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Here's what a print newspaper is good for — it lets you settle into a place where otherwise you're simply a visitor.
On our recent trip to New Orleans, our family stayed in a three-story French Quarter inn a half-block from Bourbon Street, and each morning two stacks of newspapers were set out in the little lobby — one of USA Today and the other of the local Times-Picayune. Sorry to say, the woman at the desk said most out-of-towners picked up USA Today. Most out-of-towners, I suppose, aren't so different from a family I knew whose idea of a Mexican vacation was hugging the border so they could drive back into the U.S. every evening to spend the night.
Of all the commitments to a strange place it's possible to make, the easiest has to be reading the local paper — especially when it's in English, and especially when it's a good paper like the Times-Picayune.
USA Today is everywhere. So is Popeye's. If when in New Orleans you prefer the local jambalaya, I suggest you read as you eat. It's not my news, you say: why would I want to read endless columns on the fortunes of the New Orleans Saints when they're not my team? The point is, the Saints are their team, and there's no easier access to the mind and soul of a far-off place than by allowing yourself to get caught up a little in the excitement over a big game — such as the Saints' game with the Atlanta Falcons, which we watched as we ate gumbo and po'boys in a neighborhood joint. Not a sports bar, really, but a place where the local families watched closely and whooped with joy when the Saints scored. We cared because the city cared, and that made it fun to care.
It reminded me of being in London a few years ago at the time of the Ashes — the biennial cricket competition between Britain and Australia. Not that the coverage made the slightest dent in my ignorance of the rules of cricket; but because I read the local press I understood what was preoccupying London at the moment. I could enter a pub, glance at the telly, and know what was up. The role of sports, after all, is to bundle the people of a community into a simple-minded but ardent emotional unity. It makes no sense at all to be there and know nothing of these passions.
But there's much more to a newspaper than its sports pages. There are all the trials and tragedies you read about that are this place's own, the cultural references, the splashes of local humor, the civic concerns. In ways large and small the news of the world will be skewed by the local perspective. I was catching breakfast early one morning and the waitress glanced at the front-page headline of my Times-Picayune — eight squatters dead in a fire in an empty warehouse — and she told me she knew one of them. Knew him by his nickname and as a free spirit — he rode one of those 19th century bicycles around the town, the kind with the huge front wheel and a back wheel the size of an Easter egg. When Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, decided to commute the life sentences of the Scott sisters so long as one donated a kidney to the other, the cynicism of that stipulation made headlines back in Chicago; but because the Times-Picayune planted me in Louisiana, its account came from the next state over, just a few miles away. I read it as a weird regional story, all the more repellent for that.
Newspapers like to claim they're a city talking to itself. Why go anywhere and not make yourself privy to their conversation? Your laptop is for keeping track of what goes on back home; the local daily is for slow absorption over grits, bacon, and a cup of coffee.
But as I said above, most out-of-towners picked up USA Today. I doubt if many gave their choice any thought.