Privacy is history, 1888

In Silicon Valley Paris, the software coder Mark Zuckerberg the gossip reporter George Flack pitches his idea for a new kind of social-networking site society newspaper, where the targets will volunteer information about themselves instead of having it extracted from them by reporters, to a venture capitalist nubile young heiress:

There are ten thousand things to do that haven't been done, and I am going to do them. The society news of every quarter of the globe, furnished by the prominent members themselves (oh, they can be fixed—you'll see!) from day to day and from hour to hour and served up at every breakfast-table in the United States—that's what the American people want and that's what the American people are going to have. I wouldn't say it to every one, but I don't mind telling you, that I consider I have about as fine a sense as any one of what's going to be required in future over there. I'm going for the secrets, the chronique intime, as they say here; what the people want is just what isn't told, and I'm going to tell it. Oh, they're bound to have the plums! That's about played out, any way, the idea of sticking up a sign of "private" and thinking you can keep the place to yourself. You can't do it—you can't keep out the light of the Press. Now what I am going to do is to set up the biggest lamp yet made and to make it shine all over the place. We'll see who's private then! I'll make them crowd in themselves with the information, and as I tell you, Miss Francie, it's a job in which you can give me a lovely push.

Henry James, The Reverberator, 1888.

Reading for a living

Over at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog, Christopher Shea relays the news that NPR has a new slideshow up about jobs that no longer exist, including copy boy, bowling pin setter, and lector, a person paid to read aloud to people rolling cigars by hand.

I knew I’d heard about this job before, though it took me a minute to remember that it was in James Weldon Johnson’s lovely 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:

After I had been in the factory a little over a year, I was repaid for all the effort I had put forth to learn Spanish by being selected as “reader.” The “reader” is quite an institution in all cigar factories which employ Spanish-speaking workmen. He sits in the center of the large room in which the cigar makers work and reads to them for a certain number of hours each day all the important news from the papers and whatever else he may consider would be interesting. He often selects an exciting novel, and reads it in daily installments. He must, of course, have a good voice, but he must also have a reputation among the men for intelligence, for being well posted and having in his head a stock of varied information. He is generally the final authority on all arguments which arise; and, in a cigar factory, these arguments are many and frequent, ranging from discussions on the respective and relative merits of rival baseball clubs to the duration of the sun’s light and energy—cigar making is a trade in which talk does not interfere with work. My position as “reader” not only released me from the rather monotonous work of rolling cigars, and gave me something more in accord with my tastes, but also added considerably to my income. I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week . . .

The narrator is even able to afford to hire a piano.

Update (March 24): Jenny D. just relayed to me the news that on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, here in New York, the Americas Society is hosting a reading by Araceli Tinajero from her new book El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. (Alas, I won’t be able to make it, because I’m chained to my laptop impersonating El Escritor until further notice.)

Further update (later on March 24): The topic reminds my friend Gabe of Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a cigar roller in the early twentieth century who incorporated cigar boxes into his outsider-art collages.

And still more: Irin Carmon tells me via Twitter that there’s also a 2007 short documentary film about cigar lectors, With a Stroke of the Chaveta.

Flip you for it

If the recession lasts another year, the New York Times will probably survive. If it lasts two more years, analysts aren't sure. That's one way of reading the latest reporting about the paper's future from the New York Times itself. By borrowing $250 million in January from a Mexican billionaire at what it calls "punishing terms," the paper, according to analysts, "has positioned itself well to ride out another year of recession, maybe two." The trouble is that the analysts also say that the Times accepted the punishing terms because they expect they will only be able to get even worse loan offers as the recession progresses. "Maybe two" years isn't a comfortingly distant horizon.

Another official revelation in the article: Somewhat morbidly, the longterm health of the New York Times is now understood by those who guide it to be conditional on the death of other newspapers across America. "There is a feeling among analysts that there is merit to the last-man-standing strategy," the Times reports. In 2010 or 2011, one analyst suggests, "there could be dramatically fewer newspapers," and absent those competitors, the Times should be able to prosper. To me this sounds a little bit like saying that in the event of a plague, there will be proportionally speaking a lot of canned food left over for survivors.

The story so far

In October, the Christian Science Monitor announced that as of April it will no longer be printed on paper. The Newark Star-Ledger announced a 40 percent staff cut. Radar closed, for what seemed like the fourteenth time, and Culture and Travel closed for the first and probably only time. Time, Inc. announced it would be laying off six hundred staffers, and the Gannett news chain announced it would be laying off 10 percent of its workforce. Condé Nast shrank Men's Vogue into a Vogue supplement, pruned Portfolio down to ten issues a year, and asked its other magazines to cut budgets by 10 percent.

In November, the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it was not going to purchase any new manuscripts in the foreseeable future. U.S. News and World Report announced that it, too, would go all-web, except for consumer guides.

In December, Fine Books & Collectibles said it was trading in its print magazine for an electronic newsletter, and the Rare Book Review ceased publication altogether. On so-called Black Wednesday, Simon & Schuster laid off thirty-five staffers, Penguin and Harper Collins froze salaries, and Random House underwent a massive consolidation, turning five divisions into three, a change expected to lead to many more layoffs. A few days later, the New York Times quietly announced it was putting up its new building as collateral for a loan of cash. Then Tribune Company, the owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. And today Macmillan, owner of FSG, Picador, and St. Martin's, joined Penguin and Harper in a salary freeze.