Howell Raines: The Changing Face of Journalism

March 6th, 2012

Nestled down a windy back road in the woodsy Pocono fringes that make up New York City’s subconscious suburbs, there stands a modest gray house, and in it, Howell Raines has a Kindle.

“Have you seen these things? I love ‘em,” says Raines, “I’m convinced they’ll become a necessity for anyone researching a Ph.D.”

It’s probably the first thing he says to me, as I sit down on his couch in front of a crackling fire. The wood is real. So are the flames. A pleasant woody, fresh-airy aroma fills the living room.

Raines’ home is a tribute to all things nature. Twin frozen blue ceramic fishes hold up lampshades. Furry hooves bear an old rifle. A white wooden deer head (actual size?) stares you in your face as you pee.

I notice it’s an eight-pointer as I back away to button up.

White and gray seem to be the in-home motif, a silent reminder of the Gray Lady Raines left behind so long ago. But he’s found love once again, just outside his old love’s shadow, here in the forest.

The “E-Reader:” its reality represents to some a finality.

Its existence may even turn Raines and other newspapermen like him into widowers. And I guess the reality is that some widowers become enthusiastic about their status, especially when something sleak and young and responsive even to an older man’s touch steps in to fill the emotional vacuum.

I’m not astounded, but a little surprised, a touch embarrased. He mentions the innovative Kindle-borne ability to “annotate” and save text. I have no clue what he’s talking about – Raines knows more about a product of my generation than I do.

I mention the iPad to save face.

“He got me one of those for my birthday,” says Krystyna, Raines’ wife. “Do you have one?”

I don’t. I realize I’ve forgotten to pick up my copy of the New York Times on the way out of the driveway today. It’s probably still there, wrapped in that blue plastic, alone, neglected, waiting for me to come home.

We eat a nice lunch and migrate upstairs to Raines’ office. He has a slow, cool gait, and a deliberate, patient approach when describing the different elements of his writing room. Eventually we each sit down and Krystyna calls up that she’s taking the “bird dogs” for a walk.

“Do you have your cell phone?” He asks.

“Yes,” she says, and takes off.

“You know, it’s funny,” I say, “I can remember the cell phone revolution. Just like I can remember the advent of affordable dial up internet.”

I tell Raines about how I used to ride my bike to the library to do research for school papers.
“In the fall of 1996, I was still riding my bike. By next fall, it was gathering dust in the garage and I was sitting at the computer,” I say.

“Ah, the internet,” he says, “it’s every writer’s dream, to be able to publish type unedited.”
Of course there’s drawbacks.

“The internet is education nuetral. You can publish falsehoods and facts with the same velocity,” says Raines. “We’re in a new world socially, you can get advice on brain surgery from a guy sitting in his bathrobe in his mother’s living room in Des Moines, Iowa; he has as much access to information as the head of a hospital.”

But he may not be as accurate.

“Right, the spread of misinformation has exploded,” says Raines, “Like I said, the greatest human desire is not sex, food, or water, but having your type published unedited.”

I mention the existence of the “blogosphere,” a petridish infinitely hospitible to conspiracy theory, flimsy evidence, and tenuous connections.

“Well there’s two audiences,” says Raines, “one that ascribes to the more Glenn Beckian world, and the other which wants a more sophisticated type of product. There’s no question that the Wall Street Journal and The Times are like shopping at the gourmet grocery store, whereas these blogs are like opting rather to eat canned beans.”

So are you worried about their continued existence?

“The Times?”

Yes.

“Well as a pensioner, I hope they last forever, but … ”

Raines tells me a story about how he toured the press and delivery systems when he took over The Times. Despite all the technologic advances, the paper invariably had to be pressed, packed, and delivered.

“I realized that Charles Dickens got his paper the same way. We may be in a modern age, but our delivery system is still Victorian.”

He says impending trouble was on the horizon in the mid 90s, when the internet was picking up speed.

“We knew we had a problem when sites like Craigs List started to pop up.”

Classified Ad revenue dipped. Then it all but disappeared. The loss became Einstein’s prophetic honey bee: soon circulation dropped, to almost half.

“At least we saved on the printing fees, which were also substantial,” says Raines.

Then he asks me, in all honesty, where I think all of this is headed for the likes of journalists, and venues like The Times.

(Suddenly I’m thrust into the awkward position of teacher, though I was not even 10 when Raines won his Pulitzer. This moment of new-age reality here smacks me in the face.)

I report that newsrooms for papers and magazines have seen a type of cooperative split. There’s the more traditional division of writers, reporters and photographers. And then there’s the growing internet section, a young, hip web-surfing and web-designing type (nose rings optional) that incorporates multi-media and freelance journalism – an intricate, interactive and intuitive weaving of photography, print and videography – with products coming more and more frequently from multi-capable journalists-for-hire rather than full time staffers.

Raines chuckles, pauses, then says, “So you’re saying The Times can save on payroll?”

“Yes, and that further monetizing their website, adding venues like the iPad and Kindle, increasing emphasis on small freelance video pieces and photo slideshows, that all this is inevitable if they want to survive.”

Krystyna arrives from her walk, and one of the bird dogs rumbles up the stairs to say hello.
“It’s almost three,” says Krystyna.

The 2010 Pulitzers announcement is supposed to come at 3 p.m. A paper in Mobile, Alabama, has entered Ben, Raines’ older son, into the competition.

Raines’ cool easy gait takes on a bit of pep as we head downstairs and into the living room to join Krystyna. She’s on the couch, firing up her laptop. I sit in a chair nearest the fire, the white apple of Krystyna’s computer faces me as I watch the two of them scrunch close together on the couch, huddled around the screen in child-like anticipation.

“Is this the type of page that updates on its own,” asks Raines, curious impatience typed across his face.

“It is updated.”

“Well isn’t it three yet?”

“No, it’s two fifty-nine.”

Raines looks at me, “It’s like I’m a father at a high school football game.”

It’s been almost 20 years since Raines wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning “Grady’s Gift” (typed up on his IBM typewriter). Long-form, narrative non-fiction. I know people who would say that style is dead. I prefer to think it’s evolving.

“In the old days they had to type up the awards over the wire, and you’d watch as the winners’ names came up,” says Raines, “Now, I don’t understand why they don’t have this in streaming video online.”

I try to distract him by asking about the piece his son produced.

“Oh, he did a two-part series on the deep horizon oil spill,” says Raines, “the pieces also included some video.”

“So they entered just the print?”

“No, the video too.”

Finally the winners come up. Ben isn’t one of them.

“I’m sorry,” says Krystyna, “Maybe you should call him.”

Raines gets up with his cell phone, “Sure, I’ll call, see if I can’t buck him up.”

When he comes back he asks me if I want to accompany him while he feeds his fish. I oblige, and out we go.

The yard is vast and green and ringed by deep Pennsylvania woods. Up along the side, a few yards into the woods, is a large stone koi-pond.

The fish inside are gigantic.

“We’ve done well with these fish,” says Raines in response to my amazement. “It’s been three years and we’ve only had one not survive.”

We walk down the yard to his large storage garage.

“I have a kayak, a canoe, two powerboats, and a row boat – all put together it could be one modest yacht,” says Raines, flashing a smile.

The smile tells me he knows that I know he’s not the type to buy a yacht, or ever think one to be modest.

We meander up the yard toward the gate which leads to the driveway, where my car’s parked.

Knowing his personal and close history with nature, I ask him if he thinks all these advances in technology and electronic tools further alienate Man from his environment, the earth.

“You know I’ve thought about that,” is all he says. Then moments later, as he opens the gate, “I’ve got a rather pessimistic view of our effect on the environment, especially here in Pennsylvania because of all the hydrolic fracturing.”

Hydrolic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a method for extracting natural gas from shale rock. It’s notorious for polluting natural sources of drinking water.

I want to ask him if he thinks we’ll survive, if he thinks one day we’ll develop newer technology and evolve better means of energy. But instead I blurt out, “yeah, have you seen that documentary “Gasland?”

“No, but Krystyna has. She has it set aside for me.”

I shake his hand, and though the questions still linger he has admitted to me that he’s all “talked out.”

So we’ll save human survival, nature and the environment for next time. Newspapers are enough for today.

Inside my car my phone tells me I have two new facebook messages and three new emails. I jump online and my homepage pops up, The Times.

Suddenly I’m optimistic.

Somehow, I think, we humans, like The New York Times, like good journalism, will survive.

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