immediate.
Most major cities have just one newspaper, and the industry is awash with bankruptcies, slashed operations and downsizings that Editor and Publisher reports have shed one fifth of America's journalists in a decade. The editorial body count continues to rise.
The end of the Oakland Tribune, which officially ceases to exist November 2, makes Oakland the first major city to have no daily paper. It's now served by the East Bay Tribune -- a mash-up of local city papers. Each -- including Oakland -- gets its own section.
Even with an eventual improvement in the economy, there are certain to be more Oakland Tribunes, more large cities without a local paper. Those that survive will remain margin-challenged, limping along with decimated newsroom staffs.
Many will say: "So what? I'll just get my community information on-line." Ok, but where will that information come from? The local infrastructure of newsgathering was built and fine-tuned for newspapers. Are we ever going to see an on-line publication or local TV news channel that duplicates the mass and beat expertise that was once housed in the local paper?
In fact, with the exceptions of news operations like the Huffington Post and a few others, on-line sites exist to comment on content created someplace else. And even those news-operation leaders have a largely national -- not community -- focus.
There is an interesting take on that uncertain future from Eric Newton, former editor of the Oakland Tribune, writing on the Knight Foundation's Knight Blog.
He recounts that in the first week of the Oakland wildfires that 20 years ago killed 25 people and burned 3,000 homes, The Tribune published 500 stories, columns and photographs. It established a hot line to find lost loved ones, and immediately formed an investigative team to find out what went wrong, and how to prevent it from happening again. Their work resulted in ten fire-related pieces of community legislation.
Who would do that now? Who could do that now? The question resonates through any community facing the loss of its paper -- in issues big and small, particularly watching the actions of local governments. The FCC's Steve Waldman, chief writer of the FCC's much-discussed report, Information Needs of Communities, warns that the end of a community's newspaper imperils "local accountability journalism."
So, fine. I just like newspapers. Marshall McLuhan says that reading a newspaper is like "stepping into a warm bath," and I'll be there until the last drop finds its way to the drain.
But we also need newspapers. Until another system comes along to replace all they were uniquely constructed to do, I'm not sure how we'll manage without them.