The Power of the Written Word

Deemed Nonessential : What Happened to Daily Newspapers? Death of Print from the Internet to the Pandemic (Paperback) -

Note: This is from the Newport News Times Friday 1/27. I’ll leave it as a stand alone. There will be a note at the end.

My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.

— Joseph Conrad, The Task of the Artist

I’ve been a wordsmith since my late teens: sports reporting intern in Tucson for the evening daily newspaper.

My first magazine gig was with Skin Diver magazine, and that was an interesting journey into 25 cents per word, but $50 for each photo. I was diving in Baja; I waited out a hurricane that wiped out a small village where I had spent time before and after the storm. Two shots of mountains of hammerhead jaws drying in the sun and sharks underwater; two photos of the village (before and after); shots of some of the villagers digging out; and a photo of me hanging onto a humpback whale landed me more cashola than the 1,000-word article.

I ended up in Bisbee, Tombstone, Nogales, Cochise’s Stronghold and all along the U.S.-Mexico border (La Frontera) as a reporter filing stories on all manner of cool, odd, and sometimes boring stories around planning and zoning, city council and school board meetings.

Words, accuracy, research and inventiveness were everything to me, even before the newspaper gigs in Southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere. The Daily Wildcat was my home at the University of Arizona. Words and deploying more than just an inverted news triangle were powerful, and accuracy was a must since everyone on and off campus was reading my work.

I took this gig seriously enough to end up at the University of Texas teaching college composition while finishing a master’s degree. My entire career around words has been anchored to the power of the word to not only transform a community, but oneself.

This isn’t an arcane belief. To be, say a marine biology student (I was one of those), doing some deep reef work AND then writing a report on the findings, but also on the reason for the experiment in the first place, that is the power of the word. We had to write about the cultural history, too — the people and the sea.

Literacy is somewhat new in the USA, that is, reading and writing. Unfortunately, functional illiteracy is high. I ended up teaching U.S. military members at Fort Bliss a week-long writing class with the goal of getting some of the less literate students to at least a seventh grade reading level.

Nationwide, on average, 79 percent of U.S. adults were literate in 2022. Conversely, 21 percent of adults in the U.S. are illiterate. However, more telling, 54 percent of adults have literacy below sixth grade level. Worse still is that up to 80 percent of Americans in all demographic categories can’t follow eighth grade instructions on correctly installing a child car seat.

As a college instructor, I taught Jonathan Kozol’s work, including his book, Illiterate America. One of the passages is telling about the foundation of America: “One hundred years before the present government existed, a powerful leader, Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, stated his views in clear, unflinching terms: ‘I thank God,’ he said, that ‘there are no free schools nor printing [in this land]. For learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing hath divulged them … God save us from both!’”

After decades teaching/mentoring students in the art of writing — composition, business writing, technical writing, fiction, poetry, news writing — I have arrived at a new baseline of absurdity and danger:

OpenAI’s ChatGPT is a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt a person can imagine. This artificial intelligent application signals the end of writing assignments altogether.

Again, writing is a way of gauging skills and understanding the fine art of whichever field one may end up in. If a student or specialist can explain the process of ocean acidification for both post-doctoral students and laypersons, then the author is ahead of the game. Literacy is key for cultures to both thrive and move ahead.

A deeply researched book on China, say Jeff J. Brown’s 44 Days Backpacking in China: The Middle Kingdom in the 21st Century, with the United States, Europe and the Fate of the World in Its Looking Glass (2013), is worth more than 44 days of watching mainstream news reporting on China.

Additionally, some of the best writing comes from scientists like Peter Ward, Under a Green Sky, or a seasoned journalist like Elizabeth Kolbert, who wrote The Sixth Extinction.

There is this belief in elite circles humanity in the future will be split into two major camps — those with power, money and connections, and then the rest of us, who will be dubbed as useless workers-eaters-humans. Yuval Noah Harari believes AI and robotics will render workers in the main unnecessary, useless. This is the philosophy of the World Economic Forum, Aspen Institute and others throughout industry and government.

We are now reading machine-generated (AI) “news” stories. We are in a great reset where data of every sort is collected and then sold to the digital gods who feed that information into computers to learn what it is to be, think, dream, hope, do as humans. And how to write!

We can feed ChatGPT software a writing prompt close to my heart — What does Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” mean to a young person in the 21st century? The program will produce a competent essay, even replicating the student’s level of articulation.

This is Cliff Notes and plagiarism on steroids. It is a slippery slope, one of a thousand deaths by ten million digital cuts. Nothing good comes from this smoke and mirrors and scamming technology. Having every nanosecond of our lives monitored, every survey we answer and bit of data we send out captured by big business will move us closer to that critical point of big brother everywhere pulling us farther away from what it is to be a thinker, doer, debater, creator and writer.

First Note: The Medford Mail Tribune has closed its door after 113 years in business. I will be writing about the death of newspapers and concomitant death of critical thinking/debate in America in another column.

Second Note: I did not know this piece was running today, “The Power of the Written Word.” I am not in the newsroom, as I am just the guy who pens these longish (for a small newspaper) columns discussing the issues of the day and the things on my mind. Again, I have many hats as a writer, and much on DV that is original to DV is all rant, polemics, humor, and flipping the scripts (more on that in another piece).

A quarter of all U.S. newspapers have died in 15 years, a new UNC news deserts study found - Poynter

But the front page news for this rag is terrible:

News-Times publication change in two weeks

Newspaper moves to once-weekly print edition

The News-Times last week announced a significant change to its publication schedule starting next month. For those readers who may have missed it, the newspaper will be consolidated into one edition per week. The first paper printed after this change will be on Feb. 10, which means there will be no Wednesday paper that week, on Feb. 8.

The News-Times was forced to make this change due to the significant challenges it faced during the past few years, such as staff shortages and large increases in production costs. And like newspapers across the country, the News-Times has seen a decline in advertising revenue.

I was talking to my spouse about how I have seen the values I have held since age 16, 1973, which were fertilized and fed and shaped into adult values, those major ones — I’m think major ones, way beyond dozens — have been eroding quickly.

Newspapers — the old time religion of competition in cities, i.e. two huge daily newspapers, morning and evening, and then weeklies, and then monthlies, and then specialized newsletters, etc., that was the way to bring people together and to get under the skin of the overlords. It is not the same on-line, in the digital world, as we see, confirmation bias and manicuring one’s biases and blind spots is the way of Facebook, Google Searches, and the on-line trash of the digital click baits, aggregators and on and on.

Curating what you know, what you debate, what you expose yourself to, that in my mind is the death of those values, one being news, and robust debate.

Education was another one of those values — real education, as in experiential, and mixed with community based learning, outside the classroom. Real robust and overarching education taking the front and center of our lives, not the crap of retail and consumer and celebrity cult shit.

Biological and environmental and ecological sciences. Whew, what a dying breed of people in this camp, as schools/department are all contingent on playing nice in the grant and funding sandbox.

Literature and creative writing? Oh, how the publishing world has been bastardized, held hostage to the top 6 monopoly publishers, and then the Masters of Fine Arts writing school journals.

I will not go on with the other values I hold dear, those tied to or around certain avocations, fields of interest/study, and academic and professional experience that all have been eroded to the point of very few people left in my tribe. Forget about all the social justice and civic minded issues I hold dear enough to become part of my values system.

terminal velocity

Oh yeah, the put-on-hold, Man Lost of Tribe: Or, Terminal Velocity!

There are few tribes left for me to confab with. The death of journalism, even small-town journalism, is not a very good thing. More on this in another 1,000 word column, now, in a once-a-week newspaper!

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.