Tuesday, January 05, 2010

How a newspaper works

It may seem as simple as interesting text and sells ads around it to support you writing interesting things, but Alec Clayton's post on how he became a newspaper man shows there's something deeper and something harder about it.

His description of Everything for Everybody, which was less a newspaper and more a representation of a larger community:

It was 1973, New York. I had recently joined a crazy kind of hippy employment agency/apartment finder/social network called Everything for Everybody and teamed up with a band of handymen who called themselves, variously, The Midnight Carpenters, Uncle John’s Band, and TANSTAAFL (an acronym for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch), and moved in with two of the TANSTAAFL guys, Sam and Mike, in an apartment on 165th Street.


An explanation about Everything for Everybody is in order. It was an organization that claimed to do just what the name boasted—everything for everybody. For a five dollar monthly membership fee you could list jobs wanted, services offered, apartments for rent, or if you were looking for a mate or friend or wanted to start a book club or learn yoga. No limits on what you could list or how many listings. The listings were all kept on index cards in a storefront on 8th Avenue and 10th Street. Members had free access to all listings, so if, for instance, you needed someone to walk your dog you could find a listing for a dog walker and give him or her a call. It was as simple as that. All of the listings were also published in the organization’s monthly newspaper, which Mike and Sam put together. Sam was nominally the editor, but Mike did all the work.

Everything for Everybody is a drastic example, but a good newspaper should be for its community what the E4E newspaper was for its community, a representation of the social network between people. A newspaper should speak to the people within a community in a much different sense than how it would seem to an outsider.

In that sense, a newspaper can now be in a real sense, obviously not even printed. A tight online social network can serve much the same purpose E4E did.

It should also be hard to put together, because there's a need to do it right:

We worked for a couple of hours until we discovered that there were many more listings than there was space for them. “They won’t fit,” Mike said. “We’ve got to leave a few out.”

He decided which ones to leave out. He cut out half the older listings.


We ended up eliminating about 50 listings that in Mike’s judgment were repetitious and unnecessary. We finished the newspaper about midnight, put the sheets in a big flat box and hopped in the A Train to take it to Jack in his apartment on Bank Street in the Village. We used to do a thing we called surfing the A Train, standing up and trying to hold balance with the swaying and lurching of the train without holding on. We did that all the way from 165th Street to 14th Street. We got to Jack’s apartment, handed him the sheets to look over, and Sam let out that we’d eliminated a lot of the listings. Jack went ballistic. He told us that the members paid for those listings and they could not be left out—as if he had to tell us that. He told us to go back and add four pages (for people who don’t know, you can’t add a single page; they’re sheet fed through the printer with four pages per sheet).

So we surfed the train back home and added four more pages. Now we needed filler. Mike wrote an article, and I think I wrote one too. I designed a big ad for TANSTAAFL, creating a logo on the spot and hand lettering the acronym with a felt tip pen, and we found a cartoon and a poem that had been submitted by other people but never used. We worked all night and delivered the finished newspaper to Jack at seven o’clock the next morning. He said it was the best looking edition yet—which was not saying much; I’d seen earlier editions and they were not much to brag about.

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