The Times' Pinch of a Paywall

I grew up in New York. In Queens. In the ’60s. There are plenty of things I can blame on my parents, but the Times isn’t one of them: unlike a lot of other New Yorkers of my generation, I can’t say I had the Times inflicted on me from the beginning. My dad was a very busy man, a working physician as well as full-time editor of two medical magazines, and on the few occasions when I remember him having time to read a newspaper, in my recollection it was usually the Daily News. My mother, by contrast, was and is a newspaper junkie, and back when I was a little kid she was, for some reason, a devoted reader of something called the Journal American. Itself the product of a 1937 merger between two dailies called (what else?) the Journal and the American, in 1966 the Journal American participated in the newspaper merger of all time, joining with the World-Telegram and Sun and the Herald Tribune (all three of them being the products of mergers involving no fewer than seven great old Gotham newspapers) to form a broadsheet called the World Journal Tribune, which folded only a few months later. After that, my mother switched to the Long Island Press, which bit the dust in 1977. (Obviously, when it comes to newspapers, my mother has the kiss of death.)  Shortly after the Long Island Press kicked off, my mother moved to L.A. -- and, of course, began subscribing to the Herald-Examiner.

Meantime, however, I had become a grad student in English, and was on my way to become a professor or writer or (God forbid) “intellectual,” or something in that general ballpark -- which meant that at some point I fell into the daily habit of reading the Times religiously, obsessively, without fail. Which, in those days, wasn’t all that bad a thing to do. Back then, it was a more serious newspaper than it would later become. Most of the fluffy sections had yet to be invented, and most of today’s fluffy regulars had yet to come on board. Indeed, the paper actually had some really first-rate reporters and cultural critics, some of them now deservedly legendary. Nowadays, of course, with the hindsight of the Internet age, we can look back on that era, when the Times and other traditional media enjoyed an outrageous monopoly on the news, and can realize that the Gray Lady never actually gave us the whole truth about anything. It was the Times, after all, that back in the day had shamelessly whitewashed the Holocaust, covered up Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine, and helped grease Castro’s way to power. In some way or another, it was always in the business of slanting and covering up, shading the truth to its own ideological ends.

Still, at least as newspapers went, the Times was comprehensive, serious, wide-ranging, delivering a massive daily dose of literate, informative prose that made you feel you were getting, over your morning coffee, a handle on what was going in the world. At a time when the World Wide Web was beyond anyone’s imagining, the crisp, clean, newly printed pages of each day’s Times were, for millions of us, the ultimate emblem of the new day aborning. Certainly for me, as a grad student, the Times was indispensable. I never knew whether sometime during the day one of my professors would bring up in class a news story from that day’s paper, or if I’d get together in the evening with my friends for a couple of beers and find myself swept up into a conversation about a Times op-ed that I damn well better have read. In later years, living in Manhattan, where most of my friends were writers or editors, I could hardly imagine a life without the Times. In Manhattan (1979), Diane Keaton phones Woody Allen on a Sunday to find out what he’s up to. He tells her he’s looking through the Magazine section. She asks if he’s read the piece on China’s faceless masses; he replies he’s looking at the lingerie ads: “I can never get past them. They’re really erotic.” He didn’t have to say the Magazine section of what. His audience knew. The Magazine section was a part of their Sunday, too. And they knew all about those lingerie ads.