Frozen in Ink

By Chris Stones

I squint at tiny images on rolls of film as I hold them up
to the light. They used to store documents as really tiny images
for archiving. I close the drawer and walk over to sit down
at a cave like wooden box. It contains a projector and instructions
for how to attach the film for viewing.

I fumble through the process. I'm a bit concerned that I'll somehow ruin the 1943 editions
of the Arcata Union as I struggle to get the film on the spools. Finally, I flick the switch
and before my eyes rolls article after article on rationing metals and wood and growing food for
the boys at war.

I felt like I was playing a role in one of those dramatic reporter
movies. You know the ones where they are always uncovering some scandal. There's always
that scene with them searching through microfilm. But life isn't as dramatic as that.

Mostly, I was just shocked to see 3 digit phone numbers.

The Humboldt Room, on the 3rd floor of the Library, is where Humboldt State University
maintains a historic collection of materials pertaining to Humboldt County. I strolled in
one day looking for plaza images. I was thinking about using software to see if I could
create a 3D rendering of the plaza via old photos taken from different angles over the
history of the place.

I flipped through several ancient photographs before pausing
to admire one in particular. Spellbound, I gazed at the sepia image.
It was the same plaza, yet completely different. I've walked
around it many times but seeing it like that... seeing it with different plants and
with different shops froze me for a sec. Imagine all those stories.
Stories that lived and died there in the last century. There was life in
these old papers.

As I got up to leave, I felt like the ghosts of the past were calling out
from the ink. Locked away, they were mere echoes of their
former selves frozen in inky tracks. Newspapers were keeping time. They were
recording the rhythm and character of the town. And I began to wonder...

Where was the pulse of Arcata today?
Who's keeping track in the age of fluid bits and bytes?

Suddenly, it hit me. I had no idea what is happening in this community.
I never took the time to care. There isn't a place to go find out online. At least,
not like a central authoritative all-knowing paper. No, not with todays' culture of global
before local and folding newspapers across the country. And with out a unified voice for
a community, there isn't a pulse to follow. The locality was swept under the rug in the
great internet global land-grab.

Is local dead?

I can still remember those desperate phone calls I used to get
from a dying newspaper. They were pleading with me to subscribe and
all I did at the time was shrug. How could I have known?
They argued that you couldn't get the local stuff but it fell on
deaf ears. I just wasn't interested, until now.

How could I explain my shift in perspective? I'd say that that paper
was like a hurt bird flapping about getting nowhere. There are lots of birds
but we have a special place in our hearts for the one that can't fly.
And so I began to think the problem over. Pleading isn't the answer.
I doubt pay barriers are. There had to be a better method for reviving
the local.

Now, as I walk down along the farm houses, out in the cow fields,
I see the empty newspaper delivery boxes. It's a sad remnant
of an dying era displaced by the ease of online publishing.

The game has changed, but the human spirit remains. The world is still
the same place and the local is still interesting. The question is finding
the value worth paying for again.

I sat down before the phosphors and tapped out search terms hoping to
find local people writing about local things. I searched for "Arcata" and "blog"
and found lists of little sites. Just random folks expressing their opinions.
Casting words out into the inter-networking abyss.

Sure, there are various dead tree turned web-news-sites. (There is even a website
that aggregates all the other news paper feeds together.) Alas, they aren't the same
as their frail grandfathered counterparts. But simply transforming paper ink to digital
ink isn't going to cut it in the next century. We demand better quality. And we should.
The issue is that these higher expectations run traditional news further into the ground.

The hard work bloggers don't do is investigative reporting. It's easy to sit
before a computer screen and tap out text from your thoughts and experiences but
it's a whole 'nother matter to investigate a story from the ground up and
summarize it for the population. This is the hard work we lose when we turn to scattered
bloggers for local news. And it's the one skilled passion we must cultivate
without the ad-space crutch.

The local pulse hasn't flatlined. The local is alive and well. And I have
an idea of my own. A plan I'd like to find time to hatch. I'll get back to
you after I spend some more time dreaming up a better way to measure the local.

Because, unlike our past, our future doesn't have to be frozen in ink.

Picture Credits: The Humboldt Room Photo Collection